Export quality management #3: An adequate quality infrastructure in your country
So, you want to become a winner in the global marketplace? Part one of our blog series about export quality management covered the basics. Part two explained the need to comply with technical requirements. Now it’s time for the next step: the availability of adequate quality infrastructure in your country.
The definition of quality infrastructure
What is actually meant with a quality infrastructure (QI)? Brace yourself, here it comes: the totality of the institutional framework (public or private) required to establish and implement standardization, metrology (scientific, industrial, and legal), and accreditation and conformity assessment services (inspection, testing, and product and system certification) necessary to provide acceptable evidence that products and services meet defined requirements – whether these are imposed by the authorities (in technical regulations and sanitary and phytosanitary measures) or the marketplace (i.e. contractually or inferred).
A simplified model, see below, identifies five main components of a (National) QI:
- Testing and Inspection
The model shows that all these elements are closely related and depend on each other. The institutions in the quality infrastructure provide services to support companies with conformity assessment. Certification can be seen as the proof of conformity assessment. It is the statement that products or services have been inspected and tested – thus, the products collectively comply with specified requirements.
Testing is defined as a technical operation that consists of the determination of one or more characteristics of an object of conformity according to a procedure. Testing can be done in‑house or by external laboratories. The testing procedure often concerns the critical components or characteristics of a product. This can be pesticide residues in the case of fruits and vegetables for example. Or strength and dimensions in the case of metal parts and structures.
In technical terms, activities commonly referred to as inspection range from what might otherwise be labeled testing through to certification. Inspection includes many elements of other forms of conformity assessment but is distinguished by the degree of subjectivity and judgment.
Does this article fit its purpose? Is it safe to use? Both are questions that may require both objective data (test results) and the judgment of a knowledgeable and experienced inspector to answer them. Such questions may also form part of the decision-making process on whether or not to issue a certificate of compliance for product batches or for individual products or installations.
In the context of international trade, inspection is used to control and monitor not only the quality and technical aspects of the import and export products. It also checks quantity, packaging, handling, and logistics. While inspection of non-perishable goods will normally be a purely visual examination, perishable materials are subject to much more rigorous inspection.
Metrology is to ensure correct, comparable, and reliable measuring results. In international trade, measurements are necessary if you have to meet specifications required by regulations, standards, your customer, or if you sell your product by mass (kg) or length (m). Measurements and tests must therefore be correct within specified limits, comparable, and reliable to ensure confidence in certificates. In general, the accuracy of measuring instruments is achieved through regular calibrations. Such calibration services can be offered by accredited calibration laboratories in the country.
Put simply, accreditation is a statement by an authoritative organization that another organization is technically competent to perform certain specified activities. In the context of conformity assessment, accreditation is applied to laboratories, inspection bodies, and certification bodies.
Accreditation bodies have been working towards the universal acceptance of test reports and certificates from accredited organizations for years. This has resulted in global networks overseen by IAF (management systems) and ILAC (laboratories). Through these networks, it is possible to find accredited organizations all over the world.
Prerequisite or a competitive advantage?
For companies with an export ambition, the availability of well-developed national quality infrastructure is a considerable advantage. In certain cases, it’s even a prerequisite for developing exports to international markets. Not in the first because the availability of local suppliers makes services cheaper as compared to services from abroad.
Since an underdeveloped quality infrastructure in practice strongly limits the international competitiveness of potential exporters and sectors in the developing world, international donors and NGOs have prioritized the development of national QIs in several countries. Probably the best example of an organization active in this domain is the technical cooperation department of the German Institute of Metrology – PTB.