Safety / Inspection

Nondestructive testing’s essential role in aging facilities

Nondestructive testing (NDT) or nondestructive evaluation (NDE) encompasses a wide group of analysis techniques to evaluate the properties of a material, component or system without causing any damage to the original material.
Interview By Candace Allison

Nondestructive testing (NDT) or nondestructive evaluation (NDE) encompasses a wide group of analysis techniques to evaluate the properties of a material, component or system without causing any damage to the original material. Many industries, such as the oil & gas and petrochemical sectors benefit from having project materials, like stainless steel and corrosion resistant alloys (CRAs), undergo nondestructive evaluations to ensure the material won’t fail while it is in use, which could have disastrous consequences. Just as important is utilizing NDT methods to investigate the condition of equipment being used in plants, especially ones that have been in operation for more than thirty years. The specific process of ensuring that metals are free from any flaws is so critically essential that there are many highly skilled companies that perform this service on behalf of stainless steel manufacturers, fabricators, distributors, end-users, and production facilities. One such company is IRISNDT, which has been serving the oil and gas, chemical, power generation, and pipeline industries for 64 years and has locations throughout North America and the United Kingdom. Managing Aging Plants magazine had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Ana Benz, a Chief Engineer who works out of IRISNDT’s Edmonton, Alberta location. She told us about her current role, her experiences with aging facilities, and what she sees for the future of the NDT industry.

Starting out in the industry

Ana began our discussion by explaining that she graduated as a Material Engineer in Venezuela and shortly after became enamoured with failure investigations. After receiving a full scholarship for the University of British Columbia, one of Ana’s mentors registered her to work on acoustic emissions for her Master’s Degree. She detailed that these types of emissions are elastic waves that occur as the cracks propagate or as materials deform, so she spent the next two years listening to the sounds emitting from cracks. Even though she graduated during a recession, she began working on marketing and developing industrial applications for acoustic emission as well as other specialized NDT techniques. Part of her job involved testing aerial devices until she was able to know almost everything about them just from driving behind them. At the time she just considered it a part-time job; she never for a moment thought it would become her career and lifelong passion.

“After that first position I moved on to work for a company that served the industry by performing failure analysis. From there, I was subcontracted by a good friend and mentor who worked at The Dow Chemical Company. The particular project was supposed to be just a part time job for approximately three months while a new ethylene facility was beginning operations,” she explained before continuing, “Several years later, my colleagues at Dow advised me to look into IRISNDT, the NDE company that Dow frequently used. That was 20 years ago! I was the very first engineer hired by IRISNDT. Since then, management has supported me on projects which have entailed introducing novel emerging NDT technologies, linking failures, non-destructive examinations, and asset management projects to keep aging plants operating reliably.”

IRISNDT workers perform both guided wave testing (GWT) and ultrasonic thickness testing (UTT) on some piping.
IRISNDT workers perform both guided wave testing (GWT) and ultrasonic thickness testing (UTT) on some piping.

Her current role

Ana’s current role as Chief Engineer involves providing technical oversight as well as insight into the engineering component of IRISNDT’s services. The position requires her to always be on the lookout for novel and/or emerging NDT technologies and to determine if there is a way for these new methodologies to become part of the company’s service portfolio. She also, if required, works on tricky evaluations and failure analyses, which could include equipment being used in an older facility. One of her most important duties, however, is ensuring that as a company everyone thoroughly understands what challenges the customers are facing and how those challenges can be successfully dealt with. She said that despite what project she may be working on, she always tries to be the best communicator both inside and outside of the company. Since oftentimes the industry working on pressure equipment integrity deals with such specialized and complex problems involving metallurgy and NDE, communicating the correct information to everyone involved, whether it is a co-worker or a client, is absolutely essential and something she is constantly working on.

Performing acoustic emission testing.
Performing acoustic emission testing.

A typical workday

An average working day for Ana depends a lot on the season, since her work has a significant seasonal component. During the winter, which is also known as “non-shutdown season” she reviews developments in engineered NDT technologies as well as promoting the company’s engineering and technical capabilities. This includes attending conferences that deal with emerging NDT technologies and/or equipment management. Sometimes she will even present the company’s work at these events. During the shutdown season, she is busiest reviewing and approving technical reports. She also works on difficult technical problems or collaborating with special new clients.

When asked about some of the challenges she is faced with in her role, she is quick to answer, “Making mistakes is a very painful experience for engineers. Yet, trying new technologies entails making mistakes, learning, and then moving-on. Being a nerd, I also have to work hard at understanding people. But with all that being said, I get a tremendous feeling of accomplishment when the team (with all its multiple disciplines) completes a large project or equipment repair. I also get a charge when our client succeeds because of the outcome of our projects. One of my favourite parts of the job though is acquiring new knowledge that fi ts and fills gaps in the puzzle of materials engineering.”

Eddy current testing (ET) tube inspection in action.
Eddy current testing (ET) tube inspection in action.

Experience with aging facilities

Some of this new knowledge she enjoys learning about often involves aging facilities as she comes across many older plants in her 20 years on the job. Some of these include nickel refineries and sites with gas and chemical reform furnaces. However she said some of the most fascinating projects she has worked on in this regard include actually refurbishing and repairing aging equipment. In her experience, she has found that the modes of damage shown in the stainless steels and corrosion resistant alloys (CRAs) in aging plants are often very specific.

This is why Ana maintains that in order to work on tackling the problem of aging plants and equipment one has to thoroughly understand the service and history to assess the precise condition of older equipment. Even then, repairs of aged materials can be extremely challenging, but one that she looks forward to working on. In terms of using materials to help prevent or avoid equipment problems, it is important to ensure that all parts have an acceptable replacement interval. But even more so than that, Ana stresses that it is crucial for operating personnel to have a clear understanding of the location and type of damage that has occurred over time. This way proper maintenance, and maybe even preventative measures, can be employed more dependably. In the chemical and petrochemical process industries, stainless steels and CRAs are particularly indispensable.

Ana admits that one of the hardest aspects of working with aging equipment is often the human element. She explained, “Sometimes when we have been using the same processes for a long time, we tend to take short cuts. However, in demanding services, the need for quality replacements does not change. Multiple short cuts can result in equipment that does not operate reliably, which is unacceptable. As well, despite the facility having existed for a long time, the feed can change and this can change the performance of the equipment.” Her best advice for dealing with these sorts of problems is keeping in mind that as equipment ages, more and more maintenance and regular checks are required; diligence is definitely key. It’s also important to be open to how new technologies can help to keep equipment reliably running.

The future of NDT

She also stated that she has had to keep an open mind in her career as NDT has been going through a “never-ending evolution” since she first started in the industry. She elaborated that computers first allowed engineers to evaluate much more data than ever before. Currently, Ana and her co-workers are able to obtain images that provide the best and most prompt descriptions of damage, which is particularly helpful when working on a project involving an older facility. In addition, even historical information can be examined and compared, which wasn’t easily accomplished before current technological advancements; this is an extremely useful tool when tackling the problem of how best to deal with aging equipment.

Ana ended our discussion by stressing that even though we live in a technological age that allows NDT to go places it never could previously, “Testing personnel still have a key responsibility with the digital data that is allowing us to communicate more easily. I specifically have in mind the amazing images that we get from digital detector array technology on the integrity of piping components. Also, the clear flaw boundaries now outlined by Total Focus Method Phased Array UT technology promise to help us to ‘see’ flaws and metal losses more clearly with images instead of with words. NDE technologies change very quickly, but I look forward to seeing what is next.”

About Ms. Ana Benz, Chief Engineer at  IRISNDT.

Ana Benz, Chief Engineer, has worked for IRISNDT for 19 years as a Corrosion, Failure and Inspection Specialist. She performs inspections and organizes plant inspection projects using mainstream and advanced inspection technologies. She graduated as a Materials Engineer in the University Simon Bolivar in Venezuela and then obtained a Master’s degree in Materials Engineering at the University of British Columbia. She has several CGSB NDT certificates and CWB Level 3 and API 510 certifications. She was a member of the NACE Edmonton Executive for 15 years and before that participated in various capacities for the Edmonton Chapter of the Canadian Welding Institute.

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