Making the Grade

QAI Laboratories

“In the past six years we’ve pretty much added a laboratory a year in various geographical locations across North America,” says CEO Steve Harris. While the company boasts a global presence, QAI is most active in North America and its newest laboratories are located in Seattle and Toronto.

QAI’s diverse expertise allows the company to provide multiple services including window and door testing, building products testing, fire testing, electrical testing, electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) testing, RV and inspection services. QAI’s team of experts are also active members of industry associations and play key roles in the standards review process.

QAI is an industry leader when it comes to testing windows and doors for the Canadian market. The one stop shop takes care of everything, from testing and simulation to certification and inspection of the product. As a result, the company is able to single-handedly satisfy the requirements of all related codes and regulations including the National Building Code, Provincial Building Codes, Provincial Energy / Thermal Requirements, Energystar, and more. This is in stark contrast to most competitors, which often subcontract out some of these services to other laboratories.

With so many different building products on the market today, QAI’s wide scope of expertise is crucial. The team’s testing abilities cover everything from insulation, roofing materials, and membranes, to wall products, fire barrier penetration products, and plastics. And, when a certain building product falls outside of the box, the company’s engineers are able to develop alternative solutions to demonstrate compliance to building code.

QAI is particularly active in the fire safety industry. “The fire industry has been an industry that we have been expanding in quite rapidly,” explains Division Manager Kevin Saito. “Some of our staff we hired from other agencies came with significant experience in fire so we’ve acquired new equipment and facilities to capitalize on this knowledge base and we’ve been making strides in the fire sector to become the more dominant player within the industry.” Currently, the company carries out fire testing in four different North American laboratories and boasts one of the largest full scale wall furnaces on the continent. This allows the team to provide a complete range of services with full scale testing that includes wall assemblies, room corner burns and fire doors – a product for which the company’s testing, labelling, certification and field inspection capabilities are particularly well known and respected. Small scale testing is also available, and covers non-combustibility, rate of burn and cone calorimeter. Intermediate testing services take care of roof materials, skins, flooring, plastics, pipe, treated lumber and insulation.

The company has been certifying recreational vehicles to Canadian standards for over a decade and is a major player in the sector. In fact, the majority of recreational vehicles that enter the country are certified by QAI. When the company first entered the market in the early 2000s, the sector was dominated by a competitor. Ten years later, QAI has turned the tables. “We probably have about 75 percent of that market now,” Mr. Harris says. The company’s mark provides confirmation – and peace of mind – to both dealerships and end users that their RVs meet Canadian standards, from electrical and plumbing to gas components.

QAI’s electrical testing capabilities are broad, covering everything from laboratory, spa, and industrial equipment to hazardous location equipment, information technology, and lighting. The team provides electrical certification for Canada and the USA, and will conduct electrical field inspections throughout North America. The team can also carry out evaluation services and demonstrate compliance to European standards on products bound for that continent.

EMC testing is a growing area for the company that nicely supports the electrical safety group. “We did zero EMC testing a few years ago, and we probably now have 70 percent of that market in western Canada,” shares President Lawrence Gibson. The company just opened a new EMC testing facility in Seattle to complement its existing laboratory in Vancouver. As a result, QAI now owns and operates two fully ISO/IEC 17025 accredited EMC labs accepted by FCC and Industry Canada conveniently located on either side of the border. Both of these facilities can perform Radio Frequency (RF) Emissions and Immunity for all types of electronics manufacturing including Industrial, Scientific, Medical, Information Technology, Telecom, Wireless, Automotive, Marine and Avionics.

Regardless of the specific sector, education is always an important component of QAI’s job. “One of our big challenges is making sure not only that our clients know how the test is run and what they need to do to pass the test, but also making sure that the officials enforcing the requirements are looking for a QAI mark so that they know that it is tested and certified,” Mr. Saito says. It has taken some time and effort, but the company has been remarkably successful in gaining the brand recognition that it needs. “Over the last couple of years, our mark has gone far enough that now we have very few questioning it,” Mr. Gibson says. Indeed, the QAI mark is now recognized around North America as proof that a product has been tested and certified to fully meet codes and regulations.

QAI is a midsized company, and its size – not too big and not too small – brings key advantages. One is the team’s ability to focus on individual clients and develop lasting relationships. “We can still act like a small company,” Mr. Gibson explains. “We are very client focused. We don’t have a lot of the bureaucracy that the larger organizations have.” Cutting out this bureaucracy also allows the company much needed flexibility. “Our adaptability is one of the key benefits of working with QAI,” Mr. Saito points out. Perhaps most importantly, this adaptability can slash the time required to complete a service. “In general, our time to market is one of our key advantages,” he explains. “We can get the manufacturer’s product tested and to the market before a lot of other competitors can even get a look at the file.”

The company’s adaptability also allows the team to develop creative solutions on the spot. “Because we are a midsized company with a lot of Engineering support, if there is a new product we can adapt as we go along to help get the product to market as efficiently as possible,” Mr. Saito points out. “We are able to service a broad range of manufacturers, even if they are coming up with new and unique products.”

QAI’s size is also ideal for partnering with larger testing and certification agencies. “There are a lot of larger agencies that are quite willing to partner with us because they know we produce quality results they can rely on and, at the same time, they are not worried about us being a huge competitor in their area,” Mr. Gibson explains. “They can farm off a small part of the business to us and we can do it well, but we are not going to come in and take the rest of their market. Some of the big players in our industry, they play in all the different sandboxes, so [competitors] are worried that if they pass one part of the testing off to one of these larger agencies that they will try and take all of their business.”

The QAI team plans to pursue reasonable growth while maintaining their client focus and flexibility. “We are always looking into expanding into new areas for testing and certification, especially those areas that complement existing areas,” Mr. Saito shares. However, the team will only expand into areas in which they can maintain a position at the top of the field. “We like to make sure that we are an expert in the field that we operate in,” he explains. The company also aims to strengthen its presence in sectors in which it already operates. “We are looking at how we can better cater to those niche markets and support all of the industries we are in,” Mr. Gibson says. “We’ve been really successful in the areas that we do business and we are continuing to expand those [areas]. Once we get a foothold we really do try to expand on it.”

QAI is also considering expanding its global footprint. Most likely, the company will grow its presence in Asia first, then work on developing its European business. QAI has already achieved phenomenal growth since 2008, and with so much successful recent expansion, future growth is almost guaranteed.