Serai Spotlight: A deep-dive into the evolving world of Quality Assurance with QIMA

October 30, 2020

This week, learn about the growing need for quality assurance and compliance in today’s world, and how COVID-19 has changed the landscape for traditional practices.

QIMA is a leading provider of supply chain compliance solutions that partners with brands, retailers, and importers to secure, manage, and optimise their global supply networks. Founded in Hong Kong, QIMA offers their clients (in 120 countries) accuracy, transparency, and intelligence for quality and compliance data.

In this interview, Sebastien Breteau, the founder and CEO of QIMA, shares his views on quality assurance, technology and the future of the apparel industry.

Why do you think quality assurance is important in today's world?

As a quality control and compliance solution provider with over a decade of experience in helping businesses manage their global supply chains, we have always had a first-hand view of the difference that proper quality control and quality assurance can make in the sourcing process. A business that has an effective quality assurance program in place can identify and eliminate root causes of quality issues before they escalate, preventing problems down the line. By contrast, a brand without a quality assurance program in place will be forced into a never-ending game of catch-up, delays due to the need to rework orders, and disruptions at every subsequent stage of the supply chain.

Now, bear in mind that the above was true even in the pre-pandemic world. With supply chains shaken up by the truly seismic impact of COVID-19, and risks of new disruptions ever-present in case of new lockdowns, every business’s sourcing ecosystem is more fragile than ever. This means that the margin for error is so much smaller, and any ‘regular’ (i.e. not pandemic-related) risk has the potential to snowball into disastrous disruption if not managed properly – and the possibilities to fix problems on the fly are limited. New virus safety measures mean reduced manufacturing capacity, which means your supplier may be simply unable to rework your order in time, and disrupted logistics means that even if they do, they may not be able to make a last-minute shipment. Restricted travel can mean your quality team can’t get to the factory for a quick intervention. The list goes on.

With this in mind, it’s more important than ever to take a preventive and proactive approach to quality management. Ideally, one that addresses all steps of your sourcing, and involves supplier education and collaboration – which is exactly what a well-managed quality assurance program strives to do.

How were factory audits and inspections conducted prior to COVID? And how has COVID changed these traditional practices?

Prior to the pandemic, factory audits and inspections were conducted on-site. The bulk of the data about actual conditions at the factory would be collected during a physical visit, including personal observation, management and employee interviews, etc.

Understandably, with access to factories now often being restricted due to the pandemic, not all inspections and audits can be conducted in person. This is where our long-standing expertise in technology comes in. Even before the restrictions imposed by the COVID related safety measures, we had always leveraged technology to assist our inspectors and auditors, and to make our visits to factories as efficient as possible. Now, technology is the cornerstone of our ability to continue supporting our clients even when physical access to factories is limited. That's also why we recently launched QIMAone, our digital platform for brands and suppliers to collaborate around the quality and compliance function - whether inspections are performed by QIMA or not.

Another example is our Guided Inspections, which help brands ensure the quality of their product when there isn’t an option to send an inspector to the supplier’s factory in person. In a Guided Inspection, a specialist QIMA supervisor with experience in managing inspectors, as well as expertise in the relevant product category, uses live streaming technology to remotely guide factory staff through the steps of the product inspection. In the process, the supervisor collects evidence of the key findings about the product’s quality, including digitally capturing images of the product. Then the supervisor checks the collected evidence against the client’s specifications, and submits a detailed report to the client on the same day. Even though remote inspections have understandable limitations and don’t offer the full depth of a traditional on-site inspection conducted by a QIMA professional, they are designed to carefully guide factory inspectors and ensure that objective information about product quality is collected.

What technologies allow QIMA to conduct high quality inspections without requiring brands to hire in-house QA?

Even pre-pandemic, an increasing number of companies had been switching to an outsourced QC/QA model in the past few years – and the changes triggered by COVID-19 in the global sourcing landscape have only made this trend stronger. Indeed, an outsourced QC/QA program can help a business reduce costs, streamline processes and improve flexibility, while getting reassurance that their products are being produced to the appropriate quality standard.

At QIMA, we are continuously seeking new and better ways to leverage technology for providing our clients with industry-leading quality control and quality assurance services, both on-site and remotely.

One of the key ways to accomplish this is with our intuitive digital platform that helps ensure a fast, flexible and seamless QC/QA process for the client and their sourcing ecosystem. Brands and retailers can easily book an inspection for any of their factories, communicate with QIMA inspectors in real-time, get their inspection results on the same day, and access data on their product quality through a customisable dashboard with real-time trends and insights.

A common concern among brands looking to outsource QC/QA is: ‘will an external service provider know my product as well as I do?’ Our e-learning programs are designed to ensure that our inspectors and QA specialists are experts in their industry and product category – and furthermore, custom programs are created as needed to train inspectors, auditors and suppliers on specific clients’ unique requirements.

How can the changes required during this time help us make more efficient decisions when travel restrictions are lifted?

In a recent survey conducted by QIMA, almost 90% of respondents said that the pandemic will trigger lasting changes in how they manage their supply chains – suggesting that many of the new approaches implemented in response to the pandemic are likely to outlast the current crisis. Indeed, most crises, when approached with the right attitude, represent a valuable opportunity for businesses to review their practices and optimise, optimise, optimise. Increased risk necessitates more robust risk management approaches, restrictions trigger creative solutions, and so on.  

So how may the changes triggered by the pandemic translate into greater efficiency in sourcing and supply chain management?

First of all, travel restrictions underscore the value of outsourcing quality control and compliance services: when a brand’s in-house quality or compliance team cannot access the supplier’s factory due to travel restrictions, having a provider in the supplier’s country means you can still get boots on the ground when required.

Secondly, further digitisation of the supply chain is already underway, and if any business has been dragging their feet on this before, they can no longer afford to. In fact, in another survey we conducted, we found out that almost two-thirds of businesses accelerated their efforts to digitise their supply chains specifically due to the pandemic – and it wouldn’t make sense to expect them to throw away the investments made into digital supply chain solutions once the current crisis has passed.

What makes you optimistic about the future of the apparel industry?

While it is true that the apparel industry was among the hardest hit by the fallout of the pandemic, there is definitely room for optimism. Even before this latest seismic disruption, apparel is a sector that has been undergoing some profound transformation in the past years. From the constant evolution in designs and materials, to new approaches to supplier management, to new models with a greater focus on sustainability and circularity, the fashion and apparel industry does not stand still. The sustainability angle is especially worth mentioning, as over the past decade or so, considerations of ethical sourcing and environmental impact have gone from a feel-good factor to something that’s paramount to brand image – and even today, it’s something that forward-looking brands are not letting drop off their agenda.

Currently, there is a lot of in-depth discussion in the apparel industry about what the sector should look like post-COVID. The consensus appears to be that the pandemic has exposed a number of issues on which the progress in the industry has been slow – and an apparel industry that can survive and thrive in a post-COVID world should focus on collaboration, supplier diversification, circularity, and sustainability. That sounds like a formidable task, but the good news is, all of these trends are already underway.

In summary, the reason to be optimistic about the future of the apparel industry is the fact that apparel brands already have a fairly solid vision of what the sector should look like, the tools to make it happen, and a handful of industry leaders setting examples in different aspects of this to-do list. We believe that with collaboration and the will to make things happen, the apparel industry can do more than just weather the current storm, but grow and transform into a future-proof version of itself.

We hope you enjoyed this Q&A and learned a bit more about the importance of quality assurance and compliance. If you want to learn more about QIMA, be sure to visit their website and follow them on Linkedin.

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