Two Nondestructive Examination Problems and Seven Other Issues
Formal Nondestructive Examination (NDE) technology has been with us for more than 60 years now, having grown principally out of World War II and the advent of welding and other manufacturing processes. As the evolution of NDE progressed with the general quality of life, new and emerging methods were developed based on the need, requiring nearly a decade (1) in most cases to be applied to the Built Environment, also referred to as the Infrastructure. During this lengthy period, the educational institutions that should have addressed themselves to NDE as an engineering specialty failed to do so. After all, what university or college would willingly replace established engineering curricula with NDT courses, or add more hours, most probably amounting to an entire semester? None, of course. We didn’t know, and all intentions were pure.
Concurrently, the concepts of quality and reliability were inexorably recognized and numerous attempts were made to integrate these important controls into mathematical solutions so that the safety, health and wellbeing of Western Society values were protected. And while successes were achieved in many admirable ways, particularly in military-industrial applications, NDE to this day remains largely unknown to the general population and the realization that the probability of detection (POD) of relevant indications is woefully inadequate emerged. Indeed, in some industry sectors or product forms, and in operations and maintenance programs, the POD stands today at circa 50% or less. It cannot be scientifically proven that joint efficiency ratings based on the type of NDE is valid, and in fact deficiencies regarding personnel, procedures, and equipment as they relate to the POD also await proven results. Genuinely qualified procedures, utilizing qualified personnel and qualified equipment simply do not exist in numerous industries. It is as if our own industry self-vouchsafed our validity while the engineering community stood mute, and it has taken this long to come to terms with the deficiencies that exist. These things will not go away, I promise.
So what we have is two leviathan problems that must be solved; the Probability of Detection and the protection of the Built Environment. Attached to that are at least Seven Other Things. They are;
1. Aging Workforce and Demographics,
2. Numerous Redundant Certification Schemes (5+),
- Wages/Benefits/Non-Mobility of Retirement Entitlements,
- NDE Industry’s Social/Economic Status in Our Homelands,
- General Disarray of Education/Training/Experience Requirements (as in 2 above),
- Absence of Industry or Government Promulgated Performance Enforcement Actions (Technical/Ethics), and
- Re-Constitution and effectiveness of ASNT’s INTL Committee & Establishment of a Management Council for government interface in order to lead our industry.
The Probability of Detection issue is the singular challenge that faces the NDE community. It haunts us worldwide, and crosses industry sectors and product forms. Even the greatest of the Engineering Codes (2), which assures the reliability of the electrification industry, is not immune to proper critique. If indeed ASME takes on a joint efficiency of 100% for volumetric methods (3), it must be proven by destructive means. That is not currently the case.
There are three actions that have in recent history appeared to have caused improvement in the POD (4), as follows:
- Qualified procedures. These documents must be implemented the same way every time, every day, irrespective of the economic or physical challenges that present.
- Qualified Personnel. This topic hardly even qualifies for argument. Over the years, noble attempts have been undertaken to assure our people can do their jobs well, but global standardization awaits. There needs to be a single program, categorized by product form or industry sector, imposed by law and Codes, that measures an individual’s ability to perform. The issue of multiple certification schemes is redundant, expensive, a waste of time, and does not add value to personnel performance. Internationally, reciprocity can be achieved once the first demonstration can be placed and accepted by our engineering specialty. The British Institute and ASNT, by virtue of their history, should take the lead, and with all deliberate speed.
- Qualified Equipment. The metrology of NDE equipment must be incorporated into the procedure qualification process, as one without the other renders an application without convincing proof of mutual validity.
In consideration of the Built Environment, studies have shown (5) that at least in the USA, transportation, energy, roads & bridges, clean water, and other vital services are facing failure, perhaps in our own lifetimes. The NDE community is compelled to communicate with government Offices & Secretariats that have regulatory authority over these services in order to assist them in promulgating regulations that will achieve genuine improvement. Federalism has its merits here.
Moving on to the Seven Other Things, the Aging Workforce and Demographics wax large in the near term. In this writer’s opinion, this task sits at the doorstep of the professional associations that interact with the NDE function. Plans must be layed out in a strategic way that assures that as older NDE practitioners retire or face the hour of their corporal death, the workforce will stand at the ready to carry on with the NDE industry’s essential tasks. The sun never sets on our responsibility to protect and serve our citizens the world over. In the USA’s electrification industry’s case, a shortage of upwards of 73% of practicing individuals has been predicted by the year 2013 (6). In my electrification industry experience, there is an axiom that is widely recognized; God is number 1, our families are number 2, and electricity is number 3. It is simply untenable to take up a position that electrification can be ignored or set at a low priority.
The problem of numerous personnel certification schemes has been at issue for over forty years. Since the much contested SNT-TC-1A document has been published (7), other schemes have responded in an attempt to assure that the education, training and experience of our technicians is up to the task of locating, characterizing, and evaluating relevant indications intended by engineering output to be identified. This problem applies to all industries and has been addressed in writing by the NDTMA in recent times (8), eloquently describing an indefensible set of requirements for qualifying personnel. Yet it remains. But it needs to go away. As I have traveled about the hemispheres reviewing the ability of personnel to perform their NDE methods, I have witness to nearly unbelievable levels of documentation that seek to prove that our people can do their work. The extra papers carry little weight; the knowledge, skills and abilities, and work ethic of the workers are where the rubber meets the road.
In consideration of wages as they relate to positions within society and the relative importance of same, NDE has seen some significant improvement over the last decade. Irrespective of that fact and how progressive it might be, our business still cannot find applicants who want to enter our ranks. The human resource benefits challenges, including retirement funds, that are attached to the wage problem, should not be avoided out of convenience. Retirement programs are created quite simply because normal human beings are generally incapable of wise financial planning. And while the improvements seen over the last decade are significant, inequality exists between NDE and other comparable careers.
Insofar as the position of the NDE industry’s recognition by the public and private population in our homelands as being essential to so many industries, it is appalling how little what we do is acknowledged. This is directly proportional to the Aging Workforce and the immediate need to recruit the next generation of NDE practitioners. Polls taken by ASNT and other organizations over the years have shown that the average age of the workforce is elevated. On the other hand, it can be argued that our industry has never had a mathematically valid study on the numerous Human Resources attributes relating to NDE.
Concerning the topic of a general disarray of education, training and experience requirements, one needs look no farther than the redundant certification schemes mentioned above, and further to review the annually published Ready Reference Guide appearing in Materials Evaluation (9). My auditing experience over the last two decades indicates that consistency even among similar product forms and industry sectors does not exist.
And how do we regulate ourselves in the areas of technical competence and ethics? Not very well, I’m afraid. In over thirty years of operating experience, ASNT has undertaken and executed a mere two actions (10). With over 5,000 persons who carry ASNT Personnel Certifications, this fact is inconsistent with the other topics discussed here. There is an insidious interrelationship that has yet to be analyzed and addressed. And then there is the question to whom does the task fall. If one is to use the United States as an example, we may easily perceive that action occurs only after wrongdoing. Adequateand pre-emptive oversight falls far short in this area.
The last two issues here have to do with ASNT and its organizational structure. It is gratifying to see that the International Committee has been re-established and is functioning under the competent leadership Dr. Sotirios Vahaviolos. On the other hand, the absence of a Management Council or Committee is a topic that requires serious consideration, for it would be the group that would address many of the issues brought forth in this article.
The bottom line is this: poor POD and inadequate attention to protecting the Built Environment are the priorities of this day. The seven other items discussed here are important as well, but to take on that many challenging tasks with a small professional staff and volunteer force that hovers around 70-80 persons who are actively involved in lean economic times is a near impossibility. For the world is hollow, and we have touched the sky. Accordingly, it is up to us all; the junior, middle, and senior levels of volunteers, and Staff, to become intrepid in addressing the shortfalls in our business. After all, the business of NDE is business.
(1) Dr. Don Bray, Mehl Honor Lecture, Phoenix, AZ, 1999.
(2) ASME Boiler & Pressure Vessel Code, Editions as Applicable.
(3) ASME Code, Section III, NX-3000, as an example.
(4) Michael Turnbow, 8th EPRI BOP Heat Exchanger Symposium, 2004.
(5) ASCE Report, 2005, Aging Infrastructure.
(6) EPRI Projected Workforce Study, 2004.
(7) ASNT SNT-TC-1A, 1968.
(8) George Moran, Materials Evaluation, January 2008.
(9) Materials Evaluation, February 2009, pp. 224-236.
(10) Robert Doggart, Lester Honor Lecture, Charleston, SC, 2008.