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Taking fabrication management into the 21st century (June 2006)

Mark Chinery and James Strachan

Paper presented at 15th International Conference, 'Computer technology in welding and manufacturing', 6-8 June 2006, Kiev, Ukraine

Fabrication management today

Fabrication project management has traditionally been an area where good traceability, progress reporting and review of historical data is very important. At present there are many different solutions to this problem. Technology moves at a very fast pace but in some areas we can be slow to make the most of the advancements to improve the way we complete tasks in the world. This paper will discuss the various methodologies that are currently used today, explain some of the new technologies that have been developed and then give an example case study of how we can utilise new technology to make business more cost effective, improve manufacturing quality, and increase traceability.

Of the existing solutions to the fabrication management problem, a paper based system is the most common. In a paper based system, the company designs a paper document in order to record information regarding the project in question(typically a table of welds, material information, welding procedure information and NDT results). A paper based system offers the advantages of being very cheap to create, no specialist skills are required to design and use it, the information is stored in one location and many people can view the information. However, this is a very dated system and has some major drawbacks. Although all necessary information is recorded, the process is very time consuming to mine information from - to find information concerning a particular weld could take a vast amount of time as the data must be checked by hand. As the document can only physically be in one place it cannot be updated by people indifferent locations at once which for large scale projects makes for serious difficulties. Backing up information in paper based systems must be done manually which can lead to human error as if this is forgotten and the original is lost/misplaced all the data is lost.

With the introduction of computers an obvious next step was to use them to aid in this process. As computer systems have been around for a considerable amount of time there are various different solutions currently available.

The cheapest solution to this is by adapting an existing package to meet the needs of fabrication project management. By using a spreadsheet package such as Microsoft® Excel a weld data sheet can be created quickly, the set uptime is fairly small and the initial cost outlay is minimal as most working environments will currently already use a spreadsheet package. By having a computerised system saving of information is much more straight forward - many different people are able to look at an up to date view of the data at once. By being computerised the system can easily be backed up as well as being able to historically view the state of the information at any date. Finding information is also much more straight forward as the computer will take the work out of searching as the package will most likely come with a built in search facility. On the negative side if computer systems are not present the start-up cost can be vast, and if the employees do not currently have IT skills training maybe required. By using an off the shelf package that is not specifically designed for this purpose it may not be possible to create weld datasheets to the exact specification wanted, or extract the information in the way desired.

To move on from this, the next stage of a computer based solution would be to use an off the shelf package designed specifically for weld data. An example of an existing product designed specifically for this purpose, is TWI's Welding Coordinator TM software (see Fig.1). Off the shelf fabrication management packages are designed to meet the needs of industry and specifically create weld data sheets, welding procedures and welder qualifications. These products typically make setting up the weld data sheet very simple and allow quick up times because of the similarity in layout to the traditional paper based system. The off the shelf packages will often all integrate with each other so when creating a fabrication map you will be able to search records of welders and procedures to find a suitable procedure and welder at the touch of a button. This can save a lot of time, and greatly improve traceability compared to the paper based approach.


Fig.1. Welding Coordinator TM software

Due to the system being designed for fabrication projects, reporting systems will often be built in. This will allow the information about the welds, the welders and procedures to be extrapolated into a report to give information on which procedures are being used most, the most productive welders, the highest quality welders and also identify that the correct amount of NDT is being performed in order to meet the required standards. On the negative side these products are generally quite expensive and require time to set up. They also could possibly require some changes in working practice to take full advantage of the new features, and this could impact productivity in the short term whilst the company is getting to grips with the new working practices.

The most expensive solution to quality assurance is to have a bespoke software solution created. This will involve working on a tailored solution for a specific business that will fit in their working practices and give all reporting and support they require. This will hopefully mean the system will become automatically productive and improve the business and the quality of their product. With all the diversity of fabrication projects and the differing requirements even within a company for specific products it can be difficult to find an off the shelf solution that will not be a hindrance to working practices. The bespoke solution should hopefully remove this problem from the equation. If a very effective piece of software is developed and allows a company to produce higher quality products due to better quality assurance this will then give them an advantage over their rivals, and allow the business to profit. If the company has a bespoke solution that they have funded to be produced they will then own the rights and keep the advantage over their rivals.

Unfortunately producing a bespoke solution can be very costly and be impossible to justify the huge costs to fund. While it may exactly meet their needs a cheaper solution may not meet their exact specifications but offer enough functionality to be chosen as the most appropriate solution. A major drawback of a bespoke solution could be that as a business changes and the ways they work, a bespoke solution if incorrectly engineered could be too tightly coupled to the old ways of working that using it in the future becomes impossible. This could lead to a very expensive development becoming redundant and a wasted investment.

All of these present solutions have their place in the business world; however, on the largest projects with the most information that are safety critical it is very important to find the best solution possible.

Other technologies and software

In addition to the fabrication management solutions discussed previously, there are several other software solutions available, addressing other parts of the fabrication lifecycle.

CrackFirst TM

The CrackFirst TM system (see Fig.2) is a device for monitoring and reporting the fatigue damage that a structure has suffered. CrackFirst TM indicates the portion of the design life that's been consumed and enables engineers to estimate its remaining life, using Bluetooth to communicate wirelessly with a base station, allowing engineers to view the results. The system won the Worshipful Company of Scientific Instrument Makers Annual Achievement Award in 2005.


Fig.2. A CrackFirst TM sensor


Crackwise ®

Crackwise ® is decision support software designed to assist engineers in evaluating the integrity of pipelines, pressure equipment and structures containing flaws. Crackwise ® applies BS 7910:2005, and is the leading fitness for purpose software.

Riskwise TM

Riskwise TM is Risk Based Inspection (RBI)/Risk Based Maintenance (RBM) software for process plant, boilers, tanks, pipelines, and gas turbines. Riskwise TM advises users when components are reaching the end of their design life, and need to be inspected or replaced.

As well as these industry specific solutions, in this paper we are also concerned with the standardisation of mainstream computer hardware and technologies.

Wireless Technologies

Wireless LANs (802.11b and 802.11g wireless networks) are now more reliable, easier to implement, and at a lower cost than ever. This is an important advance in communication technologies as it allows people to connect to networks and communicate with others whilst on the move. Another important wireless technology is Bluetooth- a short range wireless communication protocol. Bluetooth is now a globally accepted standard, with over 5 million Bluetooth devices shipping every week at the end of 2005.

Portable devices

As wireless technologies develop, devices making use of them improve and get cheaper. Notebooks, powerful PDAs and other handheld devices make use of both Bluetooth and 802.11 wireless protocols. The continually falling costs of this hardware mean that for some companies, it is now financially viable to equip all members of staff with a mobile device, allowing communication at all times from all points on site.

Case study

The case study presents a purely hypothetical fabrication project, suggesting how the technologies and software discussed in this paper could be used to overcome problems faced by the construction and maintenance teams working on the project.

We will consider an oil rig, because of the safety critical nature of the structure, and the difficulties involved in construction and maintenance:

- Adverse weather conditions mean a high level of maintenance is required, and make it difficult to check for damage and carry out maintenance
- The sheer size of the structure means high stress levels and a large area to maintain
- The areas that experience most stress are the most difficult to access
- Safety is a top priority as people live on the structure

For simplicity, some of the problems involved in the fabrication lifecycle of the oil rig are broken down below, with suggested solutions from the technologies we have discussed.

Problem: The size of the structure makes it hard to manage all of the required documentation

Solution: Electronic fabrication management system

- At the most basic level a system such as Welding Coordinator TM would offer traceability of construction and maintenance of the structure
- The system could be used to trace anything from filler batch numbers used from a particular joint, through to welder qualifications and NDE reports

Problem: Data cannot be automatically entered into the fabrication management system

Solution: Wireless access points around the site allowing users to connect to the network from all locations

- Welders can update the system when they have completed a weld, the system can then automatically ask an NDT inspector to check the joint.
- PDAs could be used around the site by NDT inspectors to find the joint (using GPS) and to send NDT data back to a central location over a wireless connection
- Welding managers can monitor fabrication in real time using a laptop anywhere on site

Problem: Routine inspections do not flag up joints under more stress than expected

Solution: CrackFirst TM on all critical joints allow engineers to view real time results but routine maintenance is also very important. RBI software such as Riskwise TM would allow engineers to schedule inspections based on the design life and calculated stress and fatigue on the components of the structure.

- While Riskwise TM is very comprehensive, it doesn't provide us with real time information on the state of joints
- CrackFirst TM on all critical joints would allow engineers, or automatic decision support software to schedule early maintenance to a particular joint.
- Using Bluetooth, CrackFirst TM systems could automatically communicate with a base station, reporting the current fatigue of a joint.

Problem: The most critical joints are in hard to access areas

Solution: CrackFirst TM and Bluetooth

- Bluetooth enables CrackFirst TM devices to reports results from the most awkward locations
- Bluetooth enabled handheld devices allow welders and NDT inspectors to ensure they are looking at the right joint.


The necessity of traceability in fabrication management systems will continue to grow. From the ideas presented in the case study, we can see that technologies and software available today can be used to make a more complete fabrication management system. With the correct design, implementation and training, today's solutions could combine to provide full site wide fabrication management, with an incredibly high level of traceability and reliability.

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