More and more, aerospace primes like Lockheed, Boeing and Northup are demanding their suppliers pursue Nadcap accreditation for key processes. Eventually, if you’re selling something to these companies, you are going to see a Nadcap flowdown hit your door.

What does Nadcap even mean? Does it apply to you, or not? Let’s unpack this together.

Madcap Capslock

Nadcap used to be spelled in all caps — NADCAP — and stood for the North American Defense Contractors Accreditation Program. It’s managed exclusively by the Performance Review Institute (PRI) who later recognized that words like “North American” and “Defense Contractor” limited their potential customer base, so they dropped the caps and now use the word “Nadcap” as a name, not an acronym.

Nadcap accreditations are nearly always applied to what are called “special processes.” These are activities that typically can’t be inspected under normal or simple means, and thus are ripe for latent defects or failures only discovered after you’ve delivered the product and the customer has installed it. In the ISO 9001 and AS9100 world, these fall under the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them requirements under clause 8.5.1(f), which reads:

The organization shall implement production and service provision under controlled conditions. Controlled conditions shall include, as applicable: … the validation, and periodic revalidation, of the ability to achieve planned results of the processes for production and service provision, where the resulting output cannot be verified by subsequent monitoring or measurement.

Within the aerospace manufacturing industry, this typically means processes such as welding, soldering, coatings and platings. Welding is often considered a special process because you can’t be 100% sure of weld quality unless you do 100% XRF testing on every weld, which is nearly impossible. Platings, like chrome or anodize, can’t be 100% tested without potentially destroying the product.

The thinking is that special processes, since they can’t be inspected the same way as machined dimensions, require heightened controls. This typically means special training — and often certification — of operators, as well as increased proceduralization, enhanced equipment calibration, etc. In short, going a few steps extra to ensure the process is rock-solid since you can’t reliably inspect or test the product afterward.

PRI invented the Nadcap process accreditation scheme to resolve this. Unlike ISO 9001 or AS9100 certification, Nadcap accreditations are granted to a specific process, not the entirety of the company’s QMS. If your company performs chrome plating, then only the chrome plating activity would obtain Nadcap accreditation, not the entire company.

Having said that, PRI does require that the company have a QMS in place; any Nadcap accreditation requires the company to have AS9100 certification already under its belt, or to have been accredited by PRI’s equivalent, which is called AC7004. So any Nadcap special process accreditation technically requires a full QMS certification, but it’s separate from the process accreditation itself.

This Is Not Your Father’s QMS Certification Program

The Nadcap process is similar to that of ISO  9001 or AS9100, but with some important distinctions. First, PRI uses the word “accreditation” intentionally. Nadcap is not a “certification,” like ISO 9001 or AS9100, but a process accreditation. In the standards world, there’s a distinction between the words: typically “certification” is reserved for products or systems, and “accreditation” is reserved for activities which then verify certification. Because Nadcap includes verification of testing activities, the word “accreditation” is more apt. But don’t get hung up on it; just be sure to use the words properly. AS9100 is a certification, Nadcap is an accreditation.

Nadcap audits are process-specific (except for their QMS equivalent, AC7004, as I mentioned.) In such audits, the auditor will focus on the equipment, process conditions, methods and product far more than your AS9100 auditor does. Nadcap auditors will check temperatures, pH, pressures and all sorts of conditions that an AS9100 will only glance at, in passing. Much of a Nadcap audit is a comparison of actual operating conditions against third-party specifications, such as ASTM, ANSI, IPC, etc. You will constantly be compared against the applicable industry specs for which you are expected to comply.

Nadcap doesn’t actually utilize “standards,” but instead publishes a set of “Audit Criteria” documents. To you and I, these are standards, so don’t sweat the terminology. The good thing about Nadcap “AC” documents is that they are presented as audit checklists, and tell you exactly what the auditor will be looking at. There’s very little room for confusion or arguments over interpretation. For example, the Audit Criteria for heat treat includes language like this:

Pyrometry testing: Do the procedure and frequency of tests conform to AMS 2750 unless other applicable specifications require more frequent testing?

or:

Vacuum furnaces: Do procedures control the following:
a. Leak-up rate test?
b.Calibration of vacuum instruments, recorders, and sensors?
c.Quench gas purity?

To anyone frustrated by ISO 9001 or AS9100’s confusing, vague and open-ended bullshit “shall clauses,” the Nadcap audit criteria is downright refreshing. In the example above, you either have a procedure that addresses vacuum furnace quench gas purity, or you don’t. You know what the Nadcap auditor will require long before he or she ever shows up on site, and there’s nearly no reason you will be surprised. (I’ll talk about one exception later, though.)

In addition, the bulk of PRI’s Nadcap Audit Criteria checklists are available for free download; you simply have to sign up for their e-Audit website access, via PRI, which is free. That link is here. For the most part, you can download the checklists (in PDF or Word format) even if you’re not a PRI client, but in some cases you need to register for a future audit first.

Expect, however, that the checklists are going to reference a host of applicable external specs, and you’d be expected to have purchased those. But if you’re working to those specs already, you should have bought them already, so there should be no surprises there.

In PRI’s favor, their tech support and sales are pretty good, overall. They are responsive to answering questions both pre-sale and after-sale, and their website generally works. Unlike AS9100 and OASIS, there’s no requirement to enter complicated audit data into a PRI web portal, either.

But let’s talk downsides, of which there are some (natch).

Rhymes With “Shmonopoly”

You can’t have a discussion about Nadcap without addressing the elephant in the room: PRI is a monopoly, and it knows it. There are no competing special process schemes, so if you want a special process accreditation, you have to go through PRI. You have zero choice.

PRI also expanded their accreditation to activities that are clearly not special processes, such as “hole making,” so be careful. Those are nearly never flowed down by the aerospace primes, so don’t get hung up on them.

As I said, however, their sales folks and tech support are surprisingly responsive, something you typically don’t find with monopolies. The fact that they don’t charge for the critical audit checklists is also nice, and surprising. But PRI’s monopoly status does rear its ugly head in a few ways.

First, just get it into your head that no matter how bulletproof you think your special process is, and even after you’ve conducted the mandatory self-audit beforehand, the Nadcap auditor is going to fail you on the first try. It’s so prevalent, I am convinced it’s hard-baked into some internal PRI procedure. The auditor will always find something wrong that requires a 1-day follow up audit. Just be prepared for that, check your ego, and let them do it. Consider it a cost of doing business, and it won’t be that expensive anyway. But you are not going to pass your audit on the first try. Consultants who tell you otherwise either don’t have actual experience in this, or are just lying.

Next, while the sales and tech support folks are nice, Nadcap’s auditors are a surly, growling bunch. I can say this without hesitation: I have never met a single Nadcap auditor who was nice, outgoing or even moderately friendly. I don’t know what they are feeding these guys (and they are mostly guys), but I think it’s a mix of sourdough bread, sour candies and sour lemons. If they just switched to sour mash or pisco sour, maybe they’d lighten up. When their auditor walks into the room, it’s like a funeral came to town followed by a plague. Very unpleasant, so just prepare yourself for that.

I attribute this to the monopoly effect: while PRI as a company may have a more progressive view and not want their “brand” to be labeled as an abusive monopoly, that message hasn’t carried down to their grumbly auditor pool. Those guys know they are the only game in town, and let’s face it, this is the most power they are ever going to wield in any professional capacity. If you don’t like it, you can go jump in a damn lake. But remember, you only have to put up with it for a few days.

Next, despite the Nadcap AC checklists being very, very prescriptive and plainly worded, there’s still the problem of auditors bringing in their predetermined opinions. PRI doesn’t allow incompetent boobs to audit the way ISO and AS do; the PRI auditors will have years of experience in whatever process they are auditing, and can’t audit processes where they lack experience. But they still drag in their personal experiences into the audit; if your PRI auditor worked for Lockheed, then he or she will demand you do things the “Lockheed way,” even when that goes beyond what the Nadcap AC checklist calls for. Just as in ISO or AS audits, you’ll be faced with deciding whether it’s worth it to fight back, or just adopt whatever change the auditor suggests to shut them up and get your accreditation. Usually, the latter option is advisable.

Someone Teach Them How to Use Microsoft Word Already

Prior to any Nadcap audit, you will have to have done a “self-audit” using the exact same AC checklist. If you hire a consultancy like Oxebridge, this would be included in the service, otherwise you have to do it yourself. The irritation here is that the Nadcap checklists, while clearly defining what to look for, are poorly designed and impossible to use. For example, each checklist requires you to fill in audit evidence; this means you must fill in the document name and paragraph where a procedure is required, and then job numbers of actual jobs you audited. The problem is that the Nadcap checklists don’t include a space to enter any information!

No one at PRI has ever answered me on how to resolve this, and so far they have complained every time I have tried to come up with a solution. For one client, I recreated the checklists and added a space below each question to fill in evidence; the auditors complained that the self-audits were insufficient since I didn’t use the exact AC document, and they couldn’t be sure I had made changes to the requirements. (Sigh.) Another time, I used the exact AC checklists, but then attached a separate sheet with the evidence, each referenced to an AC question number. The auditors complained and said the AC rules say that the evidence must be recorded directly on the form itself. You know, on the form that doesn’t have any space to record the evidence. In my latest go-round, I took the AC checklists, changed the orientation from portrait to landscape, and added a column for evidence on the far right, leaving the questions untouched. I do expect PRI to complain just for switching the page orientation, but we will see.

The only solution is to print the checklist, and fill it out by hand, by writing in the margins. Then you can expect complaints about your handwriting.

The checklists exhibit a host of other basic formatting errors: page breaks occur out of nowhere, tables are routinely broken, and section headers sometimes appear in boldface, and other times not, making it difficult to see where sections change. Just be sure to ready them very, very carefully, and don’t accidentally miss any requirement due to the poor formatting.

Let’s Talk Money

The costs of Nadcap consulting and accreditation tend to be a tick higher than ISO 9001 or AS9100, as well, but only slightly so. A Nadcap consulting/implementation project will typically include an initial self-audit (required prior to undergoing the actual Nadcap audit itself), and then consulting on the gaps discovered. Because typically each audit includes a “procedure” portion (document review) and then a “compliance” portion (practical audit), they can be time-consuming. While much of this depends on the process being audited and the size of the company, a self-audit of 1-2 weeks is common. But unlike ISO or AS, using a consultant beforehand is highly recommended. Be cautious, however, about using a consultant who claims expertise in every single Nadcap accreditation offering, since no one on the planet has that range of experience.

PRI itself hasn’t engaged in the price gouging you’d expect from a monopoly, so there’s some relief there. Still, their audits can be long and (as I said) will almost always result in a 1-day follow up audit. You’ll be paying auditor travel and expenses throughout that, so keep it in mind.

The Upside

The benefits, however, are many. Nadcap special process accreditation won’t result in magical improvements, but it will ensure you are meeting the expected industry requirements for your particular processes. As a result, waving the Nadcap accreditation flag comes with some level of trust and reputation. It sets you apart, for sure, and aerospace companies are simply refusing to do work with non-Nadcap process houses.

I do recommend that companies wait to implement Nadcap until they are told to do so; in the interim, downloading the appropriate AC checklist for your given processes is wise, and you can at least be sure you are working to them before you send a dime. But when the day comes that someone mandates Nadcap, settle in and buckle up.

To learn more about how Oxebridge can help implement Nadcap for a limited number of processes, click here. To learn more about Nadcap directly from PRI, click here.