You have several suppliers today, but did you have a rigorous supplier evaluation process when you first hired those suppliers? If your business is going to be successful, you need to treat your supplier evaluation process as a critical strategic process. Supplier qualification and is more important than the hiring of any senior manager. ISO 13485:2016 requires you to have a procedure for supplier evaluation and re-evaluation, but the type and extent of your supplier controls are not specified.
Which of your suppliers are critical or crucial?
Crucial suppliers were defined in a draft policy published by the European Commission as part of the introduction of the requirement for unannounced audits. Essential suppliers make a component or subassembly that is high-risk, or your firm cannot easily purchase the component or subassembly from another supplier. Critical suppliers for medical device manufacturers fall into one of three categories: 1) a contract manufacturer, 2) a contract sterilizer, or 3) a contract packager or labeler. These three types of suppliers may be selected for unannounced audits by a Notified Body. The FDA also requires these three categories of suppliers to register their facility.
Should you establish other supplier evaluation categories?
The short answer is no. The purpose of categories is to ensure that a large number of suppliers are consistently managed. Instead, try reducing the number of suppliers you are managing. Give your best suppliers more work, and fire the worst suppliers. If a component is “single-source,” encourage another supplier to quote that business before you look for a new supplier. It would be best if you took the time to evaluate each supplier thoroughly. If you don’t have the supply chain resources to do this, then you have three choices: 1) hire another person to help manage your supply chain, 2) fire suppliers that are not meeting your requirements, or 3) replace the weakest member of your supply chain team.
How do you re-evaluate existing suppliers now?
There are a lot of possible answers to this question, but unfortunately, the most common answer is, “because that’s who we’ve always used.” This practice, referred to as “grandfathering,” is a horrible approach to supplier re-evaluation. Suppliers that miss your requested delivery dates, and suppliers that ship nonconforming product should be required to implement supplier corrective actions immediately. You need to follow-up on these corrective actions and verify that the corrective actions were effective. If the corrective actions are not effective, or if new supplier issues occur, then you should find an alternate supplier as soon as possible.
Another stupid reason for selecting a supplier is “because they were the lowest bidder.” There’s an old government contracting joke about this strategy. It sounds something like this, “a million mission-critical parts, designed by engineers that have no clue what the real world is like, built by the lowest bidder, and inspected by a bureaucrat that can be bribed with a bottle of wine and some prime rib.” I tend to discount the quality of the lowest bidder every time. I always wonder what they forgot to consider when they bid on the job. If the lowest bidding supplier can explain why they have an inherent advantage over their competition, then maybe you should consider hiring them. If there is no rational reason why a supplier’s pricing is below their competition, this usually means that the supplier is desperate, or they plan to increase their pricing after you are a customer.
What should be your supplier evaluation and re-evaluation criteria?
All medical device suppliers should have a quality system, but ISO certification is not required. Therefore, if a supplier has ISO 13485 certification, you might abbreviate your initial supplier qualification process. However, ISO 13485 certification should have minimal impact upon your on-going supplier evaluation process. You need to know how well your supplier’s quality system is being maintained. If your supplier is sharing copies of their annual surveillance audits and FDA inspection reports with you, this will give you a better indication of the quality system effectiveness.
Consider performing supplier audits for supplier evaluation
Although it is not required, the best way to evaluate the effectiveness of a supplier’s quality system is to perform a supplier audit. Specifically, you should focus on the processes that are directly related to your product or component. Production process controls and final inspection are the most critical areas to audit. Other areas that are important to consider for supplier audits are 1) incoming inspection, 2) purchasing controls, 3) shipping, and 4) control of nonconforming materials. Conducting a supplier audit using the process approach is the most effective method. The process approach method of auditing will ensure that document control, record control, calibration, process validation, and training are sampled as support processes. The supplier audits may also be conducted as on-site audits or remote audits.
Certificate of Conformity (CoC) vs. Certificate of Analysis (CoA)
Another supplier evaluation criteria should be product conformity. You should be reviewing more than whether your supplier shipped the correct product and the correct quantity. Did your supplier provide a Certificate of Analysis (CoA) that summarized the inspection methods, acceptance criteria, and the inspection results? Or do you verify that a Certificate of Conformity (CoC) was included and accept the lot you received? If your company is only receiving a CoC from a supplier, you should be sampling the product at incoming inspection and verifying that the product is conforming with your requirements. Even if the supplier is providing a CoA, you should still perform periodic sampling and inspection of the product to make sure the CoA provided matches the actual product you are receiving.
Considering Improving your supplier questionnaires
If your company is requesting that suppliers complete supplier questionnaires, make sure that you are asking the most relevant questions. You need to know if your supplier can support remote audits. You need to know if there have been any significant changes to the quality system. You need to know if the company has had any significant non-conformities resulting from certification body audits. You need to know if there have been FDA inspections and what the results of the inspection were. You should also be obtaining monitoring and measurement data related to process conformity and product conformity. Asking your supplier to identify any shutdown periods or planned renovations is a required input for critical and crucial suppliers for CE Marked medical devices subject to unannounced audits. It would help if you also were asking your supplier to update the names, titles, and contact information for key management personnel. Would you like a copy of our supplier questionnaire?
What should you be doing to address the Covid-19 pandemic?
As a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, many suppliers have had significant disruptions to their supply chains, workforce availability, and transportation vendors. Since many medical device products are urgently needed during this pandemic, it is important to ask suppliers to provide a summary of their current situation and any analysis they have done to assess potential risks that could disrupt your supply chain. Does your supplier have adequate personal protective equipment (PPE)? What type of precautions is being taken to ensure that employees don’t exhibit symptoms of Covid-19 illness? Does your supplier have a policy for self-quarantining if an employee is exposed to someone that has the virus? Does your supplier have a disaster recovery plan?
Consider using size for supplier evaluation
Bigger is not always better. If you are a small customer of a large supplier, your needs will seldom be important to your supplier. Alternatively, if your company is much larger than your supplier, your supplier may not have the resources to grow with you and keep up with your current demand. When you are initially qualifying suppliers, try to select suppliers that are approximately the same size as your company or slightly larger. You should also consider identifying more suitably sized suppliers if you have a significant size mismatch or one develops over time.
What if you don’t have the resources to evaluate your suppliers?
Supplier evaluation and re-evaluation is a strategic function that impacts your profits, your ability to deliver product on-time to your customers, and nonconforming product can tarnish your company’s reputation. Therefore, your company needs to invest resources to analyze your supply chain. It would help if you had suppliers that have excellent quality and suppliers that will encourage your company to improve. Are there best practices you can learn from your suppliers? Is your supplier able to help you manage your inventory? Can your suppliers help you solve production problems? Supplier evaluation should only be secondary in importance to your design process and post-market surveillance. As they say, “garbage in equals garbage out.”
Do you need additional training on supplier evaluation?
On June 25, 2020, at 11 am EDT, and we are hosting a live webinar on how to qualify your suppliers. In this webinar, you will learn how to qualify new suppliers even if they don’t have ISO certification and best practices in supplier evaluation. We will be sharing a new supplier questionnaire that includes questions to help you assess whether a supplier is capable of supporting remote audits. We will help you develop a strategy for the allocation of supply chain personnel, and show you how to convince top management to prioritize supplier audits.