Let’s Be Frank: The Best Way to Start the Day

By Inspector Frank. February 29, 2024

I don’t watch much traditional TV anymore, but I sure remember the cereal ads. In fact, it doesn’t take much for the “two scoops of raisins” jingle to get stuck in my head yet again. A lot of the cereal and coffee companies, now that I think about it, promoted that their goods were the best way to start your day.

I would agree that how you start your day is important. I would also state that how you start your equipment out on its lifespan is equally important. Now, if we skip through all the design stages, assuming that everyone specified what they wanted and needed and there were no horrible decisions made, then the start of the equipment lifespan is when the material is sourced and those plates hit rollers and welding starts.

If you want to start out right, that makes quality control and quality assurance a vital piece of the puzzle. The breakfast of champions, if you will, for the integrity world. I am probably preaching to the choir. At least, I hope I am.

But does quality get treated that way? To paraphrase some coffee company whose jingle is now stuck in my head, “The best part of waking up is a little quality assurance in your cup.” Sometimes that’s the best part of a company’s day for sure.

However, it is sometimes seen as one of those areas where you can save some money by cutting out some work. I have worked with many managers who think that inspection and quality budgets are the best place to save money when it’s crunch time and they are being told to shave 10% off the cost. I get it. You can’t cut feedstock, catalyst, or other input costs that are out of your control, without cutting production. You have to fix what is actually broken. But when you tell someone the welds in their raw process water make-up lines are not meeting requirements and need to be cut out and repaired, then you for sure hear, “It’s a water line; we are overtime and overbudget on this outage already… let’s just leave it.”

For sure. Let’s leave it! Did you all just forget that losing that line shuts the process down? There won’t be a fire or explosion or anything flashy like that, but it will shut down the plant. Business critical also has to be considered when risk ranking, and one of the things that I find is that integrity personnel sometimes forget that production has to be king or no one is making any money.

I also find that quite often, additional inspection (above and beyond code and jurisdictional requirements) is seen as unnecessary by many involved in the process -- including engineering. Sometimes, especially engineering. This can be for various reasons. I worked with a company that had a nozzle fall off a storage tank due to some spectacularly bad welding. The original code of construction did not call for volumetric inspection of the nozzle to shell welds in the tank, surface and visual inspection only. The fact that they had cut corners and stuck some scrap iron into the weld joint and then ran a pretty cover pass over top was not known until the nozzle fell off, and the subsequent loss of containment turned into a very lovely lake made of about 10,000 barrels of heavy vac gas oil. They soon added UT inspection of all tank nozzle welds, including at new construction.

Ten years later, this same company dropped the requirement for volumetric inspection of nozzle welds because they typically had not been finding issues. Is that possible because for the past ten years, the fabrication companies have known you will be inspecting those welds? If you drop that requirement, will it return to “anything goes?”

At the end of the day, I am pretty sure no one wants to sacrifice quality, but if you have not had an incident recently, it can look like an easy place to cut some unneeded (unwanted?) costly activities.

It’s always money. As it should be. Except, is it really? Cutting quality control can often become very costly, as I am sure you have all seen.

Why does QC get ignored or become one of the items everyone tries to cut the cost on halfway through a project? Is it because people want to sacrifice quality for money, or is it poorly understood and/or mistrusted?

One of the issues is what you can’t see is easily ignored. I am sure some of you are old enough to remember when no one trusted ultrasonic shear wave testing. In industrial radiography, anyone can look at the film and go, “Yeah, I can see the porosity, that looks bad.” Prior to PAUT, you would be telling a welding supervisor that he had a cut-out, and for proof, you would show some vertical lines at different heights on an a-scan display and try to explain what it means. Sometimes, you even found yourself trying to explain the physics/concepts behind the procedure because it isn’t being bought at all as a valid test.

In fact, I still sometimes get into arguments with people over the validity of ultrasonic testing in general. You take someone who, for whatever reason, does not “trust the science” behind the NDE technique you are trying to use and interpret it for them, and it is like trying to convince an atheist there is a God or a fundamentalist that there isn’t one.

Are there other reasons? Sure. But mistrust and misunderstanding can make many frontline supervisors say it's all a waste of time. I have also run into people who think anyone looking closely at or checking their work must mistrust them as a human being. “You know Johnny’s a good welder. Do we really need to shoot more of his welds? We are on a tight schedule and don’t have time for rework anyway, and I have him and his family over for barbeques. He does good work. This must be a mistake.”

I know you all know this, but I am getting around to a point in the longest way possible. You would think I was writing for the old sci-fi pulps and getting paid by the word.

Communication and education. Neither of these needs to be necessarily formal, but it can go a long way to getting buy-in on everything from QC to why you need to inspect that frac tower in the first place.

“Well, my company has a great communications plan, and we train people well or have requirements that ensure incoming employees are competent.” Sure, but that is not quite what I mean.

Let me share an anecdote that will make my point. Over 20 years ago, I was working in a consulting engineering firm, and we got engaged by one of the biggest manufacturers of downhole oil tools in the world to help them with a series of failures they had on a new packing/testing tool. These incidents were costing them money on warranty work, but even worse, starting to give them a bad reputation in the industry.

In one year, their brand-new tool, meant to test well output capacities in natural gas wells, had over 50 failures worldwide. Some big production companies were quietly dropping using any of their tools because of the reputation they were building. They had tried to solve the problem in-house but couldn’t figure out why they had welds cracking and failing, which would leave part of the tool down the well. In many cases, the part couldn’t be fished out. At that stage, upstream companies using this tool often had to cement the lost tool part in the casing, run a milling tool to cut through the casing above the cement plugs, and use directional drilling from that point to get back into the formation. A very costly and time-consuming failure.

There were two teams made up to work with the downhole oil tool company. I was on the metallurgical team. Another group of engineers and technologists went to work on looking at the mechanical design. Fundamentally, a service rig would run this tool down a completed and cased well and use a variation in mud pump velocity to mechanically trip it, causing it to seal the annulus of the well and allow for flow to be measured through the tool. When testing was done, starting up the mud pumps and getting the velocity to a certain level would unlock the packing mechanism allowing the tool to be withdrawn.

The mechanical design had some issues. The engineer who had originally patented the packing locking mechanism did not understand designing for fatigue. He had square corners as part of the design, and because these tools saw a variety of cyclic stresses, any stress risers were a big deal (see my previous article “Let’s Be Frank: Fatigue; Or, the Pipe Got So Tired, It Failed” published in the January/February 2023 issue for more information on fatigue failures).

However, there was another common failure location outside these tools' square corners. A dissimilar metal weld connected a nickel-based alloy (used for corrosion resistance) to a high hardenability tool steel used for the strength requirements. The welds physically looked good, but from a metallurgical standpoint, they were creating detrimental carbide formations in the heat affected zone (HAZ) on the tool steel side (it was an EN-30B material for all you metallurgical nerds – basically, a steel alloyed to hit max hardness and strength by an air quench from austenitizing temperature instead of using a water, oil, or salt quench to hit the required cooling rates). Air cooling is much slower and much less likely to cause distortion and cracking on hardening due to the martensite transformation being able to happen over a much longer cooling time.

They had a good weld procedure that had been proven out, but these welds were still having issues. The high hardness zone in the HAZ was acting as a metallurgical stress riser and becoming another fatigue crack initiation point.

When we started doing failure analysis, we realized that they were forming these unwanted carbide formations because the preheat, interpass, and post weld heat treat requirements were not being met during the welding process.

As the new person with this company (I had been there 3 years, but I was still the new guy), and having experience of working on drilling rigs, I was voluntold to go work with the welders at their fabrication location to try and figure out all that was going wrong during welding.

They were not happy to see me and didn’t want to talk to me. The senior manager for this fabrication facility wanted me onboard. But everyone else, from the engineering team to the tradesmen on the shop floor, obviously did not want me involved by how they acted around me.

I called all parties who had something to do with the welding fabrication process and had a series of “educational moments” during their toolbox talks over about a two-week period. I went through some basic metallurgy with them, and explained how the problem was being caused because they weren’t following the weld procedure.

At first, it was a lot of “we have welded for years; we know what we are doing.” But this is a very complex weld, I explained, and a lot is going on.

I started breaking out micrographs and showing them that not following the procedure gave these unwanted metallurgical structures. And because structure drives properties in a material, these unwanted structures were causing a change in properties, leading to a reduction in fatigue strength and earlier-than-expected fatigue failures. I showed them through metallurgical analysis and hardness testing how I knew they weren’t following the procedure. I then explained how following the procedure would cause these changes in structure and properties to be what was needed.

I then said I was there to work with them, help them overcome any production issues, and get them to turn out high-quality welds in what is a very difficult weld to do. I took the weld tests we did every day, analyzed them, and brought back all the data and results to share with them.

I also had them solve a bunch of the issues. I just told them what was likely causing the current issue and then asked them to tell me how to solve it.

This got everyone engaged. When that project was done, a few welders thanked me and said no one had ever explained all this to them. They went from thinking the procedure and the QC around it was a joke and waste of time to having enough basic knowledge of the chemistry and physics involved to be able to troubleshoot their own problems.

And to be honest, it is one of the things I am still professionally proud of.

Communication and education. I could go on with some more examples, but at the end of the day, my point is that if people don’t understand the why of what is happening, some of QC and QA can seem useless. However, when people understand the reasons and what the target of “good” means, they tend to rise to meet that challenge as opposed to mumbling under their breath as they skip the “useless” steps in the procedure.

They will also understand the long-term importance of quality control and quality assurance and be less likely to think they are good places to save money.

The best way to start the day is a little quality control in your cup; everyone needs to learn it's not that bitter.

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