The Welding Inspector – Bad Guy or Consultant?

How to make the grade as a Wärtsilä supplier – and how to remain one.

Approximately 100 days per year, Raimo Mäki-Reini is on the road visiting more than 40 different countries around the globe. He’s not a tourist: if you happen to find him at the Eiffel Tower, it’s probably because he’s curious about the quality of the welding.

Mäki-Reini works for Wärtsilä, and he’s mostly found on factory floors where he inspects, consults, advises, and trains. He’s there to decide which suppliers qualify to weld structures for Wärtsilä, the Finnish corporation which manufactures and services power sources and equipment for the energy- and marine markets.

A thousand suppliers?
Mäki-Reini works in Wärtsilä’s Energy Solutions division where they build engines for power plants to power cities and heavy industry. Although Wärtsilä has 18,000 employees in 70 countries, it concentrates on engines and buys in most non-moving and welded parts from suppliers. Mäki-Reini doesn’t know exactly how many suppliers Wärtsilä has but estimates there are likely more than a thousand. He shows a visiting journalist a map charting Wärtsilä suppliers. The world, reduced to the size of his laptop’s screen, looks as if it’s suffered a measles outbreak: there are dots everywhere, sometimes on top of each other.

The quest for quality
Over millions of cycles, Wärtsilä engines vibrate and turn on their base plates. The welding in the base plates must be near perfect: any defect will cause cracks. Yet since base plates weigh tens of tons, they are preferably welded locally in the faraway lands where the power plants are constructed. It’s to Wärtsilä’s advantage to use as many local contractors as possible, but not every supplier can meet Wärtsilä standards. It’s Mäki-Reini’s job to find those who can. He visits every current and potential supplier about once per year. “I have a quality capability checklist,” he says. “If a supplier meets a minimum 70 percent of the criteria then they can be accepted with some corrective actions. 80 percent is considered ‘good.’”

The news isn’t always positive. Mäki-Reini holds up a document far enough away that the journalist can only make out red and black text. The journalist leans in for a closer look but Mäki-Reini pulls it away. “Sorry, top secret,” he says. The journalist notes that there is a lot of red on the page. “Would it be fair to say that half of potential suppliers don’t make the cut?”

This year 70 percent of those inspected have been approved. “It’s a very good year,” Mäki-Reini says. “Last year it was only 55 percent.” He’s pleased the number is so high but notes that the relationships aren’t necessarily forever — suppliers can be cut. Quality sometimes falls when a company’s management changes. “In 2014 we had a supplier that was selling us steel structures. But when I visited in 2017 they had a new managing director who wanted to save money. They’d fired the welding coordinator, maintenance was poor, and they met only 56 percent of our requirements. I had to reject them.”

Welding is art
“Welding is an art,” says Mäki-Reini. In order to make money, the supplier needs quality at what Mäki-Reini terms “the correct level” — not too poor, but not too good. “We don’t waste money on perfection; just fulfill the requirements.”

Visual inspection results may be fine but a destructive test is conducted – a fillet weld test piece is broken to make sure the root has melted. “Welders have to follow the WPS [Welding Procedure Specification] and this is supported by a WPQR [Welding Procedure Qualification Record],” says Mäki-Reini. But he notes following the directions isn’t as simple as it might sound. “There are in total 164 standards in welding which amount to around 8,200 pages of text.”

Mäki-Reini will break apart a fillet weld and examine the heat affected zone, as well as the root. “Most cracks start at the root. If there’s a flaw in the weld, the product will crack in under a couple thousand running hours.”

Welding is communication
“Many companies only check visually,” Mäki-Reini says. “They don’t know any better. And it sometimes happens that management may not understand the requirements and push the welders to work faster and faster.”

“In manufacturing there’s sometimes a communications gap between the office and the factory floor. ‘Upstairs they didn’t tell us anything about that,’ I’ll hear. The gap is physical, too, because the office is literally upstairs.”

Mäki-Reini has a lot of respect for welders and he knows what they’re capable of. He’s qualified twice as a welder, though after 32 years in the business his eyes are no longer what they used to be. “Welders are good and they’ll solve the problem, but the result isn’t always satisfactory. Welders may not know what’s behind the drawings, and so they need support from the welding coordinator. To produce our products requires a team like an orchestra. If one musician is playing poorly then the result is poor.”

Bad guy or consultant?
In order for a factory orchestra to play to its full potential, Mäki-Reini occasionally finds himself in the role of consultant. “I organize three-day training sessions where we bring together management, the design department, and the workers. We do it in the local language so nothing gets lost in translation.”

Other times he simply offers a new perspective on an old problem. “I bring fresh eyes and I can see things that they cannot see.”

But is he welcomed as an inspector? Is he loved or hated? “Depending on how they view things, suppliers either see me as the bad guy or a free consultant,” he says. “The companies understand my job.”

But if a supplier is required to meet 70 percent of Mäki-Reini’s requirements, the journalist asks, how are welding inspectors judged? The answer seems to be results. Mäki-Reini has been with Wärtsilä for five-and-a-half years and so far there have been no cracks caused by poor welding. “Knock on wood,” he smiles.