The true mark of a market leader is the ability to feel the pulse of change and be ready for new challenges. The same is true for Intertek, which has over time, established its reputation as a progressive company that delivers innovative and bespoke Assurance, Testing, Inspection and Certification solutions to customers and their supply chain. With a network of more than 1,000 laboratories and offices in more than 100 countries, Intertek has a global presence that allows it to offer seamless solutions at various destinations with perfect synergy and commitment.
Though the fashion industry has always been a very dynamic industry to work in, the pandemic, which has changed the world and its priorities for ever – bringing to limelight the importance of safety, hygiene and digital connectivity in all industries – has heightened the complexity of the industry. While companies working in the fashion industry are struggling to find their footing in the ‘New Normal’, Intertek is finding success with its proactive approach and initiatives.
Sandeep Das, Regional Managing Director – South Asia at Intertek, shares with Apparel Resources how the company has not only geared up, but in fact grabbed opportunities in the PPE industry and become a force to reckon with, placing it as a preferred service provider amongst its competitors for the still developing PPE industry. Excerpts of the interview…
AR: Why do you feel that the PPE industry is here to stay?
Sandeep: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an increased awareness amongst public about health, hygiene and other environmental pollution impacts, ultimately making use of PPE as a necessity – this will be the new normal. As the cases of communicable diseases like SARS, NIPAH, Ebola and COVID-19 are on the increase with several mutations, there could be new waves, big and small, created across all age groups. This brings the social and regulatory responsibility for all industry segments to come up with solutions to protect the public from Biological / Communicable hazards.
AR: The garment industry is still very clueless of how-to set-up a PPE unit; how will Intertek handhold the industry through the process?
Sandeep: With Intertek’s strong presence in the region and technical expertise, we support manufacturers in understanding the requirements of PPE, from the sourcing of right raw materials, designing and development of compliant products, specific to various regulatory markets as well as end consumers’ expectations.
Also, Governments in countries like India supports manufacturers with different Center of Excellences (COEs) across the country, by training and developing manufacturers and encouraging them to establish the right manufacturing set-ups required to cater to market needs.
AR: Is there clarity about PPE standards amongst users and manufacturers?
Sandeep: Since, the need of medical PPE for general public gained importance mainly post COVID-19 pandemic, the desired clarity on various PPE standards is yet to be attained amongst most of the garment manufacturers who entered this segment. The core manufacturers of PPE comparatively have better knowledge because they are supposed to have in-house lab facility and hence, the understanding about the standards becomes a part of their business.
As the PPE standards are vast and varying, based on destination markets, as well as multiple product categorisation, it requires professional guidance right through the process. Here, Intertek COEs support through various communication channels like Open to all webinars, customised sessions, programs like Mask labels etc. We have already associated with AEPC for multiple sessions in India, PPE Manufacturers in Bangladesh for bringing awareness.
AR: Is there any difference in PPE testing norms for Western markets and Asian markets and how is Intertek Center of excellence (COE) supporting customers to comply with these standards?
Sandeep: In PPE testing norms, all the major regulatory standards of West and Asian markets are designed to help the industry provide right protection for the users, based on intended use of products, from regular use to intensive surgical applications.
Though, the South Asian regulatory standards and protocols are largely aligned with EU and US, there are some differences introduced, in accordance with local conditions, for example EN 14683-2014 and IS 16289-2019 are the standards for Surgical masks for EU and India respectively. The standard requirements for these tests are mostly common but there exist some differentiating factors, based on the local market experiences. However, both the standards aim to limit the transmission of infective agents.
The Intertek PPE Center of Excellence in India and Bangladesh are some of the largest facilities in the region. These have fully equipped laboratories which are capable of servicing surgical masks and gowns, community masks, respirators, gloves and so on. These labs have three major sections – Physical testing, Microbiological testing and Respirator Testing, housing all amenities to ensure it meets the regulatory and quality assurance requirements of manufacturers across the region.
It is important to note, that the test standards for coveralls / Surgical Gowns from US / EU/ India/Bangladesh have different levels of compliance with different specifications. The test standards are well defined to meet exact requirements depending on the end uses of the product. Here’s the role of Intertek expertise. We keep the manufacturers aware of the standards and specifications, hence the market access strategies specific to products can be pursued by the manufacturers.
AR: How equipped is Intertek to evolve with the growing needs of the PPE market? What are the initiatives by the Intertek local and global teams in this direction?
Sandeep: As pandemic grippled the world and need for PPE emerged, Intertek was quickly in action mode – to set up a strong PPE COE network across the world covering the USA, UK, India, China, Hongkong, Bangladesh, Taiwan, Singapore and Guatemala to cater to the PPE industry’s QA needs.
We have set up a vertical team with Total Quality Assurance (TQA) expertise for PPE, which comprises of global experts spanning members of various International and National Standards committee members. Currently, Intertek operates one of the largest PPE COE networks with capabilities to provide ATIC services for all kinds of PPE products.
AR: Quality assurance is a standard protocol for any manufacturer that is using workers. Are there any quality inspectors on duty from your side for this particular category?
Sandeep: Intertek in India and Bangladesh are servicing the PPE industry right from its inception, in April 2020. We are the only service provider who served and assured the quality of the PPE products through inspections since April 2020 till date, even during lockdown situations. You will be glad to know that we have qualified inspectors across the region to support PPE manufacturers, to assure the quality through production, final random Inspection, container stuffing and testing, all with support of our PPE COE.
AR: What is the intent behind the tie-up with Beximco for a lab in BD, why the need for a partnership…what value will it/does it bring?
Sandeep: Beximco are leaders across diverse industry segments in Bangladesh and we are global leaders in the area of Total Quality Assurance. We have partnered with Beximco to provide quality assurance services ensuring that their manufactured PPE is robust, safe and sustainable with global quality. We also want to make their vision of making Bangladesh the number one sourcing hub for PPE, come true.
Through this partnership, we have set up this Center of Excellence and Intertek is subsequently, operating the COE independently. We also advise them on regulatory issues and changing landscape.
Bangladesh has exported face masks worth about US $ 100 million since the Coronavirus outbreak, a great journey that has just started. Our unique proposition to offer ‘Total Quality Assurance’ from raw materials sourcing to production to retail has enabled us to support our customers to comply with the local and global standards for PPE, all under one roof.
AR: What has the response to the lab been from current manufacturers?
Sandeep: We are open to all local and global customers for their quality assurance requirements as far as PPE is concerned. We are receiving a positive response and queries from the manufacturers to support them for their product compliance. It looks like leading manufacturers are reviewing possibilities to expand their production capability and to explore the global market for now and post-pandemic situation.
AR: Intertek is the only lab offering PPE testing related services in Bangladesh to comply with Local, European and American Standards under one roof. Do you see that as an opportunity or a challenge?
Sandeep: We have taken proactive initiatives by setting up the PPE Center of Excellence as a one-stop solution centre. Now, we can support customers for CE Marking, FDA registration and can offer a shorter turnaround time (4-10 days) for lab test. We are also providing technical assistance to our customers with local and global experts.
Intertek has been ahead of the marketplace to invest in an opportunity ahead of the curve. So, we see it as an opportunity and not as a challenge. Because of our local presence, customers can come to us and get into the quality assurance loop, meet local and global regulatory requirements to mitigate intrinsic risk. Our local presence helps quick ramp-up of local manufacturing of PPE. It is an opportunity.
AR: How aware are manufacturers in the country on the opportunity that the PPE segment offers?
Sandeep: Bangladesh Textile sector was hit hard during the lockdown in 2020 due to pandemic. But they came out of the crisis, with resilience to meet the world’s need for PPE and other essentials to fight COVID-19. The Government of Bangladesh is also supporting this growing sector with benefits including financial grants to take it to a new height.
AR: What are the biggest challenges to educate the industry on the segment?
Sandeep: As a new sector, a lot of challenges are there, starting from raw material sourcing, technical knowledge transfer and creating a market for the products. But this sector is graduating with technical expertise and knowledge about regulatory requirements for both local and global market. Although Bangladesh is very new in this segment, professionals in this field are learning the latest technology and moving ahead.
AR: How do you see the segment grow, moving forward?
Sandeep: So far, this new sector has progressed significantly, invested a lot, resolving various challenges and obstacles. The setting up of an exclusive PPE Industrial Park by Beximco is one of the unique examples of this progress. This sector is moving forward towards a positive direction with support from the Government, Regulatory Authorities, Brands and Retailers. It looks extremely promising.