Our Client’s ‘Made in China’ Quality Problem
A Canadian energy infrastructure provider enlisted AMREP to help them prevent quality problems with their ‘Made in China’ solar panels. They had used Chinese solar panels for some of their Middle East projects and their solar panel inspections teams had found that the solar panels would have critical defects just after 2 years, whereas they were supposed to last for 25 years. This was causing them very expensive system failures that were also extremely difficult to fix.
The reasons for the quality problems were known already– the supplier was cutting costs and cutting corners; substandard materials were being used and that led to faster panel degradation. The client had their own Quality Assurance Plan but was having trouble implementing it with their Chinese supplier.
It’s then when they contacted AMREP’s Solar and Photovoltaics division.
1. Full-time SQE presence at the supplier facility
AMREP’s main solution was to station our local quality engineers full-time at the supplier to represent our client’s interests and monitor the production activities. Seeing that material substitution was an issue, we focused particularly on their incoming materials management processes and tasked our solar panel inspections teams to conduct extensive reviews and inspections of their supply sources. This way, we could be completely confident of what went into the solar panels and ensure that the Bill of Materials conformed to the IEC quality standards.
2. Quality Management System assessment
We then assessed the supplier’s Quality Management Systems. We checked the accuracy and functionality of the supplier’s testing equipment. We also assessed the staff’s abilities in using the equipment properly. We reviewed the QA department’s skllls and competencies in defect detection and inspections, especially for the semi-finished products arriving at the supplier for assembly. We analysed the quality control points in the supplier’s production process to see if all the critical processes were being monitored for deviations from the customer’s specifications.
3. Problem Resolution and Continuous Client-Supplier Feedback
While our solar panel inspectors were doing the pre-shipment inspections, picking out the bad units, and providing defect reports to our client, our supplier quality engineers were using their findings and their studies of the supplier’s production processes to develop ways of permanently resolving quality defects. An aspect they focused on was investigating where the supplier was trying to take short cuts in the production and report them back to the customer. The SQEs would then establish a work process between the customer, the supplier and AMREP to identify solutions that would reduce the cost pressures for the supplier but still meet the customer’s expectations.
We have always found that many quality problems can actually be resolved through open dialogue between all the stakeholders, and that sometimes suppliers cutting costs could be due to a matter of business survival, rather than trying to deceive the customer.
4.Supplier Performance Improvement
The last thing we did was to collaborate with the supplier’s management and customer to improve production processes and quality decision-making processes. For instance, we found that although the supplier did have statistical process control methods, the quality and production managers did not know how to interpret the data properly and effectively utilise information. We took them back to basics, teaching things like how to read statistics and production data analysis methods. Another activity we did was to investigate how we could automate some of the quality inspection processes to increase defect detection accuracy.
With the advances made in camera, sensors and computer vision technology, we strongly believe that manual solar panel inspections should relegated to the past.