Practitioner Profile: Ronald L. Barker, Jr.


Ronald L. Barker, Jr. started his NDT career during his time in the United States Marine Corps, and went on to perform nondestructive inspections for Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1),
which provides transportation for the president of the United States. Barker now works as the Principal NDE Level III at the NextEra Energy Point Beach, LLC nuclear plant. In addition to certifications and qualifications from many organizations, Barker holds ASNT NDT Level III certification in MT, PT, RT, and VT, and is certified Level II in UT. 

Q.  How did you begin your career in NDT?

A. My first exposure to NDT came in 1993 when I was in the United States Marine Corps, stationed in Okinawa, Japan. I was working as an aviation hydraulic/pneumatic mechanic, where we often had aircraft parts that would be sent to the Nondestructive Inspection (NDI) Lab for inspection. It was during those visits that I became interested in learning more about the methods they were using. A few years later, while stationed at Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1) in Quantico, Virginia, I had the opportunity to attend the Nondestructive Inspection School at NAS Millington in Millington, Tennessee. Upon the successful completion of the school, I returned to HMX-1 where I began my full-time career in the nondestructive inspection field. Later in life (and depending on the industry), the terminology changed and that later became the nondestructive testing field, and ultimately the nondestructive examination field.

Q.  Can you tell me more about your experience working with NDT in the military?

A. Performing NDT on military aircraft is unique in that there are only a few very specific inspections performed on each aircraft type. While the workload was fairly routine, as part of the airframes maintenance and inspection division, our number one job was to ensure the aircraft were maintained at a high level of readiness in order to be deployed at a moment’s notice. Being assigned to HMX-1 was an amazing experience that I will never forget. The primary mission of HMX-1 and the Executive Flight Detachment is to provide transportation for the president of the United States, the vice president, heads of states, and other VIPs as directed by the Marine Corps and the White House. During my time assigned to the squadron, I was fortunate enough to travel the world performing inspections on aircraft in direct support of the president of the United States. In a lot of ways, the actual NDT work was almost secondary to the logistics and preparation that went into supporting these operations, and while there are so many things that come to mind when I think about that experience, by far the most memorable part of that chapter in my life was a visit to the White House where I was introduced to the president in the Oval Office.

Q.  Can you tell us about your certification and training?

A. I am currently certified in accordance with ANSI/ASNT CP-189, holding ASNT NDT Level III certificates in magnetic particle testing (MT), liquid penetrant testing (PT), radiographic testing (RT), and visual testing (VT). I am also certified Level II in ultrasonic testing (UT). Additionally, I am an AWS-CWI and currently PDI (Performance Demonstration Initiative) qualified, through EPRI, to perform ultrasonic examinations on nuclear piping and bolting components in accordance with ASME Section XI. I have also previously held a Level II certification in electromagnetic testing (ET), was a certified Radiation Safety Officer, and have received training in thermal/infrared testing (IR) and vibration analysis (VA).

Q.  Describe the work you do now.

A. I have worked in many different industries, including aviation, chemical, petrochemical, paper production, structural, fossil power, hydropower, and nuclear power, as well as numerous fabrication shops. In my present role as the Principal NDE Level III at the NextEra Energy Point Beach, LLC nuclear plant, I am the site technical representative for all nondestructive examination activities, responsible for, among other things, the certification of qualified candidates in various methods, development of site NDE procedures, techniques and training outlines, and the review and approval of vendor procedures. Along with the administrative portions of my job, I provide oversight for our vendor and in-house personnel to help ensure that the exams they are performing are being done in accordance with the correct procedures and code requirements. During normal operations, visual and ultrasonic testing are probably the most common methods that are used at the plant.

Q.  What is your current working environment?

A. These days, most of my time is usually spent behind a desk, taking care of the programmatic side of things, but occasionally I do get the chance to make it back into the plant to help out with exams.

Q.  Tell us about your work in training and/or supervising NDT personnel? What characteristics do you think define a good NDT technician?

A. I have spent a good deal of time throughout my career providing on-the-job training opportunities for technicians that may be new to the field or less experienced in a particular method. During that time, I have seen varying degrees of ability and attitude in those technicians: some good, and some bad. I believe a good NDT technician is someone that understands the importance of why we perform the exams we do, internalizes it, and brings a high degree of confidence, integrity, and professionalism to the jobsite.

Q.  What's been your most interesting/unusual application of NDT? 

A. While I have had the opportunity to work in many industries and locations around the world, examining everything from storage tanks and paper machines to heat exchangers and helicopter parts, I would say the single-most interesting NDT application I have been involved with would have to be when a former employer was contracted to determine how much gold plating had bonded to the inside of an Inconel pipe. We were able to use IRIS (internal rotary inspection system) UT technology to observe velocity differences in the material to determine the percentage of bonding.

Q.  How has NDT changed during your career?

A. The biggest changes in NDT that I have seen would be the advancement of technology in the radiographic and ultrasonic methods. Having received a lot of my training in conventional RT and UT methods, it is amazing to see how ever-changing technologies have improved the quality and reliability of exam results when compared to those conventional techniques. I can hardly imagine what it will be like 10 years from now.

Q.  What trends do you see?

A. One trend that I have seen in some industries is that NDT is sometimes viewed as a necessary evil and an impact to a company’s bottom line. I believe that we as examiners have a responsibility to the general public to ensure that we are providing a cost-effective service to our customers that will ensure their product, whatever it may be, meets the quality standard that is required for safety and long-term reliability by industry standards and codes.

Q.  What do you consider the growth areas of NDT?

A. One area in particular where I see tremendous growth potential for NDT would be in the visual method utilizing drone technology. Drones can be and are being used in many different situations for a variety of reasons. In our line of work, simple visual examinations of items such as tanks and structures that would normally require the use of scaffolds or cranes for access can be done much quicker at a significantly lower cost. Our site is currently studying the feasibility of using this technology to improve some of our exam strategies and results while lowering overall costs. Of course, having a drone is not enough; having qualified individuals with the correct training and experience to ensure that necessary code requirements are being adhered to will be critical to the success of this endeavor.

Q.  Have you ever had or been an NDT mentor? How helpful have mentoring relationships been in your work?

A. I believe that mentoring is a vital part of the training required to become a successful NDT technician. Early in my career, I was fortunate enough to work alongside some very knowledgeable NDT folks who specialized in different industries that helped shape my future. Some of the best advice I ever received was to never quit learning. I firmly believe that is the cornerstone of being a good NDT technician, and I have tried to instill that in the individuals that I have mentored along the way.

Q.  What's the best part of NDT?

A. For me, the most rewarding aspect of NDT is knowing that the work I do and the exams that I perform help protect the health and safety of the public and ensure long-term equipment reliability. The two biggest things that were instilled in me as a novice NDT technician during the early days were to pay attention to detail and to put a high valuation on my signature. These two principles have been the foundation to my career and are something I strive to incorporate in my everyday activities. Whether performing eddy current inspections on helicopters that the president will be flying on or performing visual examinations of piping welds in a chemical plant, our line of work is extremely important in ensuring material quality and compliance with applicable codes and standards. We are often the last line of defense, and that is something that should never be taken lightly.

Q.  What's the most difficult part of NDT?

A. For me, the most difficult part of NDT comes during our outage seasons. More accurately, it isn’t necessarily difficult; the workload and pace just ramp up to unbelievably chaotic levels. During a typical outage, we bring in a supplemental staff of approximately 15 NDE technicians to help cover our workload. Along with that, we have an administrative staff of around five people just to make sure our daily schedules are met and the data keeps flowing to the correct individuals. Our small group has a piece of roughly 500 work orders throughout the outage covering everything from valve position verification, flow accelerated corrosion monitoring, inservice inspection of various piping components, valve replacements, heat exchanger eddy current, and much more. While it is a difficult schedule to maintain, we typically have a great crew of technicians and support staff to help us out.

Q.  What can industry do to encourage careers in NDT? What can ASNT do to assist and encourage technicians in their careers?

A. Tough question! ASNT does a great job in providing valuable resources, information, and networking opportunities for technicians but I’m not sure that employers, in general, do a good job in promoting that to newer individuals. If employers were able to empower new assistants or trainees to look at NDT as a potential career and not just a job, that would go a long way. How to do that is the real question. I have seen many instances where trainees or assistants are hired for one specific purpose and then never afforded the opportunity to branch out to other methods or advance in the one they are working in. In my experience, that tends to keep most people disinterested in advancing any further. Bottom line, I think if the employers can foster an environment that leads to folks wanting to stay engaged and learn more, that would be a good start towards encouraging careers in NDT.

Q.  What is the best way for a technician to advance his or her career in NDT?

A. I think there are many ways that someone could advance their career in NDT. Two that readily come to mind would be to seek out experience and learning opportunities and to not silo themselves in any particular method. For example, if you have a technician that is only certified to perform PT exams, while they might be able to make a living, they could be pretty limited in where their career could lead. On the other hand, if you have an individual who is certified in multiple methods, their marketability is much higher, making it easier to work in most industries. In this line of work, knowledge is power, and the more you have, the better off you will be.

Q.  What advice would you offer to individuals considering careers in NDT? 

A. Take the time to learn: not only from books and industry publications but, more importantly, from experienced technicians. Whether in a lab environment, an office setting, or in the field, there are many extremely knowledgeable people in our field of work; take the time to learn from their experiences. Doing this will help you to become a better technician and you likely have a much more successful career.

Ronald L. Barker, Jr. can be reached at ronald.barkerjr@nee.com or rbarkerjr@gmail.com.