Spotlight: testing the limits

Materials World magazine
3 Oct 2015

Professor Phil Picton speaks to Materials World about his career and establishing the UK’s only undergraduate NDT FdSc with the British Institute of Non-Destructive Testing.

Tell Me about your background prior to joining the University of Northampton.

My academic career has been quite varied. I did a degree in Electronics at Swansea University, graduating in 1979, followed by a PhD in Electronics at the University of Bath, focusing on a type of neural network. After my PhD, I joined Heriot-Watt University as a research fellow, where I became interested in computer vision and robotics, and in 1984 I was recruited by the Open University to become a lecturer. I was with the OU for 10 years and worked in electronics, mechatronics and artificial intelligence. A lot of my research was conducted in collaboration with colleagues from the Materials department – for example, I worked on fuzzy control of the plasma deposition of diamond-like coatings, and the interpretation of ultrasonic B-Scans from pressure vessels. In 1995, I moved to what was then Nene College, and later became the University of Northampton. Among the many things I’ve done at Northampton, one of the main ones is working with the British Institute of Non-Destructive Testing (BINDT) to produce a distance taught foundation degree and BSc top-up.

What kind of equipment do you employ on the NDT FDSc?

As the courses we run are distance taught, we don’t have a practical element. We get around this by only allowing students onto the course who are working as NDT technicians and therefore have certification to show that they are competent to carry out practical work. Our courses just add to the overall knowledge and understanding of the world of NDT. Having said that, we still do research and consultancy in NDT at Northampton and for that we have some equipment, mostly ultrasonic testing equipment including phased-array and time-of-flight systems.

What innovations are employed at the School of Science and Technology?

One that springs to mind is our work on computer simulation. We have made a lot of use of simulations, including 3D immersive systems. One project that we are currently working on is a simulation of an X-ray testing facility. Although the physical process of X-rays has been mathematically modeled, we wanted our simulation to be more like a real lab where you have to open doors, select the film, set up the system, choose the various parameters, such as voltage, current and exposure time, and develop the film. We created a prototype and now we are working on an improved system that we hope to test later this year.

AS NDT grows in importance for qualification, what do you expect to see in the future?

There may be more NDT modules being taught as part of degree programmes, but the University of Northampton, as far as I’m aware, is the only undergraduate degree course in NDT in the UK and possibly the world. The only other course that I’m aware of is the MSc at University of Wales, Trinity Saint David, to which some of our graduates have progressed. As for the future, the main issues at the moment seem to be composites, how to test them consistently, and in-service inspection. I think these will grow in significance. Another problem is the average age of NDT personnel, which is quite high. It seems to be difficult to attract new people into NDT. Maybe having university courses in NDT will attract the attention of a younger generation - who knows!

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While the conclusion of a project will always garner the most attention, testing helps to ensure that desired outcome.

Epsilon 3 

In the Netherlands, PANalytical’s Epsilon 3 has been released as the company’s flagship benchtop energy dispersive X-ray fluorescence spectrometer for non-destructive elemental analysis. Suitable for testing the elemental range from Na to Am in concentrations from 100% down to ppm levels, the Epsilon is compatible with two software modules – Omnian, for advanced elemental quantification analysis, and FingerPrint, for material testing prioritising analysis speed when composition is not required.

Merlin photon counting detector system 

UK-based Quantum Detectors launched the Merlin photon counting detector system in late August. An X-ray imaging detector capable of capturing 1,200 frames per second in burst mode, and 100 per second in continuous mode, with pixel sizes up to 55µm, it is built on Medipix3 software developed between CERN and ESRF, among others. Supplied with a LabView GUI with TANGO and EPICS drivers as standard for quick installation and compatibility, the Merlin is fully customisable for users requiring further calibration.

Equotip 550 Leeb U 

In the UK, Proceq has unveiled the Equotip 550 Leeb U, which allows the user to quickly diagnose roll imperfections, hardness inconsistencies and uneven winding, to a measuring accuracy of ± 6 HLU between a temperature range of -10–50˚C. The impact device and touchscreen unit feature a battery life of up to eight hours, and IP 54 housing enabling on-site usage in harsh environments.

LIK 2 optical linear encoder 

Germany-based NUMERIK JENA has made its LIK 2 optical linear encoder series available worldwide. Suitable for high and ultra-high vacuum applications with 10–9 mBar pressure, where motion feedback is required inside the vacuum chamber. The LIK 2 has a 20μm grating period applicable to glass or steel scale substrate, and can be baked out for up to 12 hours in 130˚C. 

Next month's Spotlight is on processing