Bob Welty at Shanghai Pudong International AirportOn a recent trip to China, I had the opportunity to observe auditing and selection of materials vendors for one of First Solar’s projects there. I accompanied Bob Welty, the company’s Quality Engineer, as well as my wife Min, its Commodity Manager. Bob was gracious enough to let me write about some of his experience there and call attention to a side of sustainability that does not get quite as much attention as carbon emissions.

Disclaimer:  While I have made every effort to faithfully convey Bob’s explanations of his work and First Solar’s positions on these matters as relayed to me by him, none of what is written here has been vetted by anyone at the company, and any opinions expressed are based on my own observations.

Bob is an interesting guy.  He is quick, does not mince words, and will always tell you exactly what he is thinking. This was his second trip to China, but he still observes the environment and culture with fresh eyes – something that gets more challenging for me to do the more I study them. Bob reveled in the elaborate dance of bargaining with market vendors for food and souvenirs. Min and I helped him suppress his astonishment at the rush of pushing and shoving that accompanies the alighting of most forms of public transit. If you keep thinking everyone will politely queue and wait, you will be waiting a very long time to get on a bus. As I have learned, things like this call for a more relative view of social norms and slightly more patience on my part. I no longer look at it as weird, just different.

As a quality engineer, Bob scrutinizes vendors for any indication that the integrity of the component purchased or timely delivery could be compromised. He is qualified to audit quality management systems to validate that candidate factories adhere to internationally recognized standards. On this visit, we were looking for various products which support arrays in a large field solar plant. One key part of the audit revolves around workplace safety. In fact, Bob explained, as a company rooted in manufacturing, First Solar has always placed paramount importance on safety for all those who are involved in the production of its product. At the factories we visited, Bob looked for things like extension cords running though corridors where trucks and forklifts may travel, unprotected equipment, yellow markings to indicate safe places to walk, signs reminding workers of the requirement to wear safety glasses, hard hats and heavy shoes. Bob does not want to see anything that would present an opportunity for someone to be hurt.

Dismay does not begin to describe his reaction to one factory we visited near the city of Dalian. Everything was dirty, there was no discernable system for marking what material belonged to which customer, what had been inspected or was still unsorted from the original delivery, and there was stuff lying around everywhere you looked. Bob pointed out the safety problems to the plant manager and raised the concern that accidents could jeopardize the delivery schedule. The manager replied that if men got hurt or killed, there were plenty more that were willing to step in and continue the work – with no training. Bob politely extricated himself at the end of the audit, but did not hide his assessment of the factory’s poor potential for selection by First Solar. He later confided that, “Even if I was not worried about all the implications of replacing injured hands with untrained workers, that simply is not how we do business.”

A. Joseph Sarcinella, V wrote that, “Character and integrity are not defined by that which you do when others are watching but by that which you do when no one is watching.” Bob lives this idea each day, and his company and all those involved in its operations benefit from his refusal to settle for anything less than excellence.

Dalian port

Dalian port

Materials sorting at galvanizing plant near Hangzhou

Materials sorting at galvanizing plant near Hangzhou

Hot acid wash and molten zinc galvanizing tanks

Hot acid wash and molten zinc galvanizing tanks

Hand finishing

Hand finishing

Shiny guardrails cooling after a dip in the galv tank

Shiny guardrails cooling after a dip in the galv tank

Bob's photo of Zhouzhuang, canal town near Suzhou

Bob’s photo of Zhouzhuang, canal town near Suzhou