The Importance of the right Selection of a Testing Lab in Apparel Export

Dr. Subrata Das

By guest author Dr Subrata Das, Professor (Fashion Technology) Bannari Amman Institute of Technology, Sathyamangalam, Erode District, Tamil Nadu 638401, India. The author can be contacted via E-mail: subratactl@gmail.com

Today’s Newsletter centres around the importance of the right Selection of a Testing Lab in Apparel export and is the latest paper of our guest author Dr Subrata Das. We wish to thank him for his valuable contribution and interesting points he is raising in his thoughtful feature illuminating all factors necessary to select the right Testing Lab. These are also helpful for other textile segments using Testing Labs.

One of the most frequent questions in apparel industry is where to get a fabric tested. There is no “right” answer, but there are some key factors to consider.

Lab Affiliation

Does the lab have any vested interest in the results?

•             Proficiency

Does the lab participate in inter-laboratory proficiency programmes to ensure accurate results?

•             Specialized Services

Does the lab specialize in a particular type of testing?

•             Calibration

Is all lab equipment calibrated?

•             Test Method Development

Does the lab participate in test method development?

•             Continuing Education

Do lab staff participate in continuing education programmes?

•             Customer Service

Can you get everything you need from the lab in a timely and meaningful manner?

•             Certification

What certification(s) has the lab received?

Understanding these factors and determining priorities can help to find a suitable laboratory for the testing one needs.

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Lab Affiliation

As with any business transaction, it is important to understand the partner. There is no good or bad affiliation for a lab, but one should know how that affiliation may affect testing.

In-house Lab

There are pros and cons to using a lab within the organization. An important advantage is the opportunity to observe a test. One can often learn much more from seeing the results first hand than from a single number on a written report. One can quickly retest or make adjustments based on those results. It is better to control confidentiality if the product never leaves the organisation.

The most obvious down side to an in-house lab is the possibility of bias—or the perception of bias. Even if every test is done “by the book,” some customers may prefer confirmation from a third party.

Manufacturing Labs

In-house lab may be one of the manufacturing labs in the textile supply chain.

However, if one is the customer in another organization’s in-house lab, there are a few other things to consider.

Often, manufacturers are the best resource for solving a problem.

If sample fails testing, the manufacturer may know exactly how to improve it.

(One may also have learned something about the products in use that could be helpful to the manufacturer!)

Relationship with the lab will probably be a key factor in how much detail one can get about the results and how much one trusts those results.

As with in-house labs, be aware of the potential for bias—we all want to see our own products perform well.

For a variety of reasons, it is generally not a good practice to have a manufacturing lab test its competitor’s product.

Independent Labs

They are Independent; contract; third party; commercial. These are labs whose primary business is to perform testing for other organizations. They generally do not benefit from giving good or bad results. Testing is a business for these labs. This means they may be more likely to guarantee turnaround time or other services in an effort to earn and keep your business. It also means you will pay for these services.

Academic Labs

Many colleges and universities offer testing services. These are often run as independent for-profit labs, but there may also be less formal arrangements in which students or faculty will perform testing on an ad hoc basis or as part of a research project.

Proficiency

Merriam-Webster defines “proficient” as “good at doing something” or “well advanced in an art, occupation, or branch of knowledge”. These all sound like good attributes to look for when selecting a lab to do textile testing. But, how does one know if a lab is good at doing something—specifically the tests one wants to be performed? How can one tell, if technicians have advanced knowledge of the tests?

Proficiency Programmes

One way labs can measure their performance is by participating in proficiency programmes. Proficiency programmes allow labs to anonymously compare their results to those of tens, or even hundreds,  of other labs.

Each participant performs the same test on specimens of the same fabrics. Results are compiled and reported back to the participants.

For instance, in the case of AATCC Proficiency Testing Programmes, each participant is assigned a number, known only to themselves. Tables and graphs are distributed so each lab can see how its results compare to those of others and determine whether additional training is needed on particular test methods.

Example of test method results graph given in the Figure 1

Participants in AATCC Proficiency Testing Programmes receive a certificate each year. The certificate does not guarantee that the lab did the tests correctly, but it does show an effort to monitor and improve performance.

Certificates from these and other proficiency programmes may be on display in the lab. If not, one can ask if the lab participates in such programmes, how frequently, how recently, and for which test methods.

Examples AATCC Proficiency Testing Programmes are given below:

Programmeme Test Method(s)

Antibacterial

TM100, Antibacterial Finishes on Textile Materials: Assessment of

TM147, Antibacterial Activity Assessment of Textile Materials: Parallel Streak Method

Appearance & Physical Properties

TM88B, Smoothness of Seams in Fabrics after Repeated Home Laundering

TM88C, Retention of Creases in Fabrics after Repeated Home Laundering

TM124, Smoothness Appearance of Fabrics after Repeated Home Laundering

TM135, Dimensional Changes of Fabrics after Home Laundering

Colorfastness

TM8, Colorfastness to Crocking: Crockmeter Method

TM15, Colorfastness to Perspiration

TM 16.3 Option 3, colorfastness to Light: Xenon-Arc

TM61, Colorfastness to Laundering: Accelerated

TM107, Colorfastness to Water

Fibre Identification & Analysis

TM20A, Fiber Analysis: Quantitative

Visual Gray Scale for Color Change Evaluation

Evaluation Procedure 1, Gray Scale for Color Change

Water Resistance/Repellency

TM22, Water Repellency: Spray Test

Verification Fabrics

Formal proficiency programmes are not the only way for a lab to stay on track. Purchased or in-house verification, or control, fabrics also help “verify” proper testing. These fabrics have a known value for a specific test. If the operator gets that value, he or she has probably performed the test correctly and can proceed with evaluation of test specimens.

Examples of verification fabrics include AATCC Blue Wool Lightfastness Standards for Test Methods 16.1, 16.2, and 16.3, Colourfastness to Light; Chlorine Test Control Fabric for Test Method 162, Colourfastness to Water: Chlorinated Pool; and The Nylon Sleeve for Test Method 129, Colourfastness to Ozone in the Atmosphere under High Humidities.

Other Factors

One “right” answer does not necessarily make a lab, or even that technician, proficient. And, one “wrong” answer does not mean one shouldn’t use the lab. With regular use of proficiency programmes and verification fabrics, a lab is alert to potential problems before they affect customers’ results. Proficiency programmes and verification fabrics are not used in isolation. Calibration of apparatus and training of staff are also part of the equation.

Specialized Services

One may only need basic testing, but it never hurts to know if a lab has a particular focus or offers unusual services.

 General Testing Labs

Many labs can perform a wide variety of textile testing. In fact, some labs do a great deal more than textile testing. Textiles are often grouped with other “consumer products” such as toys or furniture. This can be a benefit if one requires testing normally associated with these areas. It can also mean that the lab has little or no dedicated space or personnel for textile testing.

One can make sure that the testing he needs is not an afterthought in a lab primarily focused on unrelated testing. Aside from consumer products, textile testing can overlap a variety of other areas. If one needs chemical analysis, electronics testing, or other work outside the scope of traditional textile testing methods, he must be sure that the lab can address these needs.

 Subcontracted Labs

In some cases, a lab that does not have the facilities or expertise to perform a specific test can subcontract the work to another lab. This can be more convenient than sending samples to multiple labs oneself, but it is helpful to know which tests will be subcontracted. Those tests may take longer or cost more than tests performed at the primary testing lab. Results may be reported in an unfamiliar format and staff at the primary lab may not be able to answer all relevant questions about a subcontracted test.

Specialty Labs

Certain labs purposely limit their scope to a narrow range of tests. This allows them to focus their time, equipment, staff, and training resources. If one needs very unusual testing, a specialty lab may be the only choice. One may also choose to work with a specialty lab for particularly critical testing,  or when in-depth analysis is necessary.

Services

Sometimes one needs more than a test report. If one needs video documentation of a test, expert witness testimony, or other specific services, be sure that the lab can meet required needs. Many requests can be fulfilled with advance notice.

Choosing a textile testing lab is very important. One wants to be sure that the lab is well trained in the areas that matter to him. One wants to have clear and open lines of communication. And, one wants to know that the instruments are up to date and in working order.

Calibration

Calibration is one way of verifying that a lab instrument is working properly. Calibration is a check of certain instrument parameters—velocity, weight, distance, etc. at a specific point in time. Keep in mind that calibration is just a check. If the check finds everything to be within tolerance, the instrument is considered “calibrated.” If the check turns up a problem, further action is needed. An instrument is considered “out of calibration” or “uncalibrated” if some parameter is not within the specified tolerance, or if the check has not been performed within the specified interval.

A calibrated instrument does not guarantee that tests performed by the instrument will yield accurate results. It does not even guarantee that the calibrated parameters will be the same the next time a test is performed. Maintaining a good calibration procedure and schedule does greatly improve the probability that the instrument will produce accurate results with each use.

In-house Calibration

Some calibrations can be performed by laboratory staff without sophisticated tools or training. In fact, some instruments need to be calibrated so frequently (daily, or before each use) that it would be impractical to calibrate them any other way.

Certain calibrations are performed as part of the associated test method. For example, the first step in the procedure for AATCC Test Method (TM) 22, Water Repellency: Spray Test is to “Calibrate the apparatus.” This simply requires pouring 250 mL of water into the apparatus funnel and measuringthe time for it to pass through.

A lab may do other calibrations on a routine basis. AATCC Monograph (M) 6, Standardization of Home Laundry Test Conditions, provides “simple procedures…to calibrate the top loading washing machines.” It is recommended that these be performed “at a minimum once a year.”

Some calibrations are not explicitly described in a test method. They may be prescribed by the manufacturer or they may be developed by the lab. Placing check weights on a scale is one example of this type of calibration. This can be done on a regular basis — weekly, monthly, or annually or before each use.

Professional Calibration

For calibrations that are too complicated, or just too time consuming, to be performed by lab staff, a specialist may do the job. These calibrations may require sophisticated tools or traceable standards.

Some manufacturers will calibrate their own instruments, either by sending a representative to the lab or by having the instrument shipped to the manufacturer’s facility. There are also companies that calibrate a range of instruments.

Replacement

For instruments that fail a calibration check, adjustment or repair may solve the problem. Only in extreme cases will they need to be completely replaced. There are some tools, however, that should be replaced regularly, rather than calibrated. AATCC Gray Scales fit into this category.

Each scales come with a certificate of conformity based on measurement of the individual gray chips. The scale is difficult to measure accurately once it is assembled. Instead of in-house calibration with a spectrophotometer, AATCC committee RA36 recommends replacing scales at least annually.

Other items, such as multifibre strips, are suitable only for a single use. For items that will not be calibrated regularly, it is important to store them as recommended and verify the shelf life.

Calibration Schedules

Calibration is necessarily an ongoing process. How often it needs to be done depends on a number of factors, including how often an instrument is used, the required accuracy, and the instrument’s tendency to drift. Test methods and manufacturer’s instructions often include recommended calibration schedules, but individual labs may have valid reasons for modifying these schedules.

Documentation

So, how does one know if, and when, a lab calibrates its apparatus? If one visits the lab, he will probably see calibration stickers on some instruments. Make sure the due date has not expired. For stickers with space to list multiple calibration dates, the dates should be at regular intervals. 

Not all calibrations are documented with a sticker. There may be a log, certificate, or other record. If these are not posted near the instrument, do not hesitate to ask. They may be filed elsewhere for safekeeping. Some instruments may also store calibration data electronically.

More investigation:

Generally, a current calibration sticker is a good sign that the lab maintains its instruments in good working order. If one wants to be particularly diligent, check the frequency of calibration. One can also ask what the calibration entails. Was every bulb/filter combination in the lightbox checked, or just the one most frequently used? Was the tensile tester calibrated for load AND speed? In what range, and to what accuracy, was the scale calibrated?

There is a lot that goes into a calibration program that cannot be covered here, but knowing what to look for and what to ask is a good first step.

Test Method Development

The laboratory shall use appropriate methods and procedures for all tests and/or calibrations within its scope. These include sampling, handling, transport, storage and preparation of items to be tested and, where appropriate, an estimation of the measurement uncertainty as well as statistical techniques for analysis of test data.

The laboratory shall have instructions on the use and operation of all relevant equipment, and on the handling and preparation of items for testing, where the absence of such instructions could jeopardize the results of tests. All instructions, standards, manuals and reference data relevant to the work of the laboratory shall be kept up to date and shall be made readily available to personnel. Deviation from test methods shall occur only if the deviation has been documented, technically justified, authorized, and accepted by the customer.

NOTE: International, regional or national standards or other recognized specifications that contain sufficient and concise information on how to perform the tests do not need to be supplemented or rewritten internal procedures if these standards are written in a way that they can be used as published by the operating staff in laboratory. It may be necessary to provide additional documentation for optional steps in the method or additional details.

The laboratory shall use test methods, including methods for sampling, which meet the needs of the customer and which are appropriate for the tests and/or calibrations it undertakes. Methods published in international, regional or national standards shall preferably be used. The laboratory shall ensure that it uses the latest valid edition of a standard unless it is not appropriate or possible to do so. When necessary, the standard shall be supplemented with additional details to ensure consistent application. When the customer does not specify the method to be used, the laboratory shall select appropriate methods that have been published either in international, regional or national standards, or by reputable technical organizations, or in relevant scientific texts or journals, or as specified by the manufacturer of the equipment.

Laboratory-developed methods or methods adopted by the laboratory may also be used if they are appropriate for the intended use and if they are validated. The customer shall be informed as to the method chosen. The laboratory shall confirm that it can properly operate standard methods before introducing the tests. If the standard method changes, the confirmation shall be repeated.

The laboratory shall inform the customer when the method proposed by the customer is considered to be inappropriate or out of date.

The introduction of test and calibration methods developed by the laboratory for its own use shall be a planned activity and shall be assigned to qualified personnel equipped with adequate resources. Plans shall be updated as development proceeds and effective communication amongst all personnel involved shall be ensured.

When it is necessary to use methods not covered by standard methods, these shall be subject to agreement with the customer and shall include a clear specification of the customer’s requirements and the purpose of the test. The method developed shall have been validated appropriately before use.

NOTE For new test methods, procedures should be developed prior to the tests being performed and should contain at least the following information:

a) appropriate identification;

b) scope;

c) description of the type of item to be tested or calibrated;

d) parameters or quantities and ranges to be determined;

e) apparatus and equipment, including technical performance requirements;

f) reference standards and reference materials required;

g) environmental conditions required and any stabilization period needed;

h) description of the procedure, including affixing of identification marks, handling, transporting, storing and preparation of items, checks to be made before the work is started, checks that the equipment is working properly and, where required, calibration and adjustment of the equipment before each use, the method of recording the observations and results, any safety measures to be observed;

i) criteria and/or requirements for approval/rejection;

j) data to be recorded and method of analysis and presentation;

k) the uncertainty or the procedure for estimating uncertainty.

Continuing Education

The laboratory management shall ensure the competence of all who operate specific equipment,perform tests, evaluate results, and sign test reports. When using staff who are undergoing training, appropriate supervision shall be provided. Personnel performing specific tasks shall be qualified on the basis of appropriate education, training, experience and/or demonstrated skills, as required.

NOTE 1 In some technical areas (e.g. non-destructive testing) it may be required that the personnel performing certain tasks hold personnel certification. The laboratory is responsible for fulfilling specified personnel certification requirements. The requirements for personnel certification might be regulatory, included in the standards for the specific technical field, or required by the customer.

NOTE 2 The personnel responsible for the opinions and interpretation included in test reports should, in addition to the appropriate qualifications, training, experience and satisfactory knowledge of the testing carried out, also have:

  • relevant knowledge of the technology used for the manufacturing of the items, materials, products, etc. tested, or the way they are used or intended to be used, and of the defects or degradations which may occur during or in service;
  • knowledge of the general requirements expressed in the legislation and standards; and
  • an understanding of the significance of deviations found with regard to the normal use of the items, materials, products, etc. concerned.

The management of the laboratory shall formulate the goals with respect to the education, trainingand skills of the laboratory personnel. The laboratory shall have a policy and procedures for identifying training needs and providing training of personnel. The training programme shall be relevant to the present and anticipated tasks of the laboratory. The effectiveness of the training actions taken shall be evaluated.

The laboratory shall use personnel who are employed by, or under contract to, the laboratory. Where contracted and additional technical and key support personnel are used, the laboratory shall ensure that such personnel are supervised and competent and that they work in accordance with the laboratory’s management system. The laboratory shall maintain current job descriptions for managerial, technical and key support personnel involved in tests and/or calibrations.

NOTE Job descriptions can be defined in many ways. As a minimum, the following should be defined:

  • the responsibilities with respect to performing tests;
  • the responsibilities with respect to the planning of tests and evaluation of results;
  • the responsibilities for reporting opinions and interpretations;
  • the responsibilities with respect to method modification and development and validation of new methods;
  • expertise and experience required;
  • qualifications and training programmes;
  • managerial duties.

The management shall authorize specific personnel to perform particular types of sampling and test, to issue test reports, to give opinions and interpretations and to operate particular types of equipment. The laboratory shall maintain records of the relevant authorization(s), competence, educational and professional qualifications, training, skills and experience of all technical personnel, including contracted personnel. This information shall be readily available and shall include the date on which authorization and/or competence is confirmed.

Customer Service

For apparel manufacturers and retailers, having a trusted brand with loyal consumers making repeat purchases is essential to achieving success in the highly competitive fashion industry. In order to produce reliable, high-quality apparel products that savvy consumers expect, one needs a trusted quality partner.

Third party testing laboratory offers apparel Total Quality Assurance services for all categories of clothing, footwear, sleepwear, outerwear, hosiery, leather goods, accessories and more, including:

Textile Testing: In a competitive industry full of complex regulations, it is imperative for manufacturers, retailers, importers and distributors to proactively evaluate textiles to ensure they are producing the highest quality apparel from the ground up for demanding consumers.  Ensuring textile quality and composition from the start results in long-wearing apparel that stands the test of time.

Protective Apparel Testing: Designed to protect wearers from physical, chemical and environmental hazards, PPE apparel items such as clothing, helmets, shin guards, work boots and gloves are required to comply with rigorous safety and performance specifications.

Footwear Testing: With thousands of choices available, footwear needs to not only be stylish, but also consistently well-made and free of hazardous substances to foster consumer brand loyalty. Third party testing labs are strategically located to test all materials and components of footwear, regardless of where the product is sourced.

Leather goods Testing: Consumers who purchase leather goods are willing to pay a premium for apparel items made from this material known for quality and durability – making it necessary to ensure all leather belts, shoes, gloves and outerwear are genuine, free of hazardous chemicals and tested to withstand everyday use.

Certification

Third-party certification means that an independent organization has reviewed the manufacturing process of a product and has independently determined that the final product complies with specific standards for safety, quality or performance. This review typically includes comprehensive formulation/material reviews, testing and facility inspections. Most certified products bear the certifier’s mark on their packaging to help consumers and other buyers make educated purchasing decisions.

In first-party certification, an individual or organization providing the good or service offers assurance that it meets certain claims. In second-party certification, an association to which the individual or organization belongs provides the assurance. Third-party certification involves an independent assessment declaring that specified requirements pertaining to a product, person, process, or management system have been met.

In this respect, a Notified Body is a third-party, accredited body which is entitled by an accreditation body. Upon definition of standards and regulations, the accreditation body may allow a Notified body to provide third-party certification and testing services. All that ensures and assesses compliance to the previously-defined codes but also to provide an official certification mark or a declaration of conformity.

Third party testing bodies of interest

From fibre to fabric, and fabric to garments, every stage of the journey needs to be tested, to ensure the right standards of safety and quality are met. Third party labs like SGS, Intertek, BV, TUV and Testex serve this purpose.

Competitive price:  With the low labouring cost in China, India and Bangladesh, and the huge production ensures lower costing. Third party labs offer reasonable prices with high quality.

Serving customers and staff:   Third party labs are partners with their customers and are committed to their success, thus helping staff success in work and life.

Integrity: They honour their commitment and uphold the highest standards of honesty.

Accountability: They are empowered to make decisions and accept responsibility for their performance.

Perfection: They aim at perfection in everything, every detail.

Innovation: Third party labs thrive on delivering extraordinary solutions to their customers for their most complex challenges.

Contract with the third party lab

The laboratory selected to test apparel product can be making million-dollar decisions for the factory. How can they know that they are selecting a quality lab? In order to ensure that, contractual agreement shall be in place between the apparel exporter and the third part lab.

The main points which are to be included in the contracts are as follows:

Accreditation: Accredited lab is the first line of defence.  Accreditation gives assurance that the lab has standards in place and has someone looking at its processes and practices.  Accreditation is considered to be a significant factor in validating quality by most, but certainly not all, labs.

Confidentiality: A third party lab was founded as an approved lab for an export company. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t do work for the company’s competitors. All employees sign confidentiality agreements and the lab conducts annual training on confidentiality. Samples are kept secured and segregated; there is no difference in how internal and external tests are run. Confidentiality is very important. One should not discuss external business with anyone in the company.

A quality management system: Does the lab have a quality management system it uses to assess itself, and does it implement corrective action when needed? If a lab collects such data regularly, it can look at trending, make long-term improvements and provide better overall service.

Turn-around time: Third party lab must ensure faster turn-around time to meet the export timeline. With the faster transportation systems available today, the location of a factory is not nearly as critical as it was in the past. Today everything can be electronic and overnight shipping.  However, geography can become a deciding factor to ensure preservation of the sample or required turn-around time. Testing methods also can impact turn-around time. For example, testing colour fastness to light requires a fixed time in Light fastness Tester. In such type of test, testing time cannot be reduced.

Subcontracting disclosure: Even large laboratories will subcontract out some testing. Some testing is so rarely required or is so specific that the lab makes the business decision to outsource that testing with external experts instead. Although it is not a regulatory requirement, it is something that the customer should know and, in fact, accredited laboratories are required to provide this information in writing prior to the test being conducted. 

Full-service: If a factory submits sample to a third party laboratory which has not the capability to all the basic and regulatory tests, then interpretation of test results by the laboratory cannot be meaningful. As a result, factory many not be sure about the suitability of their product for export. Thus, agreement with the laboratory for full service testing is must.

Specificity: Factory should ensure that the tests they order will be appropriate to their product. Just because it has been validated for a given matrix, does not mean it will work with everything else. Before the first test, a factory should request validation studies using the same types of material as its product.

Partnership potential: This is an area, many factories are losing sight of. It is kind of that old-school, gentlemen’s handshake trust factor. The factory needs to trust the lab to protect its product and reputation.

Good service: The important thing is that the third party lab is really a good service organization, not just as a lab, but a good service organization. The most important point is communication with the customer.

Results: First and foremost is to get the right numbers. Before trusting in a laboratory, a factory should do something to gain confidence in its results, such as sending a test sample or visiting the lab. Factory has to make sure of getting results that are accurate and reliable.

Is quality control data provided along with the results? Although a laboratory will not necessarily interpret results for a factory, if the processor provides specifications, the lab can include information on whether or not the results meet the specification within the measurement of uncertainty.

Conclusion: Every factory will have its own needs and requirements for sample testing and the working relationship with its lab. But, looking at and asking questions pertaining to the above areas will help to ensure that factory selects the right and reliable lab.

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