Safe and Sound

Product quality in a global marketplace

As the barriers to international business swiftly crumble and supply chains mesh into a wider and thicker net across the globe, the issue of product safety has taken on new significance.

Consider that a cell phone—something small enough to fit into your pocket-can include parts from as many as 200 suppliers, according to Ted C. Fishman in his book China, Inc. The result: the potential for unwieldy supplier networks. In addition, increased competition has pushed price high on the list of buyers' decision-making criteria, and reliability and quality can suffer.

"Along these uncountable supply chains spread around the world, the China price rules the imaginations of corporate purchasers ... the constant push to the rock-bottom price has had a profound impact on the way the world makes things. Which means it also has a profound impact on people," Fishman writes.

These trends put a spotlight on accountability. Who is ultimately responsible for defective or dangerous materials found in household products, toys and food? Who is to blame when dangerous products wind up in the hands of consumers?

In the article "Better Safe Than Sorry," author Randall Goodden seeks to clarify the true origins of design flaws and other defects that led to the record number of product recalls in 2007. He contends that many recalls are not the result of Chinese and other foreign products, but of design or safety hazards unknowingly built into product specifications, then adhered to and enforced by quality departments.

Often, Goodden writes, these defective products are manufactured because the companies that design them are working from a limited knowledge base related to product safety issues and requirements.

"Last year's recalls weren't just a supply chain problem," Goodden writes. "They were the result of the primary corporation failing in one of the following areas: design reviews and product development; product safety and hazards analysis efforts; product testing; supplier selection, inspection and control; and in-process quality control."

The toy industry found itself in the spotlight when it was plagued by recalls and the subsequent fallout in 2007. A few companies, however, managed to avoid the melee. In "K'NEX Success," assistant editor Brett Krzykowski profiles one toymaker that wasn't touched by recalls last year, mostly because of its knack for managing procurement and maintaining time-tested supply chain partnerships.

While other toymakers saw profits dip, K'NEX reported 12% growth in 2007. The company's approach to product quality through supplier relationships offers a compelling example of how companies can succeed by building strong foundations.

Seiche Sanders

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