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  Quality Standards Outlook

A Riveting Tale of Nonconformances

The greatest maritime disaster ever may have resulted from nonconforming product.

by Jim Mroz

Did you know that many ISO 9000 registrars got their start long ago inspecting ships for seaworthiness? Maritime inspectors working in the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Ireland, in 1912 might have found ISO 9001 registration beneficial. And they might have gained reassurance had ISO 9002 been used at the D. Colvilles and Co. steelworks outside Glasgow, Scotland, in 1910. Recent discoveries indicate that the loss of the Titanic -- the greatest maritime disaster ever -- may have resulted from nonconforming product, not collision with an iceberg (although the iceberg is still a culprit).

In 1996, Polaris Imaging Inc. explored the Titanic wreckage using low-frequency sonar to scan the damaged hull. Instead of a 300-foot gash, six lateral openings equal to the area of a closet door were found. Studies of steel plates recovered from the ship suggest that the 2,000 plates used in the hull varied in quality.

On Feb. 10, 1998, Tim Foecke of the National Institute of Standards and Technology published a paper concerning a metallurgical study of iron rivets recovered from the ship. His research indicates that the rivets' microstructure may have contributed to their failure on April 14, 1912. Theoretically, the rivets could have popped along the hull's seams where the ship collided against the iceberg.

Foecke found that, unlike standard wrought-iron rivets containing 2 percent slag, the Titanic's rivets had up to 9 percent, which made them brittle. In addition, the streaks of slag in the rivets didn't follow the normal pattern, which also weakened the metal.

Regrettably, the White Star Line and Harland & Wolff, which built the Titanic in 19101912, didn't have the inspection and testing technology we have today. Implementation and registration to ISO 9001 and ISO 9002 would have benefited the three parties implicated in the disaster for several reasons:

nIf D. Colvilles and Co. had registered to ISO 9002, it would have developed a quality system containing at least two elements to help prevent inconsistent rivets. Clause 4.9, which deals with process control, would have required the company to document its production procedures as well as outline criteria for workmanship, standards and code compliance, and provisions for continuous monitoring and process control if later product inspection and testing proved ineffective.

Clause 4.10, covering inspection and testing, would have required the steelworks to document that customer requirements for the product were met and that inspection and testing would occur throughout production.

  Likewise, if Harland & Wolff had been registered to ISO 9001, its quality system would have contained at least two elements to prevent disaster. First, it would have implemented a quality system per Clause 4.2 to ensure that the company met customer requirements, even if this meant "the updating ... of any quality control, inspection and testing techniques, including the development of new instrumentation."

Second, per Clause 4.6, Harland & Wolff's purchasing processes would have ensured that products conformed to specified requirements. The company would have evaluated D. Colvilles' ability to meet subcontract requirements and "verified purchased product at the subcontractor's premises." A visit to D. Colvilles might have exposed a production process gone awry.

  If the White Star Line had been registered to ISO 9001, it would have implemented, as part of its management responsibilities specified in Clause 4.1, a companywide quality policy relevant to its customers' needs. The Titanic's customers purchased tickets for passage on a luxury liner capable of speed, durability and safety; the ship failed to meet two customer needs.

And while the shipyard played a major role in the Titanic's design, so did White Star. Clause 4.4, which specifies design control processes, would have established "documented procedures to control and verify the design of the product," and obligated the company to perform design verification at appropriate stages and approve all changes and modifications.

If the design control processes had taken into account the capabilities of the Titanic's plates and rivets, the White Star Line could have designed the ship with enough lifeboats for passengers and to operate at a safe travel speed that would have allowed maneuvering to avoid icebergs.

On April 14, 1912, neither standardized quality system requirements nor today's means to verify product quality existed.  Metaphorically speaking, it's not icebergs but rather nonconforming rivets produced outside quality systems that must bear the greatest blame for any titanic disaster.


About the author

Jim Mroz is senior editor of The Informed Outlook, a twice-monthly newsletter providing information on ISO 9000, QS-9000 and ISO 14000, published by INFORM (International Forum for Management Systems Inc.), 15913 Edgewood Drive, Montclair, VA 22026; telephone (703) 680-1436, fax (703) 680-1356, e-mail


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