Thursday June 07, 2012
Testing Lab Industry Looks Mostly Good in PSL SurveyBy Sean Oberle, Product Safety Letter publisher
While labs themselves, unsurprisingly, gave the most positive answers about their own industry, in most cases their customers – manufacturers, retailers, and importers of various sizes – also were generally positive. There were a few exceptions, of course, such as small companies generally having unfavorable views about costs.
Detailed discussions of the results are below. Be aware of the statistical limitations due to the smallish sampling (60 to 70 respondents per question) and because participants were self-selected. However, given that PSL widely promoted the survey via its daily ezine and via various social media channels, those with gripes about labs had plenty of chances to chime in. Few did. This suggests the results are fairly accurate even if not statistically so.
Most people think there is enough lab capacity, with nearly 88.5% of the 70 answering this question choosing either more than enough (28 respondents) or enough (34). Only 11.4% (8) said there is barely enough, and no one believes there is not enough capacity.
Labs are more optimistic than others about capacity. Of the 28 people who said there is more than enough, nearly half (13) identified themselves as testing labs. About 11.4% (8) of labs said there is enough assuming little growth in demand. One lab respondent said there is barely enough. Another commented, “While additional expansion would be needed for significantly increased demand, it is our responsibility to take the appropriate steps to meet our clients and the industry's demands.”
Manufacturers, retailers and importers are more likely to be comfortable but cautious, making up nearly a third (21 of 34) of the people who believe there is enough capacity absent much growth. Moreover, that option was the top answer for such companies with more than half (21 of 39) choosing it.
On the other hand, small companies (6 to 249 employees) were more optimistic than were their larger counterparts. Their top answer (5 of 8 small-company respondents) was that there is more than enough capacity. Compare that to only three of 17 enterprise size respondents (1,000+ employees) clicking more than enough.
One respondent from a medium-sized company (250 to 499 employees), drew attention to the fact that lab demand is not driven solely by CPSC, cautioning: “Not sure if there is barely enough or enough, but there will be much more demand for testing especially for EU new toy safety directive analytical/chemical in 2013.”
Most respondents trust labs’ knowledge, with about 81.5% of the 65 respondents to this question choosing either “They are savvy and more knowledgeable than I am” (19 responses) or “They know enough to do a good job (34). The experience of about 17% is that labs need a little work, with about 17% (11) choosing “They can handle projects after I educate them.” Only one person, from a small company, opted for “They just don’t get it, and I fear they never will.”
Lab respondents made up a bit more than half of those who gave the “more knowledgeable than I am” answer (10 lab respondents out of 19 respondents overall), and more than half of lab respondents gave this answer (10 of 18 respondents from labs). Nearly 39% of respondents from labs (7) said they know enough to do a good job, and one indicated a little education often is needed.
One respondent from a lab pointed out, “The manufacturers themselves know their product lines better than the labs. The labs have the advantage of working with many different companies and many different factories and so can bring additional expertise and experience to help the manufacturer best handle their projects.”
Moreover, although PSL did not ask about the knowledge of lab’s customers, a respondent from a lab explained, “As a test lab technical director for toys and children's products, I find that, with the exception of the real 'major'…clients, most know very little about the requirements.”
Companies, while positive, again were a bit more tempered. Of the 34 people choosing enough to do a good job, 23 were from various sized manufacturers, retailers and importers. This choice also was the most common answer for the group, with 23 of 39 respondents from companies giving it. There were no remarkable differences among various sized companies in their responses.
Labs did very well with this question with 100% of the 63 respondents choosing the two most-positive responses: “Overall, labs do well” (25) and “It depends, but most do well” (38). However, one respondent from a global compliance consulting firm, who chose the second option, asserted, “It depends upon the lab, the country, the products, etc...Disappointingly, quality varies even among one lab.”
Interestingly, labs were more tempered about themselves than they were with other questions. An equal number (8 of 16) choose either of the two responses. With other questions, labs were more likely to choose the most-positive answer. Perhaps a clue is in a comment by a lab respondent: “In general, the established global labs are knowledgeable, and over the years have learned to work together on industry issues and challenges. Newer labs, those who sprang up as a result of CPSIA, may not have the expertise and experience to fully understand the regulations.”
As for manufacturers, retailers, and importers, most were more likely to choose the second option. The only exception was with medium-size ones: four of six selected the most-glowing response. Echoing the above comment from the lab staffer, one respondent at a large company (500 to 999 employees), wrote, “We require our vendors to use a well-known lab with locations worldwide. The larger labs are consistent. The labs in the smaller countries are where I have most issues.”
Responding to directives and questions and otherwise communicating well is one area where labs looking to improve themselves could focus. While no one chose the harshest answer, more than a third (23 of 63 respondents to this question) said labs' communication performance can be frustrating. Nonetheless, nearly two-thirds gave the two best answers.
While labs themselves made up half of the people giving the most-positive response (5 of 10), they were more likely to choose the second two responses. Almost half (7 of 16 labs) judged themselves as usually communicating well and a quarter of labs (4 of 16) chose the frustrating option.
One respondent from a lab explained, “From the labs’ point of view, no news means no news: ie. no change of status worth talking about; the same status as yesterday A test engineer sees talking as a waste of time.”
Another person from a lab wrote, “We at the labs do our very best to understand clients' requests and communicate compliance and testing requirements to our clients, but it is sometimes difficult to explain why certain testing is necessary or not in some cases.”
Small companies were most frustrated with communication, with seven of eight respondents of this size indicating it. Medium and large companies were evenly split among the three answers. Labs fared best with enterprise-sized firms – more than half (9 of 16) said labs usually do well. However, more than a third of respondents from the biggest companies expressed frustration.
Cost might be another area where improvement-minded labs could focus although the majority of the 60 respondents to this question believed either that the industry as a whole (8) or that most labs (29) are affordable. Still, 38.3% of respondents opted for few are affordable (13) or the industry as a whole is unaffordable (10). One respondents from an industry association suggested “Some end users – typically, Fortune 500, brands and retailers – dictate the lab results they will accept. This drives costs up even further for such ‘gold standard’ labs.”
Labs mostly believe themselves to be affordable, with five of 16 respondents from labs thinking their industry as a whole is affordable and half (8) thinking it of most labs. Indeed, one lab respondent warned, “Lab prices are too cheap. They can't afford to get more engineers; they don't have enough resources to train their engineers; they can't employ dedicated communicators. Their staff is driven hard until exhaustion and burnout.”
Not surprisingly, given available resources, small companies do not find labs affordable. An equal number (4 of 8) said either that most labs are unaffordable or that the industry as a whole is. None responded that most labs or the industry as a whole is affordable.
Medium and large companies were fairly evenly spread across the four options. However, one person from a large company vented some frustration, writing, “The costing is variable and nearly impossible to track even with agreed rates.”
Another respondent from a large company made an observation that might not bode well for costs: “It depends on the testing items. With growing chemical regulations, correspondent testing are pricy for all, discouraging for small and medium business.”
Labs fared best with enterprise-sized firms. While none said the industry as a whole is affordable, none said it was unaffordable overall. Most respondents from the biggest companies (11 of 15 such answerers) said most are affordable, but a few (4 of 15) said most are not affordable.