Ultrasonic array technology, the new paradigm
The University of Bristol’s research in ultrasonic array technology applied to non-destructive testing has forever changed the way safety critical inspections are carried out and helped to extend the service life of valuable assets, boost revenue and improve safety in high-value engineering sectors such as nuclear and aerospace.
Medical ultrasonic imaging technology began to be used in the 1980s to ‘see’ inside engineering components, and this was a significant step forwards for plant and machine safety. However, engineering objects are very different to the human body and these early array systems did not maximise the true potential of array techniques. This fundamentally limited the resolution of the technique and the size of defects that could be seen.
Tackling the problems of industry
Traditional solutions for detecting and assessing defects in engineering components were time consuming and costly. This was becoming a serious issue for one of Canada’s largest electricity providers, Ontario Power Generation, whose need to map wall thickness around welds in several hundred feed-water pipes in their CANDU (CANadian Deuterium Uranium) reactors had become urgent. These components had complex 3D geometries, and with traditional NDT technology the inspection process was becoming prohibitively time consuming, costly and required high levels of human intervention.
“The sector urgently needed more advanced ultrasonic technology that could significantly improve image quality,” says Professor Drinkwater. “It also needed techniques which can adapt to the diversity of materials now present in engineered structures. But, at the heart of this challenge, is the drive to find smaller and smaller defects. We believed ultrasonic arrays would drive these improvements forward.”
The Bristol Ultrasonics and Non-Destructive Testing (UNDT) Research Group had previously worked on ultrasonic arrays in wheel probes. Subsequent research funded as part of RCNDE’s first phase (2003-2008), allowed the team to continue its array work with an increased emphasis on array data acquisition and processing. Within a year, Drinkwater and Wilcox presented their ground-breaking research. They focussed on a single, yet significant, advancement in array technology: Full Matrix Capture (FMC).
FMC simplified the process for firing array elements and enabled richer data to be acquired. This allowed for superior imaging and the potential to permanently store the data. Furthermore, the key imaging technology enabled by FMC, the Total Focusing Method (TFM), could work in diverse testing scenarios, such as those using anisotropic materials, which tended to severely reduce the quality of traditional images. Using this new approach, distortions due to anisotropy and transmission across material boundaries could be corrected automatically, dramatically simplifying the interpretation of the data.
From theory to commercial success
These developments have now been applied successfully to a number of major industries where safety and testing are critical.
Ontario Power Generation (OPG), for example, is now able to map the thickness of its feed water pipes efficiently and accurately. Inspections are quicker, and OPG collects and evaluates data regularly to build a true picture of any deterioration within the equipment.
Multinational defence technology company QinetiQ has used the technology to extend the design life of military aircraft and estimates the benefit to the industry to be at least £10m per year. Rolls-Royce Aerospace, meanwhile, has used FMC / TFM to decrease blade failures in its aircraft’s engines. Prior to using arrays for its inspections, Rolls-Royce suffered about three engine failures per year, each costing £5m. Since introducing the technology, there have been none. “There is little doubt that for major end-users of NDT research by Bristol is leading to reductions in inspection costs and creating many other benefits in terms of efficiency and revenue,” says Professor Wilcox. “In addition, we’ve helped to develop highly-skilled engineers who are now leading the industrial development of new array inspections, ensuring the research will have a lasting commercial impact.”