How Ultrasonic Phased Array is Shaping the Industry

Ultrasonic phased array inspection will have an impact on the nondestructive industry in terms of probability of detection and productivity gains for years to come.

This phased array instrument is used to inspect a flange, allowing for accessible phased array imaging. Source: GE

Using phased array technology for nondestructive testing is not a new concept, but it is only within the past few years that the method has been more readily adopted in industrial applications due to advances in technology and phased array instrumentation. The use of phased array is one of the most significant advances in ultrasonic testing and is a trend that is shaping the industry. Like many nondestructive techniques, phased array technology was originally adopted in the medical industry and has been adapted for industrial inspections across many different industries. Ultrasonic phased array inspection is a growing trend that will have an impact on the nondestructive industry in terms of probability of detection and productivity gains for years to come.

Why Ultrasonic Phased Array?

There are many benefits to using phased array technology. First and foremost, phased array technology offers fast scanning with less moving parts, which has obvious productivity gains and lower maintenance costs. Phased array also allows greater flexibility for inspecting complex shape parts, as the beams can be better-positioned and angled for increased defect detection.

Phased array really takes ultrasonic technology to the next level. This method is meant to be a replacement for some radiography applications and conventional ultrasonic methods. Phased array gives inspectors an image to look at instead of the peaks and valleys produced with conventional methods. While radiography does provide images, with ultrasonic phased array the inspection is much quicker; there are no radiation concerns or costs associated with chemicals and films; and operator training is simplified.

Ultrasonic phased array inspection provides better imaging, higher repeatability and reproducibility and more angles and scan patterns over conventional ultrasonic methods. In short, the phased array ultrasonic method is a flexible method that can be used across a wide range of industry from oil and gas and power generation to aerospace. The training and certification process also is much simpler with phased array vs. X-ray inspection.

Due to the advantages of ultrasonic phased array technology it seems obvious that this would be the inspection technique of choice, replacing conventional radiography and ultrasonic testing, but until recently that was not the case. In theory ultrasonic phased array was the answer to many inspection challenges, but other factors at play have hindered the user adoption rate.

This portable device combines the productivity advantages of phased array with a code-compliant conventional ultrasonic flaw detector. Source GE

Equipment Trends

There is no denying that phased array technology provides benefits in the nondestructive testing industry, but the technique is really only as good as the equipment that is displaying the results. High image quality is critical to interpreting data correctly in an ultrasonic phased array inspection, which puts pressure on manufacturers to invest in high image and display quality on equipment. Manufacturers recognized ultrasonic phased array as an important trend in the nondestructive testing industry and went to work on equipment that would help speed the adoption rate.

Improvements to display technology will continue to be a rising trend for phased array equipment and will continue to be so to meet the demand for portable equipment. As customers want lighter and smaller equipment without losing image quality and durability, equipment manufacturers have to continue to put research and development dollars into maintaining and sometimes increasing the display quality of equipment.

Reduced power consumption also is a key trend in equipment. In order to provide truly portable equipment, the battery life needs to be strong enough to let inspection personnel conduct inspections in the field without being plugged in, run all the systems within the equipment and power the display screen.

Equipment manufacturers also are challenged with keeping the equipment easy to use. As technology advances operators have access to more views, more settings and more information, so it is important to keep the user interface simple and easy to operate.

Three-dimensional views will be the next big move in ultrasonic inspections and as that technology advances, operation still needs to remain intuitive to ensure maximum productivity.

Before investing in any new equipment, it is important to investigate the service and support that comes along with it. Buying a trendy or complex piece of equipment that is not supported by the manufacturer after the sale is not a smart investment.

Material Trends

Much like the equipment trends, material trends also play a role in driving ultrasonic phased array inspection. As the composition of materials gets more complex, having a clear image is critical in finding defects. A perfect example of this is the use of composite materials in the aerospace industry, which is a huge trend. Not only is it key for inspectors to get a clear image, at the same time they also are looking for defects just beneath the surface and deep into very attenuative material so as they inspect each layer of the material, a clear image is required, which conventional ultrasonic or radiographic techniques can not always do effectively.

Because ultrasonic phased array can be used across multiple industries, it has attributes that lend it to inspection of many different types of material, which will only further pave the way for user adoption as businesses feel their investment is protected.

Cost vs. Price

Clearly cost is a huge factor when making any type of purchasing decisions, particularly in the recent economic climate. Ultrasonic phased array is a method that is still relatively new to nondestructive testing and it is a challenge to convince buyers to spend more money on a new technology and new equipment when they have conventional methods in place that seem to be working well.

This challenge brings up the cost vs. price scenario. The price of ultrasonic phased array equipment may initially be more than conventional ultrasonic or radiography, but what is the total cost of ownership and cost to business productivity?

This goes beyond the obvious fact that, as previously mentioned, with less moving parts phased array equipment has lower minimal maintenance costs. Now consider what it will cost a business if an inspection that can be done in 15 minutes with ultrasonic phased array continues to be done with conventional methods and the inspection time is doubled or more.

What is the cost to a business when, because only conventional ultrasonic inspection is used, they did not get the full picture and a defect is either missed or hours of analysis is done to determine that the surface needs additional testing? Even worse, what is the cost when a defect is missed and a critical part fails in operation? The cost of critical parts failure far outweighs the cost of any piece of equipment. Slowly but surely businesses are realizing the price of ultrasonic phased array is worth it compared to the costs a business could face if it is not used.

Although ultrasonic phased array equipment tends to be more expensive, equipment manufacturers who have been watching this trend are trying to help speed adoption rates by making different levels of equipment and offering upgrade options to help a progressive transition to phased array.

It can be nerve-wracking to invest in the next big technology because trends can pass quickly and owners can be left with equipment that is not relevant. Ultrasonic phased array is not a passing phase.

With an upward swing in adoption rate, both business owners and equipment manufacturers are investing time and money in this method. There will be a direct correlation between advances in equipment and adoption rate, as it has been evident during the past few years when portable equipment with high image quality has become more readily available.

Ultrasonic phased array is changing the way many nondestructive testing professionals are conducting inspections in a good way, providing better probability of detection and productivity increases. This is a trend that is still gaining momentum and will have a lasting impact on the industry.

Tech Tips

- Ultrasonic phased array inspection provides better imaging, higher repeatability and reproducibility and more angles and scan patterns over conventional ultrasonic methods.

- The phased array ultrasonic method can be used across a wide range of industry from oil and gas and power generation to aerospace.

- The training and certification process is much simpler with phased array vs. X-ray inspection.

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