Now That You’ve Decided to Test…..WHAT’s NEXT?!?!?!
How to Establish a Product Testing Plan Without Losing your Money OR your Mind
Gone are the days when textile and apparel companies could choose whether they wanted to establish a 3rd-party testing plan for their materials. On the one hand, they could choose to test and use the results as a marketing device to set themselves apart from their competitors. On the other hand, they could choose not to perform 3rd party testing, and if they were a big-enough player in the market, they didn’t lose customers for it.
These days, increasing globalization of the supply chain means that if one supplier doesn’t test their products according to a reasonable 3rd-party testing plan, a buyer can easily find another who will. Couple that with the absolute explosion in the relevance of eco-initiatives, environmental sustainability, restricted substances, etc., in the last 5-10 years. What buyer in their right mind would be associated with a supplier that doesn’t care about the environment when there are thousands that do?
Manufacturers simply have no choice but to (pardon the pun) get with a program! But which program? In other words…… now that you’ve decided to test, what’s next?
Decide How You Need to Test
For most companies, testing is separated into two categories: 1) Performance testing and 2) Restricted substance testing. Let’s dive into these two types of testing a bit more.
Performance testing refers to evaluating product performance in its intended use. For example, is it the correct color, are the seams strong enough, is the product durable per customer requirements, does the item withstand enough washes, etc.? Usually, a company has an idea of how their products perform, and they likely either have an in-house testing plan in place or they already send their product out to a 3rd party testing lab for performance testing. Generally, performance testing is easier to perform from a technology standpoint than restricted substance testing because the equipment and methods needed to test are less expensive and readily accessible. If you need to establish a performance testing plan and you think you want to do performance testing in-house:
1. Scope out your property to determine where you will conduct your testing. If you have a space that can be dedicated to an in-house lab, certain factors should influence your decision on whether to use it for that purpose. Consider electricity requirements for equipment, access to the outdoors for ventilation needs or fume hoods, and water hookups for equipment use and eye-wash stations. Work with your HR department to determine what local regulations exist that you will have to comply with. At a very basic level, you will have to store current, accurate MSDS sheets for any products you use, and certain chemicals will require a lockable chemical cabinet for their storage. If chemicals are used in your testing location, you will have to provide an eye-wash station in your lab, possibly two or more, depending on the size of the lab space.
2. Talk to your larger customers about your product quality. Find out how they evaluate your materials (you really should already know this, but I won’t tell). From these conversations, you will learn not only what you need in terms of equipment and process, you will also make a good impression on your customer. In my experience as both the customer and the supplier in these conversations, I can tell you that your customer will be thrilled that you care enough about your quality to be willing to let them test your material. Many suppliers avoid that subject like the plague. As an added benefit, you may find that your customer is willing to test for you for free while you get your own process running. This may sound backwards or even like a conflict of interest, but trust me. If the customer is able, they would love to help and chances are that their lab is so busy that they won’t have time to scrutinize your material performance while you get your capability up-to-speed.
3. Identify the organizations in your industry that help create the testing standards that apply to you. Become a member, or at the very least follow them using social media (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn groups). Membership fees are usually quite reasonable, and you’ll likely have the opportunity to be a member of the committees that actually write the test standards, thus influencing the content of the standards you have to follow. Pretty cool, huh?
4. After you’ve talked to your customers, joined one or two of the relevant trade organizations in your industry, and done some research, go back and reconsider #1. You may find that the requirements to start your own lab are much more expensive than simply sending out your materials for testing to a 3rd party testing lab or may require employees with skills and training that you can’t easily obtain. Even if you have to test several samples from each lot, that is often more cost-effective than building a lab from scratch. The testing organizations will give you package pricing for tests that you use often. If you’re on the fence regarding whether to invest in the lab, use a 3rd party lab for one year, and keep detailed records of all your testing expenses. Compare that yearly expense with the expense of starting and maintaining your lab now that you’ve done a bit of homework. Depending on your company’s accounting procedures, you may need to see a return on that lab investment within 3 or 7 years. This practice will help you put some firm numbers behind your decision one way or the other.
Restricted Substance Testing
Restricted substance testing is more complicated in terms of the technology used to conduct it, so your choice regarding how to conduct that testing is pretty simple– send it out to an accredited 3rd party test lab for testing. Unless you already have an ICP spectrometer or an XRF device, you will be sending out your samples for testing. Please note that even if you have an internal lab you use to conduct your QC and/or performance testing, you will still need to send out for restricted substance testing if it is required.
There are many restricted substance test protocols, but they are generally either a requirement of your customer, required legislation, or both.
Examples of restricted substance testing plans from customers include: Nike RSL and adidas A-01. Most major apparel companies have an adopted testing plan similar to these. Examples of required legislation include Prop 65, REACH, and CPSIA. Many 3rd parties have gotten in on the action by creating their own testing protocols that attempt to satisfy the required legislation AND the major customer requirements. A great example of this is Oeko-tex 100 certification. In my opinion, Oeko-tex is currently the best testing restricted substance test protocol in the world for the money because it does a very good job of incorporating the legislative requirements (AKA The Law) with major customer requirements. I see more and more companies on a weekly basis getting their materials Oeko-tex certified AND using that certification as a marketing point in their product promotion.
Another plus for Oeko-tex is that so many apparel companies recognize it that once you get a product line Oeko-tex certified, you get a free pass on about 90-95% of many major customers required tests. Translation: you don’t have to pay twice (or 3 times) for the same test on the same material.
Testing your products is necessary, and you have a big decision to make regarding how you test, especially when it comes to Performance Testing. I hope this information has helped you make your decision, and feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if I can help you further!