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How Do You Measure Quality in Your Bulk Bag Supplier?

November 6, 2012
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There are many companies supplying bulk bags in the US. One industry expert numbered it in the thousands. The flexible intermediate bulk container (FIBC) industry has changed dramatically since the 1990s due primarily to NAFTA and the manufacturing base it opened, the Free Trade Agreement of 1999, the Anti-Dumping Legislation on shipping sacks in 2009, and recent labor shortages and cost escalations in India and China.
    The industry has seen U.S. bulk bag manufacturers relocate production to Mexico, then shift supply chains to the Philippines, China, India, Vietnam, Turkey, and Eastern Europe to take advantage of low-cost labor and aggressive capital investment.
    In the current global economic climate, we are seeing Asian labor shortages, an increase in labor rates, a global credit crunch, resin cost fluctuations, and long lead times. As a result, we are beginning to see the trend moving almost full circle as production moves back to Mexico.

Making Sure Quality Keeps Pace
With the globalized market place for bulk packaging that now exists, companies have to choose between many potential FIBC suppliers with diverse product standards and raw material sourced from around the world. So often we hear the phrase, “a bag is a bag.” But not every bag is a bag. Not all bags are made equal. And many bulk bag users have had to learn this the hard way.
    Every supplier will promote quality; some will even say they have the “best” quality. But what does this mean? There are many FIBC suppliers vying for business, so how do you establish a benchmark for quality that you can rely on when you make such an important decision? Without a clear definition of quality you will be hard pressed to measure or evaluate it. How do you make sure you are getting a quality bag before it’s too late?

Getting a Handle on Quality
Quality can mean different things to different people. For most people it means something simple like having a product that is made well, functions properly, and looks good. We all want products that are reliable, will last, and not break down. How can you be assured you are getting a consistent high-quality bag?
    The place to begin is with Industry Compliance Standards. The ISO standard of compliance, ISO-281898 Standard for Non-Hazardous Duty FIBCs is the most comprehensive performance standard for standard duty FIBCs. It is the benchmark for manufacturing quality bulk bags. Every bulk bag you use should be manufactured in compliance with this standard.
    Then there are industry-specific requirements such as those listed here that define further layers of quality through established processes and certifications.

Quality & Environmental
* ISO 9001:2008 Quality Management System
* ISO 14000:2004 Environmental Management System

* UN Certification Testing, Chapter 6.5, UN recommendations on the transport of Dangerous Goods, Rev. 11 (ST/SG/AC.10/1/REV. 11)
* US DOT 49 CFR – Regulated (Hazardous) Products
* US DOT HM 181E – International Bulk Containers for Hazardous Materials

* IEC 61340-4-4 ed2.0 - Electrostatics - Part 4-4: Standard test methods for specific applications - Electrostatic classification of flexible intermediate bulk containers (FIBC)

Hygienic & Food Safety
* AIB Consolidated Standards for Inspection: Food Contact Packaging
* BRC Global Standards for Packaging & Packaging Materials
* ISO 22000:2005 Food Safety Management System
* Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP)
* FDA: CFR Title 21, 177.1520 Olefin Polymers
* ISO 14644-1:1999 Clean Rooms – Classification of Air Cleanliness

    A quality bulk bag supplier will be knowledgeable regarding the specifics of each of these standards and how they apply in your industry, and will provide bulk bags that adhere to all applicable standards and industry specific requirements.

Quality Control
Knowing the standards is only one step in achieving a quality product, however. Quality control and quality assurance measures are critical to achieving success in bulk bag quality. Quality control focuses on the product itself and the product specifications. It relies on inspection and measurement to assess specific attributes and properties of the product against the product specifications. In its simplest form, quality control only serves to affirm or deny that a product meets its specifications.
    It is important that clear specifications exist in order to produce a quality product. Clear specifications mean that the specification must contain complete information in precise, unambiguous, and measurable technical language.
    Specifications should include technical drawings to accurately communicate the customer’s requirements. A quality bulk bag supplier will have specifications that instill trust and confidence that the production process will produce a quality product, formal training programs to ensure that everyone understands the specifications and will follow the specification requirements, and conformance testing to confirm that the specification requirements have been correctly implemented during the manufacturing process.
    Specifications, production, and testing are interrelated. The specifications of the bulk bag are the most important aspect of the three, forming the basis of production and used as the basis of quality testing. If the specifications are incorrect, then this can cause problems in production and testing, or both. A quality bulk bag supplier will be knowledgeable of critical performance elements such as dimensional sizes, weight ratings, spout sizes, style, types, clean level, and electrostatic requirements, and demonstrate an ability to meet your requirements.

    A quality control regimen, then, relies on clear specifications and will incorporate inspection points at various stages along the manufacturing process. Measuring the quality of materials such as resin, fabric, and liners is of great importance. Performing spot checks on resin using a melt flow index test, performing a tensile strength test on fabric and/or lifting loops, UV testing, tensile and elongation on sewing threads, as well as fabric, stitches per inch on seams, and using a micrometer to gauge the mil thickness of liners, are just a few ways to measure quality during the manufacturing process. All of these ensure that the product has not drifted outside of the acceptable quality range.

Quality Assurance
Quality control is a tactical activity, and quality assurance is a strategic perspective. There are many different processes required to deliver a quality bulk bag beyond just the bag construction procedure itself. Whereas quality control is focused mainly on the product, quality assurance focuses on the entire supply chain system. Its aim is to increase confidence that specifications will be met consistently, preventing problems before they occur.
    A good quality control system measures quality during the production with defined metrics to prevent defects from reaching the customer. Quality assurance however, seeks to improve processes so those defects are less likely to occur in the first place. In other words, quality assurance looks at the entire process involved in producing a bulk bag to ensure that it will deliver a quality product every time. If the raw materials and the essential components of the bulk bag are good, but the processes are bad, then the potential for partial or total failure may still exist. For example, misunderstanding customer specifications can result in an excellent bag that does not perform the way the customer intended.
    The earlier in the supply chain that quality assurance is incorporated the more effectively it will ensure that the right bulk bag is made every time. A quality bulk bag supplier makes quality assurance an integral part of their business, beginning in the development stage, continuing into the manufacturing stage, and then on to the sales stage. Such a supplier will encourage strong communication with their customer in order to create complete, accurate, and precise designs before production begins. A quality supplier will ensure design, production, documentation, handling, and shipment are all considered in a comprehensive quality assurance program.  
    Quality assurance processes should deliver a product that meets the required specifications, nothing more, nothing less. Anything less is unacceptable. Adding more than what is required typically increases costs and can complicate the supply chain unintentionally. Two common examples would be making a bulk bag with fabric that meets a safe working load of 2500 lb when the end user is only filling the bag with 1500 lb of material. Another example would be using coated fabric, but the end user needs an uncoated fabric that can breathe.  

Quality Supply Chain
As part of a solid quality assurance program, a quality bulk bag supplier will be quite familiar with the quality practices of its upstream suppliers. Few U.S. bulk bag suppliers utilize domestic sourcing, and actually work with vendors from all over the world. The majority of, if not all, fabric is supplied by foreign suppliers, which increases variability and underscores the value of a strong supply chain audit and QA system.
    Using upstream vendor surveys and other tools will help a bulk bag supplier determine whether or not the upstream manufacturer is using the appropriate processes to ensure quality bulk bags. A quality bulk bag supplier will have vetted its supply base at this step in its quality process to determine the best suppliers before adding them to its list of approved vendors. The company will have the accompanying documents, certifications, performance tests, etc., on file.
    In addition to using supplier surveys, a quality bulk bag supplier will perform on-site audits regularly throughout the year at potential and existing upstream suppliers to verify for themselves that the appropriate quality controls are in place before ordering bulk bags.
    Another aspect of vetting the supply base that a quality bulk bag supplier will incorporate comes through straightforward product testing. Testing is how you prove quality. If you’re not testing then you’re guessing when it comes to quality.
    Systematic performance testing to measure quality can be done through Certificate of Compliance testing and/or by lot testing. Quality standards developed by industry organizations like the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), The American National Standards Institute, or American Society for Testing Materials, can be used to prove the quality of FIBC products through UV, tensile strength, and destruction testing. A quality bulk bag supplier will be able to provide you this kind of information on the products they supply.

Building Trust in a Supplier: Trust but Verify
You’ve most likely heard the saying, “people buy from people they like.” Perhaps a more accurate statement is, “people buy from people they trust.” Developing trusted suppliers is critical to your business; you want a quality product from a company that you can build a relationship with that develops into a trusted partnership. Obviously it is the supplier’s responsibility to make good on its promises of quality. But as a buyer of quality products you have a responsibility to ensure that only quality products enter into your own supply chain. Former President, Ronald Reagan used the phrase, “trust but verify.” Continuously monitoring quality and performance of your existing bulk bag supplier is your responsibility.
    A quality bulk bag supplier will perform well in all of the areas mentioned above, and also in corrective actions, on time delivery, low defect rates, and flexibility in meeting your production requirements. How is your current bulk bag supplier treating you? Are you in a trusted partnership that you can verify?

Are You Asking the Right Questions?
When it comes to measuring quality in your bulk bag supplier here are some pertinent questions to ask either your current or potential vendors:

* How does your company measure and control quality?
* What inspection processes does your company use in determining quality?
* What specification controls does your company utilize?
* What type of testing does your company employ to verify quality?
* What compliance standards are your products measured against?
* What training does your company and its suppliers employ in quality assurance?
* What certifications does your company or its suppliers offer?

       With so many choices available, buyers will no doubt have their pick of the best. It’s up to you to determine whom to trust.

Joe Wurm is vice president, JumboSack Corp., Earth City, MO. For more information, call 800-383-4694 or visit www.jumbosack.com.

JumboSack Corp.