QMT Features: April 2013
Faking it
Importing products? Effective supply chain quality management reduces risks around CE marking. By Jean-Louis Evans, managing director at TÜV SÜD Product Service.


By law, whoever is placing a final product for sale anywhere in the EU is responsible for its compliance. Companies buying directly from outside the EU must therefore take steps to ensure compliance, rather than rely on their supply chain to take on the burden of proof.

Products that fall under a CE marking directive cannot be imported into the EU unless they show the mark. Customs officials keep watch for the CE marking and those businesses importing into the EU are required to hold evidence of the test reports and certificates in the form of a technical file that proves compliance. If such information is missing, this may result in their prosecution.

There is a widespread assumption that a CE marking stamped on a product is proof of its safety, but this is not a sign of safety or compliance. CE marking is simply a manufacturer’s self-declaration that the product complies with the relevant European legislation. Less scrupulous manufacturers may not bother to test products and may simply affix the CE marking and sign the declaration of conformity. Due to language issues, other manufacturers who mean well are misunderstanding the requirements of a complex set of directives - giving a CE marking to products that would fail tests.
The statistics speak for themselves – figures from the International Federation of Inspection Agencies (IFIA) show that 42 per cent of consumer products that were tested by a third-party in 2011 did not meet safety requirements. While RAPEX, the EU rapid alert system to prevent or restrict the marketing or use of products posing a serious risk to the health and safety of consumers, is a useful tool, with 40-50 alerts per week, it probably represents a fraction of the total number of unsafe products being sold – perhaps as little as one per cent.

Manufacturers, who import components to produce finished goods, must therefore ensure that their supply chain complies by validating the evidence that a product complies with CE marking requirements, and carry out their own tests to prove conformity with the CE marking directives.

While it is ultimately the company selling within the EU market that is responsible for CE marking compliance, they should also push further down their supply chain to provide the evidence in the form of test reports and certification. As we have seen, a CE marking declaration of conformity (a single piece of signed paper) is not sufficient evidence to demonstrate conformity, whereas the technical file is. A technical file shows that a product has been tested correctly, demonstrates compliance, and justifies the CE marking on a product. One important step is to check that the relevant reports and certificates match the correct product. It is also vital to double check that these are less than two years old as, over a period of time, reports tend not to relate to the product in its current form due to material and manufacturing changes. Also ensure that the tests are relevant to the current requirements and don’t use superseded standards.

Faking it
There is an increasing problem in the supply chain with counterfeit goods. Figures from the European Commission show that EU Customs detained almost 115 million products suspected of violating intellectual property rights (IPR) in 2011 compared to 103 million in 2010. The value of the intercepted goods represented nearly €1.3 billion compared to €1.1 billion in 2010, according to the Commission's annual report on customs actions to enforce IPR. In terms of where the fake goods originated, China continued to be the main source, accounting for 73 per cent of all IPR infringing articles

The laws of demand and supply are fuelling the dramatic rise in counterfeit products. The market pressures to ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’ mean that some manufacturers are deliberately choosing to disregard standards and directives in Europe, applying arbitrary short-cuts. Consequently, while TÜV SÜD has seen counterfeit products in its laboratories for some time, over the last eighteen months that volume has significantly increased.

Another issue in the supply chain is that very often the final products supplied are not the same as those ordered. For example, a product exhibited at a trade show may subsequently require a reduction in production costs to win a big order and this leads to an adaption of the final product and its components, and a degradation in the quality of the final product compared to the original sample.

Ideally, testing should be done before the product is shipped to provide the evidence that it complies with all functional and regulatory requirements, and the buyer should insist that this be a condition of sale. Factory inspections can also be carried out to check the authenticity of factories as sometimes mass-production is done in one facility and samples are produced in another before submission for testing and certification.

One important tip is to save valuable time by selecting products which have already been tested and certified, asking for pre-production samples and compliance documentation for evaluation. Such products may carry a price premium, but they will help to protect brand reputation and save costs further down the line when validating the evidence becomes more burdensome.

It is also important to ensure that any factory you deal with outside the EU has a Quality Management System in place and is regularly audited by an independent third-party. Do consider pre-shipment and post-shipment inspections, taking random samples from boxes to ensure that the goods meet expectations. Before the products are sold in the EU, send samples for a ‘spot-check’ so that they, and their test and certification evidence, can be verified as being compliant. Ensuring the correct testing and inspections are completed at an early stage minimizes the risk of customers complaining about a product and enforcement authorities insisting on it being withdrawn from the market.
 www.tuv-sud.co.uk
  
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