Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Can dishonest manufacturing ruin a sport?

There have been numerous reports of Chinese export products that are flawed in ways that are dangerous.  Many involve low-end inexpensive goods -- cadmium in cheap children's jewelry, contaminated materials in dry wall boards, etc.  This post is about a small but relatively expensive product line that, at least potentially, affects me more directly.  It relates to public policy in the sense that international sporting bodies make international policy.

I'm a sport fencer.  Epee, if it matters, as I don't care for the right-of-way and limited-target rules that foil and sabre have, but that's a subject for a different day.  Fencers have to put a lot of trust into their safety equipment.  Most of the standards for equipment were significantly upgraded after the "Smirnov incident": Vladimir Smirnov, a Russian fencer, died from an injury he received during the 1982 World Championships.  The standards are set by the Fédération Internationale d'Escrime (FIE).  They're not rich enough to test on a continuous basis, so an honor system is used.  A manufacturer submits samples for testing, along with a check to cover the testing costs.  If the samples pass, then the vendor can mark the equipment as conforming so long as they do not change their process or materials.  If such changes occur, the vendor will have to submit new samples (and another check).

Many elite fencers use protective masks that have a plastic visor in place of a portion of the traditional wire mesh.  The visor allows for better visibility than the wire mesh.  In addition, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at one point threatened to drop fencing events (fencing has been in every modern Olympics from the beginning) because the wire-mesh masks rendered the competitors anonymous to the crowds.  There are a number of material and manufacturing standards to which a visor mask must conform.  In November 2009, at the Junior World Championship, a visor failed catastrophically.  In February 2010, the FIE took the extraordinary step of banning visor masks in FIE-sanctioned foil and epee competitions.  Most national fencing bodies followed suit.  A picture of the mask with the broken visor is shown here.

The mask was branded by Uhlmann, a prestigious German firm.  Some years back, Uhlmann outsourced much of their manufacturing to China.  A forensic engineering analysis of the failed mask uncovered a number of disturbing things:
  • The FIE requires a particular brand of polycarbonate (Lexan) with known properties for the visor.  The failed visor was made of an unknown non-Lexan material, with improper brand coding -- that is, forged markings.
  • Visors are required to be shaped using draping, a process which minimizes stress build-up.  The failed visor had been injection molded, which is a lot cheaper, but creates areas of high stress which are subject to breaking.
  • There are standards for the accuracy of the fit between the visor and the metal mounting, in order to avoid placing unnecessary stress on the polycarbonate; the mask with the failed visor did not come close to meeting these standards.
There are a number of other ways that a manufacturer could build "fake" high-end fencing gear.  FIE-qualified epee blades are made from an expensive maraging steel alloy and stamped with an FIE mark.  Forging the mark on non-maraging blades is easy enough to do, and only a metallurgical lab is going to be able to tell the difference.  Similarly, testing the cloth used for the protective garments is destructive: how much pressure does it take to actually put a hole in the material?

You have to believe that Uhlmann was as surprised by this as anyone.  As I said, their brand name is prestigious, and they charge high prices.  I suspect that the CEO of the Chinese manufacturing company would be surprised: suitably high quality products built at lower cost is how he/she grows the business.  But what do you do if you're the FIE?  Give up on trying to provide qualified equipment entirely?  Or ban equipment manufactured in certain countries?  Neither one is likely to be palatable to the IOC, who asserts that they foster international cooperation and athlete safety.  Can dishonest equipment manufacturing threaten to cost a sport it's Olympic status?

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