Has Phased Array Ultrasonics Lived Up to the Hype?
During the early 1990s, when portable phased array ultrasonic systems were first launched for industrial applications, there was immense anticipation in the nondestructive testing (NDT) community regarding success of this innovative technology. Already widely adopted within the medical field, phased array ultrasonics was expected to change the dynamics of the NDT industry. However, early portable systems were analog with excessive power and space needs. This led to apprehension regarding adoption of phased array ultrasonics, which, coupled with the conservative nature of the NDT industry, resulted in a relative failure of first generation phased array ultrasonic systems.
However, with the advent of digital systems, rapid development of low-cost microprocessors and other related advances in the electronics industry, the next generation of portable phased array instruments was launched in late 1990s. This newer, more advanced generation was extremely power-efficient and could be used in the field for a considerably longer time before the battery life deteriorated. As a result, NDT equipment manufacturers, such as Olympus NDT, GE Measurement and Control Solutions, Sonatest, ZETEC, Sonotron NDT and AGR Field Operations (now Technology Design Ltd.), marketed these portable phased array systems aggressively to its customers. Vendors played a critical role in educating end-users on the benefits of phased array ultrasonic technology and aided the transition to advanced ultrasonic test equipment systems.
Realization of Newer ChallengesIn the early 2000s, with wider market adoption, phased array ultrasonics appeared to finally achieve acceptance in the NDT industry. However, with the initial success, a host of additional challenges came about. The most significant challenges being lack of standards or codes for inspection and training of NDT technicians to operate these advanced systems.
In conservative end-user industries, such as oil and gas that are driven by regulations, lack of proper standards outlining the inspection procedure for different applications inhibited adoption of phased array ultrasonics. Although customers quickly realized that phased array ultrasonic systems had obvious benefits over conventional ultrasonics, the lack of technicians to operate these advanced systems was a critical challenge. These challenges were further enhanced with the high cost of phased array equipment. Hence similar to the early '90s, the phased array ultrasonic market again failed to make an impression on end-users.
Dawn of a New EraThese challenges laid the foundation for product development strategies and enhancements to phased array ultrasonic solutions throughout the last decade. A large part of the period spanning from 2000 to 2010 was spent in developing well-defined codes and standards, coupled with outlining curriculum for phased array ultrasonics training. Also, with advances in computing technology and faster processing power of the software, the phased array ultrasonic equipment evolved technologically. Standard phased array probes were also developed for common applications. The competition in the portable phased array ultrasonic market increased significantly, which led to a decrease in the price of these systems. Thus, by the end of the decade, phased array ultrasonics had finally shown signs of large scale adoption.
Economic Downturn and its Effects on the Phased Array Ultrasonics Market By the third quarter of 2008, the global economy faced severe uncertainty, resulting in a full-blown recession. The effects of the recession are still being felt, however by the end of 2009, the worst was over. As with any emerging technology, phased array ultrasonics witnessed a newer set of challenges during the recession. Although there were advanced portable phased array systems available in the market, with a severe credit crunch, end-users were unwilling to invest in new equipment. Many NDT equipment manufacturers, having made the investment in developing the newer generation of phased array instrumentation, took a financial blow during this period. The positive developments related to development of standards for inspection and curriculum for training technicians were negated by the effects of the recession.
The NDT equipment manufacturers had to bide their time and by the start of the new decade things started looking up again. Although the end-users were apprehensive about investing in newer technology, aggressive marketing techniques by tier-1 market participants offset this apprehension.
Current Market ScenarioIn 2010, major phased array ultrasonic test equipment manufacturers, such as Olympus NDT, GE Measurement and Control Solutions, Sonatest, Zetec, Sonotron NDT and AGR Field Operations (now Technology Design Ltd), launched new equipment with advanced features such as wireless connectivity, USB ports and a touch-screen. These features, along with the constant evolution of the hardware and software capabilities, have made the current generation of portable phased array ultrasonic solutions extremely user friendly. There has also been an influx of portable phased array instrumentation from Chinese manufacturers, such as Guangzhou Doppler Electronic Technologies Co. Ltd, SIUI, and CME Scientific Limited, which has added to competition in the market and has further reduced prices of the equipment.
There has been considerable advancement in probes for phased array ultrasonics. Recently, Imasonic launched flexible phased array probes for inspection of complex geometries. The company holds the license for manufacture and design of these probes, which are patented by the Atomic Energy Commission in France (CEA). This advancement on the probes is a great complement to the evolution of the phased array equipment.
Has Phased Array Ultrasonics Lived Up to the Hype?Many industry experts are of the opinion that phased array ultrasonics has finally achieved the acceptance and success that was predicted since its introduction to the NDT industry. An important trend currently impacting the NDT industry that vindicates the statement above is a gradual shift from conventional radiography to phased array ultrasonic inspection in certain applications-such as weld inspection of pipelines. Due to the increasing costs associated with performing film radiography, and the adverse effects of X-rays and chemicals used to human health, the end-users are actively looking at replacing film radiography with phased array ultrasonics.
Another important indication of the perception of phased array ultrasonics is the level of research being performed in advanced phased array ultrasonics. A few years ago, phased array ultrasonics was considered an advanced NDT technology. Gradually, though, experts are investigating the prospects of incorporating further advances to phased array ultrasonics.
With the market gradually reaching a level of saturation, it is safe to say that this technology is no longer the ‘next big thing,’ rather ‘the big thing’ in the ultrasonic inspection market, currently experiencing high growth and demand.