Inspection without destruction

George Gavelis, a non-destructive testing (NDT) instructor at SAIT, said that his profession plays a vital role in determining Alberta’s economic future.

NDT involves testing solid materials and manufactured components without harming the product. It can be applied to everything from parking garages to a child’s crib.

Methods ranging from ultrasound to simple visual inspections are utilized in this trade. Gavelis described visual inspections as the oldest form of NDT, but it couldn’t always be relied on. Oftentimes, a product will look perfectly fine on the surface but in fact be completely corroded on the inside.

“You can just put your finger through it in some cases.”

Pipelines are what allow Alberta to export its oil to the rest of the world. However, many pipeline spills have occurred due to lack of inspections and penny-pinching tactics by oil companies.

“You’d be surprised how many aren’t inspected. People take it for granted that it’ll last,” Gavelis said.

There are numerous reasons why pipelines fail, such as poor welding, which can often only be revealed through ultrasound.

As well, Gavelis said bacteria often induce corrosion inside pipelines, for they like to eat impurities in the steel, excreting various acids while doing so.

Oil companies are required to put a certain amount of a chemical into their pipelines in order to kill these bacteria. Massive oil spills have resulted because oil companies, in an effort to cut costs, put insufficient amounts of this chemical into their pipelines.

Gavelis claims that many pipeline spills in the past could have been avoided with proper inspections, and while oil companies might some money in the short run, they will end up paying a lot more when something eventually goes wrong.

“Companies just get by with the bare minimum. They’re their own worst enemy for not doing inspections.”

Now people have lost faith in the pipelines, and companies are becoming more reliant on trains to ship their oil, which Gavelis said are subject to failure more often than pipelines. He also said that Alberta’s stagnate economy is due to the fact that we are unable to build a pipeline to the coast.

“The province has put all its eggs in one basket.”

Gavelis previously served 30 years in the Canadian Air Force as an NDT inspector, mostly inspecting aircraft, before becoming an instructor at SAIT.

With seven instructors, Gavelis said that SAIT’s NDT program has expanded considerably in recent years. In fact, SAIT has the largest NDT facility in Western Canada.

“Essentially, what we do is promote public safety, protect the environment, and ensure manufacturing processes continue unaffected and without catastrophic failure.”

Gavelis’s cubicle had numerous model planes scattered throughout it. Gavelis said aviation was a passion of his, which shouldn’t be all that surprising, considering he was in the air force.

“If you don’t like planes, this is the wrong field to be involved in.”

Of course, destructive testing is also taught at SAIT, but Gavelis said that kind of testing could only be done on a limited range of products, for knocking down bridges just to see if they’ll hold up would be costly and counterproductive.

“You just can’t go around breaking things. There wouldn’t be anything left.”

Gavelis explained why products and structures undergo degradation over time.

“Objects want to release stresses and return to their natural state. Man has subjected those components and formed them to his specifications.”

Gavelis put particular emphasis on corrosion as a major cause of product failure. Corrosion is an electro-chemical reaction where an object’s electrons are taken out of it, usually by oxygen. Gavelis described it as a “battery action.”

“You leave a car out outside, and it’s going to start rusting.”

The most dangerous of all defects, however, are cracks. A crack in a windshield, for example, will continue to grow until it becomes impossible to repair.

“A small crack in a nuclear reactor can affect the lives of thousands of people,” Gavelis said.

NDT inspectors play an even more vital role when it comes to space travel, for spacecraft undergo tremendous pressures and strains when leaving the atmosphere and weathering the deadly conditions of space.

“Every little nut and bolt needs to be inspected.”

NDT inspectors can make anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 a year depending on overtime and are among those who are the last to be laid off in the oil sands. Even someone fresh out of high school could start training to become an NDT inspector almost immediately.

While the job isn’t completely recession proof, Gavelis said his profession isn’t dependent on the production of products, for there is lots of existing infrastructure that needs inspecting.

Many people feel great distain for inspectors because they think inspectors cost people jobs and ruin businesses. Gavelis, however, said that regular inspections actually prevent accidents from happening and save companies money.

“People aren’t laid off. Plants continue operating, and life goes on.”

The problem, of course, is getting people to listen.

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