Coping with Coronavirus_ How To Inspect Products & Audit Factories Without Going On Site At Sofeast, we have been going to Chinese factories on behalf of our clients since 2006. We have never had to face a situation of rapidly spreading disease, entire cities locked down, and all factories adopting stringent security measures.

We have to adapt to the situation where we need to perform product inspections and factory audits without going on site, so here’s how this will work.


The Coronavirus outbreak is an exceptional situation for all QA service providers

In order to contain the epidemic, the Chinese government has set exceptional measures all over the country. While we applaud this precautionary approach, it is not without its challenges.

The local governments have requested all organizations to comply with new rules. The application is different in different cities, but generally speaking, it means manufacturing facilities are not allowed to welcome visitors.

It means outside people are not allowed to go in for audits & inspections! Meetings are usually possible outside of the factory but are generally discouraged, too.

Transportation is also difficult:

  • If the factory is far away, there might also not be any public transportation available. Many bus stations are shut down.
  • A lot of time is wasted queuing up for public safety inspections every time one gets in/out of an area.

To make things worse, some of our employees can’t even receive a package because of the extremely strict rules enforced by the compound they leave in. Sending them masks and other basic necessities is a must for employers, but how can it be achieved when shipping supplies to them is physically impossible?

We all hope the epidemic subsides rapidly and these measures are no longer needed. However, nobody knows when this will happen. We are getting prepared to face this situation until the end of May. (‘Better be safe than sorry’, as they say.)


Wait… one has to be on-site to carry out QC & audit jobs, right?

It sure is a big plus.

The vast majority of product inspections are done at the factory that made those products, for obvious reasons:

  • No transportation of products/materials
  • Immediate feedback to the supplier on the customer’s quality standard
  • Ability to use specialized testing equipment on site

And, when it comes to factory audits, being at the facility seems even more valuable:

  • Going beyond documents (very easy to fabricate) is a must, and cross-checking with physical evidence is a great approach
  • Talking to different people from different departments and at different levels is a good way of understanding their real practices
  • Certain things can only be noticed when walking through manufacturing, warehousing, and other facilities: inappropriate or missing labeling, absence of controls in critical steps, etc.

However, as we are writing this, going on-site seems very difficult.

And we also have to take special measures for our employees’ safety. If a supplier’s facility is unsafe (and wearing masks & wiping work surfaces with an alcohol solution may not be enough), we will need to abort the job.

We were able to procure some facial masks, but we are not sure we’ll be able to equip our field staff adequately for the whole duration of this epidemic.


So how can Sofeast still help our clients with inspections and audits?

Now, what can we do to help our clients? The risk of quality issues is higher than ever for 3 reasons:

  1. Every year, before and after Chinese New Year, the risk of defective shipments is higher.
  2. This year, fewer production operators and quality inspectors could come back to work, which amplifies the problem.
  3. Some managers, engineers, project managers, etc. are also blocked and can’t be at the factory.

It means we have to keep working, and we have to find innovative ways of doing this safely! A bit like this flight attendant:

selecting chicken or fish on plane without speaking

Image from Billy Huang.

Or, at the extreme, like these cautious office workers:

careful chinese office workers


Here are 4 solutions that, we think, can help reduce risks.


Solution 1 (Factory audits): Online verifications with video calls and live requests for evidence

As part of our quality management system, we have been e-auditing our subcontractors for years. It can be done relatively fast, there are no travel expenses, and it gives us a relatively good idea of their systems & processes.

E-audits can be augmented with video calls. Everybody in China has Wechat on their phone, and it can be used for live videos. It can be quite useful:

  • A 5-min interview with a production supervisor, ‘face to face’ on video, can give us a relatively good impression of what they really do
  • Provided a factory has resumed their work, we can ask to see some physical evidence and “peel the onion” (i.e. ask for further information based on what is given to us, cross-checking facts, etc.)

Is it perfect? It is not. But it is cheaper, faster, and it is often the only way to qualify a supplier’s quality system.

In our usual auditing procedure, our staff is on-site and needs to get information from many people (to avoid swallowing all the claims of the quality manager), and this is not a safe activity as we are writing this…

Note: we are also implementing a new type of service, to respond to a new risk facing importers: the Readiness & Capacity Audit. And we are testing it in an on-line way, too, without a physical visit.


Solution 2 (Product inspections): Have suppliers prepare a special area outside of production

If we can’t go in contact with most of their employees, maybe the factory has another area that can be reserved for visitors. With a separate door, separate toilets, etc.

I’d estimate that 10-20% of the manufacturers in China can set this up easily, for visual & dimensional check. The problem is the inability of going into their QC lab for performing tests (note: a live Wechat video can reduce the risks that they fail to test products as expected).

This is the most convenient way of checking the quality of a shipment of finished goods. And to confirm some early samples are acceptable.

This is not helpful for confirming a manufacturing process or a testing method. It is all about materials & products.


Solution 3 (Product inspections): Have suppliers ship products to an external facility

This is commonly done by Japanese companies and by some apparel buyers who have consistent (low seasonality) volumes of production. But it can be a great solution for the coming few months.

We have been offering this service for years (inspection, repacking, and shipment). The steps we follow are described in detail if you click on that link.

We usually do this in our Dongguan facility (4,000 square meters) if the goods are in South China. We can arrange this in Shanghai and in other areas as well, on-demand.


Solution 4 (Product inspections): Equip and train suppliers’ QC staff so they do self-inspections

In every crisis (and this is a very, very large one) lies an opportunity to implement changes that will make you better off in the long term.

Sofeast can help guide, train, and equip your key suppliers so they can self-inspect their product quality. This is also a service we have been offering for some time (self-inspection enablement).

We can help draft adequate checklists for your products, and for QC checks at different stages of the production process. And we can configure SynControl, the software developed by our sister company and used every day by our QA department.

We can give you a demo of the way a manufacturer can control quality and record findings:

  • At certain steps during production, for large batches of identical products (control by operators)
  • To confirm each workstation’s output is acceptable, for highly manual work (with help from a patrolling inspector)
  • In classic product inspections during or after production


Get the answers you need…

How is the coronavirus epidemic affecting your operations now? Do you have any concerns about how you can audit your suppliers or inspect products? Let us know your thoughts or get more information about the solutions we’re proposing in this post by commenting or getting in touch by contacting us.

"I have concerns about how the Coronavirus epidemic is going to affect my manufacturing in China or Asia."
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