Time to start testing safety-critical imported products?
Do we need someone to take on the mantle of ‘watchdog’ for the quality that surrounds imported product? Government is always being asked to set up bodies for all sorts of things, and perhaps this is another area that they should be involved with.
Importing of fastenings is now so easy, and many of us in the industry are involved in it. Sending a sample of a product to China to obtain supply of fasteners, usually to obtain a better price, is easy.
But an inexperienced person may receive a product that looks fit for purpose, but may in fact be of substantially lower or even dangerous quality. So we do need to be careful to understand and convey all the standards required of the product to suppliers, and have a way of checking that those standards have been met on receipt.
All types of fastenings can potentially be life-threatening in certain areas, if they do not meet the appropriate standards. There are still issues with product from Asian countries meeting the appropriate standards and imported product should not be taken for granted as being acceptable. Traceability is becoming a problem as a number of importers use trading houses, and tracing who the manufacturer is may not be easy.
And do foreign suppliers care anyway? Trying to pass on a liability claim to an Asian manufacturer, if you can find them, is almost impossible.
Some time ago we were asked to determine why some 12 gauge screws were failing. The heads were breaking off during installation. We were able to provide the test results they needed to deal with the Chinese manufacturer and solve their problem. These potentially could have created a dangerous situation had they been used.
We have been involved from time to time in testing imported product for our customers and in each case we have come up with answers to problems. As one of the remaining manufacturers in New Zealand we have the equipment and knowledge to test small fastenings, set down in the British Standards that we use, as it is necessary for us to be sure our product enters the market in a safe condition.
The reduction of manufacturing activity in New Zealand has meant that the “very specialized testing of fastenings” (especially nuts & bolts) has been lost. The cost of this specialized testing equipment is high, but it does seem that some industry funded testing laboratory needs to be available for importers.
I think I am correct when I say this, that there would be no testing regime used by any companies that import fastenings into New Zealand. In the past, New Zealand manufacturers such as Ajax had a strict quality control department within their manufacturing organisation. I know that Asian suppliers often quote their QA facilities in sales literature, but how good are they? They still seem to make serious mistakes.
In the 1980s the standards for nuts, bolts, screws, washers etc were laid down by The New Zealand Standards Association. In almost all cases they adopted the British Standards for fastenings as the New Zealand standards. Now I am not sure if New Zealand Standards Association has the authority to determine what standard should be adopted. If they do, would importers take any notice? All sorts of standards are now quoted for different fastening products in the New Zealand market.
Some years ago a bridge in South Carolina collapsed causing several deaths. One of the fatalities was the brother of a congressman. This congressman set up a large enquiry into the collapse and found that the bolts and nuts holding this bridge together were marked as being a considerably higher quality than they actually were. They had been deliberately marked incorrectly and were proven to be the major cause of this bridge collapse. This landmark case brought about huge changes in the importation of fasteners into the United States.
In the USA the FBI is active in the monitoring of importers/distributors of fasteners. It actually conduct sting operations, and has caught many people and companies selling counterfeit bolts and fasteners. In the US the penalties for selling fasteners that are labelled a higher quality than they really are carry large fines, and in serious cases, prison sentences.
In New Zealand the quality of imported product could be a time bomb. Millions of fasteners are imported by distributors, and others, and most are responsible law abiding people who manage their importing reasonably well and have few issues. But can they be sure the product they import meets the standard, which probably should be the British Standard? Do they specify the standard their products need to meet? Do they have test certificates they can rely on? At the end of the day they should be testing the product they import to safeguard the users.
The fastener industry in New Zealand has a responsibility for handling all fastening issues. This has been more so since the closure of the Ajax plant some 25 years ago. So it has been a long time with no quality focus.
Distributors of imported product should be looking at creating in-house Quality Assurance laboratories and employing experienced people to operate them, thereby giving their customers peace of mind that they are using safe product.
If they cannot afford to setup this kind of testing then they should find an organisation that can do it for them.
I feel very strongly that there needs to be some control on imported fastenings into this country. It is such an important product. However, how this is achieved I am not sure, but if an industry group with some teeth could be established, then with consensus, issues surrounding quality could be addressed, with government giving the organisation some authority.