Having been involved in quality and process control for quite a few years now, I tend to read any article regarding a quality issue or anything related to new ideas for quality or process improvement. The News Tribune out of Tacoma, Washington wrote about tanks at a local vitrification plant failing to meet quality assurance standards. The scope of the quality assurance problem became very clear, and gives an excellent example of the importance of quality assurance systems.
Vitrification is the process of turning a liquid into a glass-like substance. In this case, the Department of Energy is building a plant to convert radioactive waste into an easier to handle glass-like substance. This is not just any radioactive treatment plant either! When completed, it will be the world’s largest radioactive treatment facility. But, before it opens it faces quality problems.
Audits only catch problems at the last minute
DOE auditors reported that quality assurance requirements were not met for tanks produced for the facility. Quality assurance data for tank welds was missing for some of the weld points and the inspection technique itself is being questioned. To quote from the article, "For the vessels that we reviewed, we identified multiple instances where quality assurance records were either missing or were not traceable to the specific area or part of the vessel," said a memo for Inspector General Gregory Friedman to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
Since the tanks are used to store the radioactive material during the vitrification process, a tank failure is a major safety risk, could also contaminate the area, and make much of the plant unusable for an indefinite period of time.
The bottom line is that missing quality documentation, traceability issues or failure to have or follow quality requirements is critical and the cost of not having adequate quality assurance is high. In this case, the vendor producing the tanks was paid $30 million, of which they may have to refund a portion. The failure could also result in a loss or delay in operation at the $12.2 billion facility. That’s no small expense.
These types of stories always amaze me. No matter how much evidence there is, some companies will never understand that when you cut corners on quality you are placing the security and trust your organization has worked so hard to build right next to a ticking time bomb.
If only there were a way to collect and monitor quality data and relate it back to traceability, sampling requirement control, supplier quality control, or regulatory requirements and was maintained in a secure, easy to use database format that let you slice and dice data with the click of a mouse. That would be something, wouldn’t it?