Tainted pet food, lead-laden toys and various other quality problems associated with Chinese-made goods lead us to wonder about the reliability of so many Chinese products imported by our industry. Of particular concern are the industrial pipe, valves and fittings used in so many critical applications.

Supply House Times Editor Jim Olsztynski discussed this issue with several master distributors and distributors recently. Here are the questions he asked and their responses. Anonymity was granted in order to encourage frank discussion.

Q: In your opinion, are most Chinese-made PVF products comparable in quality to American-made goods?

Distributor 1: We have been marketing Chinese products at various levels for more than 10 years. Our quality process system has been successful in weeding out the suspect manufacturers thus far. However, we have been reluctant to offer Chinese pipe and fittings to major U.S. oil company accounts due largely to the fact that the Chinese manufacturers are not on our oil “approved manufacturer list” (AML). While we have the infrastructure to pursue the addition of all PVF manufacturers, we have intentionally held off the AML addition process because of the recent “China alerts” sent out by many of the U.S. major oil companies. Bad news travels very fast and the quality departments of the major oil companies have advised of several quality violations of Chinese bulks, from falsification of lesser material grades on alloy pipe to certification of welded fittings as seamless.
Our task is to convince the major oils that the Chinese valve products we offer are an exception to the rule due to the quality surveillance levels incorporated by the world-class valve manufacturers. Most own the plants in China that produce the valves.

Distributor 2: In most cases I feel that the steel pipe produced by Chinese mills is of inconsistent quality, although this is not to say the pipe does not meet spec. We have rejected more pipe from China in the last couple of years than in my entire career buying from many other countries. Material that comes in top condition from a mill one time comes in the next time with quality issues ranging from rust to incomplete or incorrect markings. I have tried to stay with the same mills and brokers to assure that our issues are minimal. Domestically produced steel is not without issues as well, but they are of minor concern.

Distributor 3: It depends on the factory in question. Most Chinese PVF factories are not yet regarded as export quality - particularly those that are state run. However, several Taiwanese-owned and operated facilities are certainly capable of producing good quality PVF. This position is further supported by the growing number of U.S. manufacturers who are outsourcing semi-finished or finished PVF products to Chinese factories.

Q: What additional quality steps could a Chinese company or domestic outsourcer take to gain your confidence?

Distributor 1: Our company is proactive in the quality surveillance process and has scheduled three audits of Malaysian weld fittings manufacturers. We have NO China pipe or fitting manufacturers that can justify the cost of the audit.

Distributor 2: I have the most confidence in brokers and suppliers that have teams on the ground in China to assure quality of the steel pipe that we buy. My feeling is that the Chinese will take every opportunity to cut corners to maintain or increase profits and dominance in the world market. Having people on the ground with a quality background is perhaps the only way to keep the mills honest.

Distributor 4: The problem is that manufacturers have turned into master distributors. I don’t want to buy junk, and it shouldn’t fall on a distributor’s shoulders to assure quality. Are we going to do additional testing? If I were to look at a piece of pipe, could I tell if it went through an annealing process? A lot of brokers can’t tell either.

Q: Has media publicity about China's quality problems caused you to reject Chinese-made PVF products?

Distributor 1: There have been no rejects due to “China manufactured,” but restrictions of Chinese purchases are dictated by our Quality Department. The supply of Chinese “bulk” pipe, fitting and flange manufacturers requires quality surveillance at the highest level until the Chinese government incorporates world class controls on their manufacturing industry - which is not forthcoming in the near future.

Distributor 2: I have always been uneasy with China-produced products for the reasons already discussed. I am strictly speaking with regard to pipe. The recent bad news on the China front has just cemented my suspicions. Caution is the word when dealing with China. Know who you are dealing with, and be wary of those great deals out there. Sometimes they are just too good to be true.

Distributor 3: No, but it remains critically important to have solid internal quality control procedures and/or effective third-party auditors who are very visible and active at factory locations.

Distributor 4: We still buy a lot of domestic product, not only for quality reasons, but because when importing finished products we have to guess at where the fill rates are going. We have to have enough to satisfy demand, and if we don’t, we’ll have to wait several months to get more.