“I developed a high level of respect for those who welded for a living.”

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Robert E. Shaw, Jr., PE (Michigan), President, Steel Structures Technology Center, Inc.

  1. Could you brief us about yourself? 

I’m celebrating 50 years in the steel construction industry, having started in 1973 as a college student working as an intern for a large structural steel fabricator in my hometown. I grew up involved in construction. My father was a painting contractor, did residential construction, and became a project manager for a major office building renovation. I worked as a teenager in all three roles, and that hands-on experience helped set my path. I graduated with BS in Civil Engineering from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a small university focused on engineering and science. I followed this with a degree in Business Management. 

On a personal note, I’ve been married to my wife Diane for 48 years, and have two sons and two grandsons. 

  1. What made you develop your interest in the structural steel and welding industries

My summer internship working for a steel fabricator began my passion for steel construction. They provided on-the job training and put me to work detailing, with plenty of guidance. Returning to Rose-Hulman, I began to detail small projects for a local steel fabricator, and soon had my own drafting machine and put a drafting table in my apartment. My next summer back at MVSS, I was designing connections, with guidance, for a large power plant.

My summer experiences brought several offers from structural design and steel construction firms, but I chose to stay with MVSS, and began a formal two-year training program that had me studying shop operations, working onsite at a steel mill powerhouse we were erecting, doing structural design for local industrial projects, and project management. 

I was sent to attend a week-long Design of Welded Structures seminar given by Omer Blodgett at Lincoln Electric in Cleveland. Upon return from that seminar, I was tasked with giving a lunch-time seminar on welding to our office staff and shop leadership. My first industry teaching experience, and I still have the handout I created.

After completion of my formal training, I moved into local sales, and then into sales engineering for projects in the Upper Midwest, preparing estimates and bids for numerous large projects in metropolitan Chicago and around the Midwest. I was now seeing the big picture, and the passion for steel construction grew. When our fabrication shop went on an extended strike, I was trained to weld SMAW and helped maintain production in the plant. I developed a high level of respect for those who welded for a living.

Eventually, as the economy slowed, steel construction slowed, and the plant where I worked was to be shut down. Fortunately, AISC was looking for people to serve as Regional Engineers, promoting structural steel, helping structural engineers use structural steel effectively and economically, and helping steel fabricators and erectors improve their business and operations. I joined AISC, moved to the Detroit Michigan area, and took responsibility for Michigan, Ohio, and half of Kentucky. I met and worked with great people, including many industry leaders.

A restructuring of AISC in the mid-80s had me change positions at AISC, and I was one of three staff assigned the task of teaching design professionals and industry people about the new way to design steel structures – Load and Resistance Factor Design (LRFD). The three of us travelled the country holding numerous seminars and taught with some of the country’s best educators and design professionals. After a couple of years focused on LRFD, the Education staff then continued with creating and holding seminars on specific topics. I focused on those areas I knew best, and had a passion for – welding, bolting, inspection, and quality requirements.

In 1990, I left AISC and started my own company, the Steel Structures Technology Center, Inc. (SSTC). I saw an unmet need for specialized education for the steel construction industry in the same four inter-related areas – welding, bolting, inspection, and quality requirements – my true passions. In teaching steel construction and standards, I found it essential to learn the background behind the existing standards, joined committees, and became a part of the process of improving existing standards and writing new standards. I found that to be both professionally rewarding and of benefit to the industry.

  1. You are currently the President of Steel Structures Technology Center, Inc. Can you brief us more on the company? 

I formed SSTC in 1990 after working for AISC for 9-1/2 years. I wanted to return to my passion for construction, whereas I had been spending considerable time teaching design and construction to design professionals. I felt the need to improve both steel construction practices and inspection practices, and created seminars on those subjects and gave those around the United States. It was this work that led me to become directly involved in the standards that I was teaching and make them better. Because code books are rarely available except in the construction office, if at all, I wrote handbooks for both the workers and the inspectors to give them, in their hip pocket ,the essentials of what they needed to know, We eventually switched from live seminars to recorded seminars to make them more accessible to everyone, on their schedule. So the SSTC business has three key elements – handbooks and other forms of written industry support, online seminars with occasional live seminars when requested, and the consulting practice as described below.

  1. What are your expansion plans? 

We have no plans for further expansion, as we are fully occupied with the current workload, and at age 69, the emphasis is on preparing the business to be sustainable and ready to be passed down to the next generation.

  1. You hold a vast experience which includes steel construction quality and inspection, welded joints in steel structures, high strength bolted joints, remediation of deficient structures, fitness for purpose of welded joints, etc. Can you share some of the interesting projects you have worked on? 

Much of my consulting work is to resolve issues or disputes during construction, including welding problems (typically production difficulties, quality issues, or cracking), bolting problems (typically installation issues or bolt failures), and other quality problems that require a fitness-for-purpose approach. Because most of the projects are related to problems that needed to be solved, usually quickly, I prefer not to reveal specifics on any project, but can provide some examples.

  1. A large project was nearing completion of fabrication, and the delivery date was approaching. An inspector had noted that some of the larger sections were being welded with preheat well below that shown on the Welding Procedure Specification (WPS), bringing into question the quality of the welded joints that had been completed already and the steel members that were about to be delivered to the jobsite. The WPS was written satisfying AWS D1.1 prequalification requirements, including the minimum preheat from the D1.1 tables for the grade and thickness of steel. The project engineer was considering rejecting all the completed steel. We used data from the material test reports for the steel to determine carbon equivalency using a variety of methods, the diffusible hydrogen level of the welding wire (fortunately in the range of H3), preheat calculation methods from ISO/TR 17844, adopted as modified as AWS D14.8M, AWS D1.1 Annex B with refinement of the large-step tables, and numerous research papers on hydrogen-assisted cracking and HAZ hardness levels. In addition to the analytic approach, several mock-ups of various critical welded assemblies were welded using representative material of the same thicknesses, in the same position, in the same sequence, without preheat. These mock-ups were then sectioned at every weld, with hardness traverses near the surface and near the root, verifying that the resultant as-welded hardness in the heat-affected zone (HAZ) and in the weld itself were below critical levels. The sections were also polished and macro-etched, enabling visual verification of weld size, penetration, fusion, and freedom from cracks. Through calculation and through physical evidence, the completed welded members were accepted and installed.
  1. A large weldment using primarily 100 mm thick plate had significant welding, but the issue was not welding, but cracking that occurred in the parent metal starting from thermal cut edges in the plate. The cut edges had minimal surface roughness and no gouges or other defects. There were no directly applied loads to the cut surfaces, they were not in close proximity to the welds being made, and the radius of the holes was large, typically 150 mm or greater. The cracks initiated from the cut surface and did not arrest until reaching another hole or a welded joint, typically 300 mm or more away from the point of initiation. Because time was of the essence, with delivery dates approaching, there was no time for forensic examinations. It was believed that the crack-driving source of stress was from thermal expansion created by preheating prior to welding joints located about 500 mm away, creating a temperature differential between the cut surface and the preheated area of around 200°C. AWS and AISC codes had no requirements for preheating thermal cut edges except for very limited applications such as weld access holes. A search located previous guidelines on preheating prior to thermal cutting written decades earlier and published in Australia, but the guidelines were never adopted as code requirements in any national standard. The high hardness of the thermal cut edge, combined with micro-cracking in the HAZ from cooling after cutting that created the sharp notch and poor mechanical properties, allowed the micro-crack to propagate under the stress applied. Procedures were written to successfully repair the cracks that did propagate. Procedures were also written for treatment of the uncracked thermal cut surfaces, including grinding the existing surfaces of previously cut surfaces in the plate to a depth sufficient to remove existing micro-cracks and to have a surface hardness at a sufficiently low level, closer to that of the parent material. In new work, preheating of the plate prior to thermal cutting was implemented, with subsequent hardness testing and magnetic particle testing of the cut surfaces. No further cracks occurred after these procedures were implemented.
  1. A mid-rise building with welded column splices had already been erected. When the building’s twin was being erected next to the first buil,lding, it was discovered that the welders were using a welding wire of a lower strength than that required for the new higher-strength steel grade that was being used for both buildings. As the buildings were in a seismic region, a full-strength complete joint penetration groove welded splice was needed. An analysis was done of the expected tensile strength of the completed welds using the lower strength wire, using both the manufacturer’s datasheets and certifications, as well as the WPSs used by the erector. This was compared to the actual tensile strengths of the steel columns using the steel mill’s material test reports (MTRs) for each heat of steel. At was determined that, at each splice level, the total as-welded strength using the lower strength wire exceeded the actual total strength of the steel column members, and the structure was accepted as-welded.

As one can see, reliance upon code provisions alone is rarely adequate when things go wrong. The codes are typically conservative, and a fitness-for purpose approach can and should be used to ensure structural integrity. Welding codes are often based on old rules that state how good a weld should be, often by appearance, and not how good it has to be to perform in service. Repairing or retrofitting the structure to meet the conservative code requirements could be needlessly expensive, could significantly delay the project, and in some cases, may be impossible.

  1. What steps are followed for erection of structural steel?

Every project is unique, and even if it appears routine, there is usually a special challenge to be solved. The most important aspects are 1) plan, plan again, and plan some more, 2) get good, knowledgeable people to supervise the work, and 3) get good, competent people to perform the work. Although the ironworkers erecting the structure have developed considerable skills over time, there can be time constraints, limited availability of equipment and tools, and the occasional person who “has always done it this way” but is doing it incorrectly. This has taken me to many jobsites to recommend the best approach for remediation. 

  1. What are your key considerations during inspection of material? 

Material, meaning steel, welding consumables, and bolting components and assemblies, are rarely the problem when issues arise. If we include the fabricated product or erected product as material, then there are considerably more items to consider, but rarely are the materials of the fabricated or erected product the problem.

Inspection of material, however it is defined, is not the most important issue to ensure the quality required for the project. Poor quality is usually a matter of the worker not following proper procedures, or perhaps not planning in advance how to complete a difficult connection. These items are rarely addressed in an Inspection and Testing Plan {ITP). 

Inspection after it is completed only finds what was obviously done incorrectly, and many aspects of the work cannot be inspected or verified after completion. Inspection should focus on observation of the work as it is being performed. Observation can be and should be part of an ITP, focusing on the most difficult tasks or connections, and focusing on the most critical joints and welds. There is little need to observe every connection and every operation. The focus should be on those connections and operations that greatly affect structural integrity. If needed, have these identified by the Structural Engineer.

A second benefit of routine observation of the work is identifying the personnel whose level of competence or skill is below that required to do the work. This can be as simple as observing the welder making a weld, particularly if the weld is in a more difficult position. If a bolted connection, observe the attention paid to selecting the proper bolt, snugging the joint before pretensioning, use of the wrench, and the use of the prescribed technique or method for achieving the proper pretension.

The most important aspect of quality is having trained and skilled personnel, following the instructions of trained, qualified, and experienced supervision, available on the shop floor or on the jobsite, constantly guiding and monitoring the work. Inspection is a method of last resort.

  1. You hold a key role in the standards activities of the American Institute of Steel Construction, American Welding Society, Research Council on Structural Connections, and ISO. Please elaborate. 

Although I had taught steel construction and welding standards, there were many areas I thought were questionable or could be improved. I became involved with AWS and the RCSC in their standards soon after starting SSTC. 

About a year after the Northridge Earthquake of 1994, I became involved with the SAC Joint Venture, with the task of advising on welding, bolting, inspection, nondestructive testing (NDT), and other quality issues. I served as Lead Guideline Writer for the FEMA 353 Recommendations.

This work led to close involvement with AISC, as the FEMA 353 recommendations became part of the AISC 341 Seismic Provisions and the newly created AISC 358 on Prequalified Moment Connections. I also supported AISC TC9 on Seismic Systems, AISC TC6 on Connection Design, and was part of the newly created AISC TC12 on Quality Control and Quality Assurance. In 2000, I became a member of the AISC Specifications Committee. To make room for younger people, with the completion of the 2022 AISC Specification, I stepped back from my role on the AISC Specifications Committee and the TCs, and was given the honor of Emeritus status. 

At AWS, I led work to initiate a new document on existing welded structures and was named to the AWS D1 Committee in 1996. I also took an active role in the development of AWS D1.8, the Seismic Supplement to AWS D1.1, and now chair the committee. 

At RCSC, I have shifted my role form technical work to be in a leadership position, serving as vice-chair, to help bring new ideas and projects into the organization. I also continue my service with ASTM Committee F16 Fasteners, focusing on standards related to structural bolting product standards, such as ASTM F3125.

I joined the effort to write an ISO standard on steel construction in ISO/TC 167 Steel and Aluminium Structures. The new draft standard modelled using EN 1090-2. After several years and a failed DIS ballot, I assumed the role of Project Leader, expanded the work to incorporate the best of several national standards, and the six-part ISO 17607 Steel structures — Execution of structural steelwork is out for FDIS ballot as I complete this interview.

  1. You are also contributing immensely to uplifting the Welding Industry. As Chair for Commission XV (2006–2015) and Commission XVIII (formerly SC-QUAL) since 2013, you have provided leadership in setting the direction for and guiding two IIW working units. You also serve on the IIW Board of Directors. Can you brief more on the same, and your role in Welding Industry?

After attending a few Annual Assemblies of the International Institute of Welding, I quickly learned there were great innovations and ideas from people and countries around the globe that were not being considered in the USA. As examples, Commission XIII on Fatigue of Welded Components and Structures offered information on a broader range of fatigue details, and new fatigue life extension methods. These were discussed in IIW and offered a tremendous benefit to not only the USA but globally. I brought those, and many more, ideas and research results back to the USA for consideration and inclusion in our standards and practices. There is always resistance to adopting things not developed within your own country, but the improvement in our practice has been worth the effort, as I see industry and other users applying these methods. 

In Commission XV on Design, Analysis and Fabrication of Welded Structures, following the Northridge USA earthquake of 1994 and the Great Hanshin (Kobe) Japan earthquake of 1995, I worked cooperatively with global experts on seismic performance of welded joints, leading to a recommendation document on evaluating welded connections in steel structures for seismic performance.

After serving as the recording secretary and assistant to eminent Prof. Adolf Hobbacher of Germany, Chair of Commission XV, I was elected to succeed him as Chair in 2006, and served in that position for three terms of three years each. 

I started attending meetings of SC-QUAL Quality Management in 2007, learning and absorbing much about what was then principally the European systems and approaches to quality, especially through personnel and company qualification and certification schemes. In 2013, I was elected Chair of SC-QUAL, and worked to broaden the discussion into new areas and systems outside the European systems, which were also IIW systems. The development of recommendations for a Welding Inspector, something outside the European system, led to a draft ISO specification. The Select Committee became Commission XVIII in order to develop relevant ISO standards. The draft failed to become a standard, but the resulting document is an IIW Best Practice. I will continue to serve as Chair of Commission XVIII until my term expires in 2025.

In 2020, I was nominated to serve as a Director on the IIW Board of Directors and was elected to that position. After two years, in 2022, I was elected by my peers to serve as a Vice-President, serving a three year-term in that position. 

With active participation in IIW, many close personal friendships have been made, and many additional connections have been made with technical experts and organizations around the world. IIW indeed expanded my technical knowledge and my career to a global level. I can truly say that, in addition to my passion for steel construction and welding, I have a passion for IIW as an organization.

  1. What type of international standards for welding quality management are been practiced in USA?

Few international (ISO) standards are actually practiced in the welding industry in the USA. The American Welding Society has produced a very broad and robust set of standards that cover a wide range of applications, and that satisfies the USA marketplace. Those companies that make products for the global marketplace usually work to include the requirements for both AWS and ISO standards. We are seeing AWS adopt some standards that are ISO produced, with modification, and in some cases, we also have AWS standards incorporated in ISO standards.

AWS has certification programs related to specific welding functions, including welding personnel, welding supervisors, welding inspectors, and welding engineers. AWS also offers a Certified Welding Fabricator program. Specifically in the field of quality management for welding, AWS is studying the possibility of adding welding coordination, similar to ISO 14731 Welding coordination: Tasks and responsibilities. 

In the opposite direction, many other countries are adopting practices for welding inspection based upon the IIW work, particularly that of Commission XVIII that included considerations for the approaches of not only the AWS but other global organizations. The IIW’s International Authorization Board (IAB) is working on implementing education, training, qualification, and certification for welding inspectors. In ISO, welding inspection is a part of welding coordination.

  1. What is your say on the Indian welding market scenario? 

I see a vibrant welding community in India. I hear about the many things that IIW India has done to promote the welding industry, especially in the areas of welding education and training. India has a significant steel industry, the second largest in the world, behind only China, and larger than that of Japan, the United States, the Russian Federation, the Republic of Korea, and the others. Steel construction has significant benefits that have yet to be fully realized in India, but the industry continues to grow. Manufacturing continues to grow, making a broad range of products — vehicles, vessels, ships, and machinery, for examples — down to the smallest parts and components. Good things are to come.

  1. Closing note?

I’ve made three visits to India. My first was in 2008, to present a lecture and a seminar at an IIW Congress in Chennai. This was immediately followed by a five-city (Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, Kolkata, Delhi) lecture series for the Institute for Steel Development & Growth (INSDAG). My second visit was to attend the 64th Annual Assembly and International Conference of the IIW, held in Chennai. My third visit was to present the IIW India / American Welding Society Lecture Series VII on Structural Welding: Design and Specification: Construction of Steel Structures, discussing both AWS D1.1:2010 and IS 800. That series was held in nine cities: Baroda, Trichi, Delhi, Pune, Cochin, Bhilai, Chennai, Kolkata, and Mumbai.
I look forward to returning to India in January 2024.to attend and present at the 6th IIW International Congress to be held in Bengaluru.