Doe & Ingalls

Redefining your chemical supply chain

Cultural Insights from Poorly Made in China

After hearing a recommendation for it at a PDA meeting awhile back, I decided to pick up Paul Midler’s book Poorly Made In China.

ChinaThe book shares Paul’s experiences as a consultant for American importers of Chinese-manufactured goods. While focused on consumer packaged goods and retail goods rather than chemicals, the book’s observations on Chinese culture apply to the chemical supply chain as well. As I read the book, I began to better understand cultural drivers that have led to major quality issues, such as heparin contamination and melamine-tainted milk.


Copying mentality.

My most significant take away from this book was the embracing of copying in Chinese culture. The author tells the story of the Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1736-1795) examining a jade cup in his collection and, finding that something seemed a bit off, asked his curator to examine it further. On learning that the cup was an imitation, he revered its creator as an artist and had a special box created to hold the cup.

The book shares numerous examples of manufacturers requesting sample designs, either from their import partners or competitors, and manufacturing products that perfectly replicate the samples.


Focus on appearances.

Closely related to copying, appearances were a major factor in the author’s examples. Paul Midler opens his book with an account of a factory operation set up just for show and taken down minutes after his visit ended. He later describes an importer’s request to make a dry solid deodorant similar to a major consumer packaged goods company’s offering. The prototype returns with a perfectly replicated package, but the deodorant product is wet and squishy.


Pride in efficiency at the expense of quality.

Once manufacturers have made a product that looks like the requested specification, they sometimes cut corners to reduce their operating costs of making that product. This practice, called quality fade, occurs over time and often without an importer noticing until significant changes have been made (learn more by reading Paul Midler’s 2007 Forbes article on the practice). These changes can have major impacts on product quality, as was the case for a manufacturer of metal scaffolding, who discovered that 90% of the weight of one of its components had been removed to save money—resulting in a collapse and a fatality.


Implications for raw material sourcing

I came away from this book with an impression of a culture programmed to make copies of original designs, and to do so cheaper than the next guy, regardless of quality impacts. While I am sure that this is not true of every Chinese manufacturer, the number of examples makes a compelling and concerning statement.

The challenge in working with Chinese manufacturers for chemicals is having full confidence in the source. Testing only helps to a point. While material can be QC tested, it must be QC tested for certain materials. There is not a 100% verification that the chemical is exactly as it should be. We saw this with the heparin issue. While the spec has since been modified, how do we prevent this from occurring with other chemicals in the future?

Unfortunately, in the life sciences manufacturing industry, we are not talking about materials that go into cheap watches or knock off perfume. There are very real quality implications that can be harmful to patients and consumers.

While we would not unilaterally say that China should always be avoided as a country of origin, we approach Chinese sources with extreme caution. Where it is necessary to use a Chinese source, we recommend regular audits, vigilant testing and contractual agreements on quality. More than that, we recommend working with a source with whom there is an established relationship of trust, whether that relationship is direct between your company and the source or with a trusted partner who is aligned with the Chinese company.

To discuss the origins of your specific supply chain, contact your Doe & Ingalls Account Manager or contact us.


Poorly Made in China by Paul Midler
Dealing with China’s ‘quality fade’ by Paul Midler
More melamine-tainted milk found in China
China Didn’t Check Drug Supplier, Files Show by Walt Bogdanich and Jake Hooker
Smart China Sourcing