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Wrong Material = $15MM Record Fine
Posted on March 28th, 2016 by Ken Klapproth in New Materials & Applications
Compromising on material selection for your product can lead to dire consequences – just ask Gree Electric Appliances Inc.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) just announced a settlement with the Chinese dehumidifier manufacturer resulting in a record $15.45 million civil penalty. Marketed under 13 different brand names including well known brands such as GE, Frigidaire, and Kenmore, the dehumidifiers used sub-standard materials resulting in the appliances catching fire causing nearly $4.5 million in property damage.
While the law suit certainly should be a warning to all manufacturers about product liability as well as the importance of carefully vetting your supply chain, for engineers, materials specialists, and manufacturing engineers, it’s a case study in the critical importance of material selection and weighing the risks of trade off in design. Reading through court documents of the law suit, the dehumidifiers in question carried the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) label required by retailers as a certification of safety. The particular standard in this case is UL 94, the Standard for Safety of Flammability of Plastic Materials for Parts in Devices and Appliances. The court documents indicate that only a small batch of appliances were manufactured with flame retardant materials that were sent to UL for testing. As a cost-cutting measure, the company then used lower grade, non-fire retardant material for mass production. In total, 2.5 million units were sold nationwide from 2005 to 2013.
The consequences of this decision are easy to see in this video published by WCPO.com, 9 On You Side entitled “Dehumidifiers catching fire”:
Designing any new product or even improving an existing design is always a matter of managing conflicting constraints. You can always trade strength for mass – if it’s too weak, make it thicker. However, this requires more material which increases cost. The material used in a component is always a variable because it often can accomplish multiple positive trade-offs such as strength and cost. Being confident in your decision requires diligence and exploring the unintended consequences of your decision. Trading off flame retardant plastics for cost was certainly a bad trade for Gree resulting in a record civil penalty but also cost them the trust of many lighthouse brand partners in the future.
What type of vetting does your company do for the materials used in your products? Have any good war stories about your partners or suppliers? Tell us about your quest for unconventional knowledge and what it could mean for the future of your products or companies. Share your thoughts in the comments section below and don’t forget to follow us on your favorite social media channel.
All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.
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