Thursday, 14 November 2019

MoD Materials Quality Assurance Directorate

MoD Materials Quality Assurance Directorate 
Bruce Blissett

Introduction. 
In November 1966 I joined the General Chemicals Laboratory in MQAD as an industrial analytical chemist experienced in the quality control of a wide variety of materials and chemical products.  The General Chemicals Laboratory was one of a group of laboratories on Frog Island forming the then named Directorate of Chemical Inspection.  This paper gives a very brief history of the Royal Arsenal, the Directorate and an outline of just some of the work undertaken in the General Chemicals Laboratory.

The Origins of the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich.
The launch of the ship Henri Grace √£  Dieu in October 1515, marked the beginning of the Royal Dockyard at Woolwich which was so important in the founding of King Henry VIII's navy.  A rope yard serving the dockyard was built between 1573 and 1576 by the builder Thomas Allen and was situated on land adjacent to the present day Beresford Street.  Thomas Allen also erected a store house close to the Thames shore and Bell Water Gate.  There was also a slipway, wharf, warehouse and gunyard where ordnance from ships could be housed while awaiting reallocation.

During the conflict with the Dutch, the storehouse on the gunwharf was found to be too small and in 1671, the Crown bought an old manor house named Tower House (later named Tower Place) and its associated land in order to accommodate a store keeper and to build a powder house and store for saltpetre (potassium nitrate).  The purchase of Tower Place together with 31 acres of land for use as an ordnance storage depot really marks the beginning of what was to become the Royal Arsenal.  The Royal Arsenal expanded in a piecemeal fashion until in 1907 it was 3 miles long and up to 1 mile wide.

A Brief History of the Directorate.
During the seventeenth century, the office of the Ordnance Chemist was established which, in the latter part of its existence, served in the Royal Arsenal until it was abolished in 1826.  Following the discovery of guncotton (nitrocellulose) and nitro-glycerine in the 1840s however,  the need was felt in the War Office for the expertise of a chemist and in 1854, a young man named Frederick Abel who, two years earlier had succeeded Michael Faraday as Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, was recruited into the post of Ordnance Chemist.  The title Ordnance Chemist was later changed to War Department Chemist.

The War Department Chemist was responsible for the inspection of an extraordinary range of materials including gunmetal, saddlery, hay and 'energetic materials' such as gunpowder,.  Frederick Abel (later Sir Frederick Abel) was noted for his major role in the development of cordite (a mixture of nitro-glycerine and nitrocellulose) as a propellant for ammunition.  He devised a heat stability test for explosives which, to my knowledge, is still in use today and Abel's flash point apparatus fortesting the flammability of flammable liquids such as petroleum products.  Abel's flash point test using apparatus to his original design remains the reference method for testing low flash point fuels to the British IP (Institute of Petroleum) and American ASTM test methods.  In 1888, Sir Frederick Abel GCVO, KCB was succeeded by Dr. W. Kellner. In 1904, a separate Chemical Research Department was created and in 1909, the War Department Chemist became part of the Armament Inspection Department under the new title Chemist, Inspection Department. At the start of the First World War, the department had only 12 staff but this number needed to be increased to more than 150 with new laboratories opening in other parts of the country.  The range of materials for which the department was responsible also greatly increased due largely to the advent of chemical warfare.  In 1917, the title Chemist, Inspection Department was again changed to Directorate of Chemical Inspection and was changed yet again to War Department Chemist in 1920.  The rearmament programme of 1935 led to the recruitment of more staff at Woolwich and after more than 80 years service, the laboratory block (Building 20), still largely to the original design of Sir Frederick Abel was considered inadequate and new laboratories were built on Frog Island where the Arsenal canal once formed a loop.  There they remained until 1971 when the buildings were evacuated to allow the land to be handed over to the Greater London Council.  The laboratories were finally housed in a badly designed and cheaply built modern laboratory block.

In 1939, the department's name was changed to Chief Chemical Inspectorate and during the Second World War staff numbers exceeded 1600. 1952 saw yet another name change to Director of Chemical Inspection or Chemical Inspection Directorate (CID).  Gales of laughter would often be heard at the other end of a telephone line if someone answered, "Hello, this is the CID!".  The never-ending title changes continued, for in 1970, we became known as the Quality Assurance Directorate (Materials), abbreviated to QAD/Mats.  This title was considered too easily confused with that of our sister department; Quality Assurance Directorate (Ordnance), abbreviated to QAD/Ord and in 1972 we were renamed Materials Quality Assurance Directorate, abbreviated to MQAD.

MQAD provided technical expertise and quality assurance of material supplies for the army, navy and air force.  It had a chief director and three assistant directors.  Each assistant director headed a division and these were: E (explosives), P (polymers) and G (general).  Each division was sub-divided into branches so that E division had two branches covering explosives and propellants while P division had branches covering papers, rubbers, plastics materials, paints and adhesives.  The General Division had branches covering metals, petrol, oils and lubricants, and general chemicals which was the branch and laboratory in which I worked.  There were also the Analytical Development laboratories which assessed new analytical techniques and a Central Packaging Unit situated in Plumstead.

The General Chemicals Laboratory, like Sir Frederick Abel's original laboratory, was responsible for analysing or otherwise testing an enormous range of materials.  More than one thousand different items were covered including various leathers, insecticides, pesticides, insect repellents, desiccants, sealants (lutings), bleaching powder, camouflage cream, soap, detergents, disinfectants, inks, corrosion inhibitors, derusting solutions, anodizing solutions, plating solutions, solder fluxes, degreasing compounds, ullage and water finding pastes, abrasive blasting grits, shell linings, respirator filters, organic and inorganic wood preservatives, polishes, wax and edible candles, aircraft thrust augmentation fluids, runway de-icing fluids, solvents and pure chemicals.  Samples for chemical analysis from the other branches of MQAD would also be tested and the laboratory provided a free analytical service for the whole of the MoD. 

At the end of my interview for a job in the Royal Arsenal, I asked to see the laboratory in which I would work if I were to be accepted.  I was shown the laboratory during the lunch hour and while it had a slightly unusual layout and generous provision of fume cupboards and fume extractors, the most striking difference from all other laboratories I had seen was the cleanliness and order of the place. 

All surfaces in laboratories where ammonia solution is used as a reagent become coated in a white film of ammonium salts but this laboratory had clean windows, reagent bottles, burettes, pipettes and other glass equipment. The benches and cupboards were varnished and clean and even the glazing of the fume cupboards was clean and transparent.  It was all so different from the typical cramped, poorly maintained and grubby little sweatshop that I had become accustomed to in private industry.  I decided there and then, to accept the job if it were offered even though it would mean a substantial cut in salary.

It took over three months, during which time I was given a thorough medical examination and was vetted for security clearance, before I actually started work.  After starting work, I soon found out why the laboratory was so clean, orderly and well maintained for although it was staffed entirely by civilians one sensed the discipline normally associated with the armed forces.  Every week there would be an inspection by the Chemist in Charge and his deputy for tidiness, cleanliness and equipment maintenance.  The nine or ten bench-working chemists were supported by three industrial staff who would keep the floor, laboratory furniture and glassware clean as well as maintaining the supply of general reagents, solvents and demineralised water.  Industrial staff would also wash the more robust laboratory glassware such as flasks and beakers provided the chemists had brought it to a state where it could 'easily" be washed with water.  Some of the physical testing would be carried out by industrial staff.

In those days the MoD seemed to take a serious interest in the quality and value for money of the materials that industry supplied and there were two main routes by which the quality of procured materials was controlled.  Larger companies, which had their own quality control laboratories, could gain approval to supply goods while issuing their own certificates of inspection (MoD forms 640 or Release Notes).  Such firms would first have to be assessed by a senior member of scientific staff who would agree a scope of approval with the firm and interview the firm's nominated inspector before the company could be registered under the Approved Firms' Inspection scheme.  The laboratories of these companies would be visited at least twice per year (unless they had not released any products to the MoD or sub contractors in the last six months) and probably a material sample taken for correlation check testing.  Check samples of products would also be taken from Central Ordnance Depots after delivery and tested for specification compliance.

Smaller firms ranging down to a man in a garage with scales, a mixing drum, four bricks and a gas ring, could also supply to the MoD by having his product sampled and tested by the General Chemicals Laboratory, which, if the product complied with the specification, would issue the certificate of inspection.  These small firms were very valuable because, with such low overhead expenses, their products were cheaper and they were also able to supply against small contracts for specialised chemical products.

From time to time, the MoD would find successful new products which naturally would be proprietories and usually expensive.  If the MoD started buying large enough quantities of such a product not covered by patents, a sample would be sent to the General Chemicals Laboratory where it would be analysed and a laboratory-made sample of an equivalent product sent back to the user for approval.  Provided the user found the equivalent product satisfactory, a specification including the laboratory formulation for the new product would be written and offered to manufacturers for tendering against contracts to supply.  The money saved by doing this covered the running costs of the General Chemicals Laboratory.

While the pressure of work remained high because we were made very aware that the time taken in testing goods awaiting issue of a certificate of inspection would be, in effect, costing our suppliers money, the main emphasis was placed on the accuracy and reliability of our test results in our role as a referee test house.  This was in stark contrast to my experiences in private industry where speed was always most important and as long as test results were reliable enough to enable decisions to made, accuracy was unimportant.  The only exception to this rule was when the company received a contract under the MoD Approved Firms' Inspection scheme.

It was very interesting to be gaining expertise in testing such a large range of products but the most satisfying work was analysing new products, devising methods of test for inclusion in new specifications or improving existing analytical procedures.


On the 1st April 1984, the Materials Quality Assurance Directorate ceased to provide a direct service to the Master General of the Ordnance and its predecessors - a break in tradition going back 130 years.

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