In the late 1980s, as the world was navigating through a post-Cold War environment, the term VUCA was introduced by the U.S. Army War College. It stood for the “volatility” and “uncertainty” of the era. It also signaled a global situation that was “complex” and, at times, “ambiguous.” As time passed and some semblance of stability returned, the acronym was repurposed by business leaders as a call for strategic responses when times are tough.
Today, the world again finds itself in unprecedented times where volatility and uncertainty are the norm. As a response, it is time for VUCA 2.0 – coined by a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School – where companies employ vision, understanding, courage and adaptability.
With this newly envisioned acronym in mind, one action that metal fabricating businesses can take is to begin the process of attaining certification as an American Welding Society (AWS) certified welding fabricator (CWF). The CWF certification conveys to a fabricator’s customers that they have the facility, personnel, equipment, procedures and know-how to produce welded components that comply with the applicable AWS welding codes and standards of their specialty or preference.
In a nutshell, it gives new customers the peace of mind that their fabrication needs are in good, capable hands. During times of uncertainly, there is no better form of future-proofing than clearly relaying to customers that their fabricator of choice has an established system in place to ensure the highest of quality.
According to Steven Snyder, staff welding specialist at AWS, the CWF certification is for domestic and international welding fabricators, job shops and manufacturing companies. It was established specifically for organizations that don’t require or benefit from acquiring other industry certifications, such as ISO 9001, ASME, API, NADCAP or AISC registration.
In terms of the prerequisites or business characteristics that define a good CWF candidate, an obvious choice is a company that already has a robust quality management system (QMS) in place as well as one that has qualified welders that are properly tested and certified and welding procedures that are properly documented.
“Each applicant is required to have a properly prepared QMS based on the AWS QC 17 Specification for AWS Accreditation of Certified Welding Fabricators, which is submitted to AWS for review prior to scheduling an on-site audit,” Snyder says. “Preceding this, the organization may need to conduct training of personnel, engage with a consultant to review their internal operations and provide a gap analysis for any areas that may need attention.”
Examples of areas that may need attention include how a company conducts contract review prior to fabrication and how that information is conveyed to a shop’s quality control team, welders or foreman, be it via an ERP system or through internal quality control checks. Additional areas that may need attention could also include how welding procedures are developed and controlled or how repairs are handled.
For those interested, the roadmap to achieving CWF certification starts with the implementation of a QMS or a review of a previously established QMS to determine whether it fully meets the requirements set forth by AWS. From there, the application process starts with the submission of a quality manual that documents the QMS, which is followed up with an on-site audit by an AWS auditor.
Overall, Snyder says the process takes, on average, about three to six months, depending on how much time and effort is dedicated on behalf of the business and if it is utilizing a consultant or requires extensive staff-internal training.
“From the time your QA manual and application with fees are submitted to AWS, it is typically four to six weeks before an auditor conducts the on-site audit,” he says. “The best advice I can give to someone that may be intimidated by the process is to just start. The hardest part of any major task or project is doing just that. Fortunately, there is a large network of AWS members, sections and online resources for supporting, guiding and suggesting how to develop and implement a QMS.”
When the term VUCA originally emerged, businesses around the world were looking for methods to enhance their chances at long-term success. Today’s businesses are looking to do the same. Clear messaging to customers is one way to do that.
When vetting a fabricator, seeing the AWS CWF certification on their website or hanging on the wall in their lobby serves as a helping hand for potential customers. And it could be even more helpful when vetting international suppliers where language barriers and unfamiliar standards or certifications are the norm.
“There are no shortages of companies that have or require fabrication in international locations for which they routinely seek out competent fabricators for their projects,” Snyder says. “The AWS CWF mark of excellence provides that needed assurance to companies or OEMs in various global industries, such as wind turbine tower fabrication, oil and gas subsuppliers of non-pressure retaining equipment, and ancillary components for substations, power plants or specialty fabrications.
“The CWF certification is truly an opportunity to have your fabrication operations recognized,” he stresses. “In many cases, the certification puts you at the top of the list for becoming an approved vendor for many organizations that understand what it means when the AWS CWF mark of excellence has been bestowed.”
For those in the know, the CWF certification relays two major differentiators: The fabricator has already been vetted and audited by AWS and the organization clearly understands the need for documented quality conformance.
“I have served as the project quality manager on many projects for major corporations, both domestic and abroad, and have been responsible for selecting or auditing vendors to provide fabrication for those projects,” Snyder adds. “I can say without hesitation that I would certainly put an AWS CWF at the top of the list for consideration.”
The benefits of a CWF certification, therefore, don’t just help the potential customer. Because the process of vetting a fabricator has been streamlined, it is easier for the CWF-certified fabricator to secure new and repeat business. It also streamlines the way they conduct business internally. For starters, a QMS requires a company to have an organizational chart with staff duties and responsibilities clearly defined and delineated.
“You could also save the amount of money this program costs just by doing proper contract review,” Snyder says. “I have witnessed projects where the contract specifications weren’t properly reviewed before they went into production, only to find out afterward that things were omitted or not properly documented, like the mapping of critical welds.”
As any fabricator knows, rework can cost significant time and money. Sometimes, however, poor quality work can also lead to safety issues. The CWF certification, therefore, helps to minimize liabilities. When product safety is jeopardized due to improper fabrication processes, it’s not uncommon for a customer to take legal actions against the fabricator.
“I have served as an expert witness in more than a few cases where, fortunately, for my clients, they never went to trial and were settled smoothly once the depositions were taken and reviewed by opposing council,” Snyder says. “However, it literally would have taken less than a week or so for a semi-skilled paralegal working on a case to come to the realization that the fabricator had not qualified or certified their welding personnel or that they hadn’t properly documented or qualified the welding procedure qualification records.”
In those cases or others where the fabricator had welds that failed or where property or personnel damage or injury is involved, someone must be held liable for such losses. Even if no one is injured, such as a case of poor quality delivered to the customer where it’s found contract specification or code requirements weren’t followed, the cost of the rework, repair or replacement of the nonconforming products can create a cost impact to the fabricator and the customer.
These types of concerns on top of an unprecedented pandemic, a war in Eastern Europe and the countless other volatile situations happening around the globe can leave many a business owner up at night. Anything and everything that can help a company stay afloat – for the long term – should be considered.
“That brings us back to VUCA,” Snyder says. “The business environment today is volatile and extremely complex. There’s so much ambiguity in it that as a business owner, you almost need to be strategizing on a daily basis. How do I get better? How can I continuously improve? And as it turns out, achieving CWF certification can be the roadmap a company needs to navigate through the uncertainty.”