Thermal spray quality audit costs

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Let us face it. Thermal spray quality audits are a pain in the rear. Unless you are in the thermal spray quality audit business, you have probably heard this over and over again by your peers or you yourself have thought of this. But the problem is that many people do not have the guts to say the truth the way it is. Now I am ALL for producing quality thermal spray coatings. After all, you will succeed in keeping your customers happy ONLY if you emphasize on quality when it comes to thermal spray coatings. Then why is it that thermal spray coatings businesses cringe at the thought of an upcoming quality audit?

The reason is simple. Most of the thermal spray quality audits that I have seen are about sixty to seventy percent sensible and about thirty to forty percent senseless. And thermal spray coatings vendors are made to jump through hoops to ensure that they comply even with the senseless requirements. Of course if you have a powders system that is totally out of whack you need to be punished. If you have released powders and unreleased powders in the same bin, then you have no business coating flight hardware. If you ship coated hardware without performing all of the metallurgical testing with the assumption that the tests will pass and your customer has not been notified that the parts are being shipped pending lab approval, then your thermal spray certification needs to get yanked out. These are some of the things that fall into the sensible category.

But what about requirements that ask for detailed written instructions regarding personnel succession plans? Don’t laugh. This was a requirement in one of the quality audits that I was in. Or how about the requirement to list approved sources and supplier audits for companies that you purchase met lab supplies. Or how about a traveler that an operator signed off using his signature but did not put his stamp on. I can see the arguments flying through on this last one. Of course it will be nice to have the operator put his officially designated stamp, but if the company has only five people, it is quite easy to figure out who this “culprit” operator was. And then again, stamp data is usually correlated with signatures anyway. So in a thermal spray court of law, this argument may hold valid, but in the courtrooms of common sense, it will be thrown out in a hurry.

And yet thermal spray companies live under the constant fear of failing a quality audit year after year. Not only is there a cost to “invite” the quality auditor, there is also the cost of “preparing” for the audit. The argument is that “if you have been adhering to strict quality guidelines all along then you don’t have to spend any time preparing for an audit”. Great. Tell this to the business owner who has just spent about fifteen thousand dollars scheduling an audit. It is like getting ready to take the SAT test without a day of preparation. I have seen great quality minded thermal spray companies basically wetting their pants preparing for these audits for weeks and even months wondering what senseless trap they will get put into. What about those costs?

The solution to this is only one. And that hinges on the quality auditor utilizing his common sense and observe if the vendor is quality conscious as far as the production of quality hardware. Quality systems audit is for the birds. The goal is to produce quality thermal spray coatings. And of course good quality systems do help in achieving the goal of producing good coatings. But good quality systems ALONE will not produce good plasma coatings. I have seen thermal spray quality auditors come in that have not even seen one good microstructure in their lives and yet they hold the future of the coating vendors’ future business. Is this fair? May be there should be a requirement that all these auditors must have a minimum of five years of experience as thermal spray operators before they can be given this position of power.

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