Virtual source inspections: what you need to know5 May 2021
A global pandemic does not mean industry comes to a halt. Vital sectors, such as power generation, must continue running. David Colegrove, Quality Assurance Manager, Reuter-Stokes, a Baker-Hughes company, explains how COVID-19 has changed quality inspection methods.
REUTER-STOKES WORKS CLOSELY WITH nuclear plants and contractors to ensure our detection products meet rigid standards. We perform source inspections as one way to ensure we comply with these standards.
In the USA, our customers must meet quality assurance requirements in Title 10, Part 50 Appendix B of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Code of Federal Regulations. Internationally, some customers require compliance with the US NRC, as well as their domestic nuclear regulations. Reuter-Stokes is also bound to these requirements. Inspections are a key part of these regulations in every country.
Depending on the supplier, whether they are a qualified nuclear industry supplier and the type of product, the verification options include:
- Inspecting the supplier’s product when we receive it.
- Auditing the supplier to nuclear industry standards.
- Performing a source inspection with direct witnessing.
Product complexity may affect the choice. An intricate assembly, may require a source inspection to verify key aspects of the assembly, including satisfactory functional testing.
Source inspections improve manufacturing quality, mitigate risk, increase reliability and reduce costs.
Reuter-Stokes approaches source inspections in two ways.
In one, a customer visits our Ohio, headquarters to oversee quality testing to gain additional assurance that products meet their standards. They witness the production process or inspect the products to verify that we are following compliant quality standards in our operations.
In the other, Reuter-Stokes performs a source inspection at a supplier site where we view their manufacturing and testing processes. This ensures the components we receive from them are compliant with industry standards. The supplier may test the products but if they are not qualified to nuclear industry standards our qualified inspector would visit and review production documents, verify operator qualifications and witness key inspections or tests. Based on the successful completion of this activity, Reuter-Stokes would be able to accept the product for use in a nuclear industry application.
How has the pandemic changed source inspections?
The COVID-19 pandemic has altered how we approach source inspections. With travel restricted we assess each case on an individual basis. If a customer needs one of our engineers on-site to help keep operations going, we travel there to assist. But we needed to get creative on source inspections. That is how the concept of remote witnessing arose. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) developed and published a guideline for performing remote source verifications approved by the NRC after a US power plant submitted a proposal.
This set a precedent for remote source inspections, but not for comprehensive, remote audits of an entire quality programme. This is because a source inspection focuses only on a single product or component, and the results can be witnessed and measured virtually. Audits are far more detailed, and a remote method has yet to be developed.
In the USA, the NRC is allowing remote source inspections as a way of mitigating the pandemic risk. The pandemic is an exigent condition that demands this temporary change. To perform a virtual source inspection, the screening process in the EPRI guideline must be followed to ensure that the situation meets the applicable criteria and that it is not a purely cost-saving measure.
Internationally, we have suggested this to our customers on a case-by-case basis as each country has different regulatory requirements.
How Does Reuter-Stokes approach virtual source inspections?
Business unit vice president and general manager Rod Martinez says that virtual source inspections are about keeping the customer first and accommodating their needs, not just the pandemic.
“It’s important that we can tell a customer, ‘We listen to you and work to solve your pain points. We will do what you need, whether it’s over the phone or in person,’” Martinez says. “To do this, we sometimes have to think differently and be more flexible than we are used to being. We have to be open to new ways and ideas and be willing to change plans if needed.”
In the USA, our supply base is spread across multiple states. Globally, we have suppliers located in different countries, so it’s important for us to understand the evolving travel restrictions as well as those on supplier sites.
In the months since the pandemic started, Reuter- Stokes has performed two virtual source inspections with a longtime supplier in California. We have worked with this supplier for many years, so familiarity with their site and testing processes helped make the virtual inspection possible. Our contacts at the supplier had been involved in previous, in-person source inspections, and they know what it takes to get the job done.
In some processes it was not possible to have a video camera there during the tests. To accommodate this, we reviewed documentation beforehand and ‘walked through’ the testing process live on the phone. We asked what they saw on the screen and received pictures of each testing screen.
When the process is complete, we held on to the evidence - digital photographs with timestamps, emails and final test reports - which allows us to document what we witnessed in this type of virtual source inspection.
The use of the virtual inspection process by Reuter- Stokes for these select products has been accepted by each customer that we’ve approached, including international customers in Mexico and Sweden.
A temporary solution for unusual times
Virtual source inspections have worked well. The process requires a good game plan and close collaboration with the supplier to make it successful. There has to be a lot of coordination before getting started, including synchronising schedules with everyone involved. Site restrictions that would limit the use of certain communication technologies have to be considered, so that all aspects of the remote witnessing can be adequately covered.
The biggest difference is that instead of being there physically with the supplier, it’s done remotely, live, by conference call. We inform our customers who purchased the product that we performed a remote inspection instead of the standard inspection process and verify their acceptance.
While it’s not a permanent change, because it’s only allowed in exigent conditions, doing inspections virtually has been a way to help keep the nuclear industry running and supplying power to its customers during these unusual times.
Author information: David Colegrove, Quality Assurance Manager, Reuter-Stokes, Email: david.colegrove@BakerHughes.com