Spotlight: When detail matters

Materials World magazine
,
1 Apr 2020

Materials World spoke to a number of testing and inspection companies to create a picture of the landscape for the next decade.

Testing and inspection play a huge part in keeping manufacturing and supply chains running. Knowing that medication is correct, stainless steel grades at the values set and composites meet the strength required is vital for performance. Beyond quality control, testing can provide an information resource relating to the tested items. The data collected provides guidance for engineers, designers, production managers and failure analysts.
 
For those working in critical applications such as aerospace, infrastructure, energy, defence and healthcare, accurate test data is vital. We spoke to leading companies on the importance of testing and asked what they are currently working on. Challenges and opportunities facing the testing industry include digitisation and the ongoing impact of Industry 4.0 as well as the ever-present issue of keeping up with novel materials and processes.
 
Robert Cid, TSOM Product Line Manager at Bruker, explained, ‘A lot of the current challenges will either continue to face industry or even increase over the next ten years. These include the large variability of part-to-parts that require tests, an ever-wider range of materials and the possible mix between materials, tighter tolerances, a desire for increased cost reduction, and faster measurements and greater throughput.’
 
In the automotive sector for instance, described Cid, the need to reduce energy use together with the shift towards electrical vehicles has led to a requirement for higher rotational speed in gear boxes, as high as 15,000 RPM. This type of increase demands a much more stringent understanding of shaft micro-roughness.
 
‘Opportunities include full automation and greater feedback between machining and metrology, as well as for advanced 2.5D/3D packaging and high-density interconnect pushes for advanced metrology. The continued integration of automation and large datasets for improved defect detection and product yield is another area where testing technologies could see real growth.’
 
It’s all in the data
 
This boost in connectivity requires continued support for established techniques and processes. Adam Potter, Managing Director of Axiom Engineering Associates Ltd, who cover a range of process sectors including chemicals, petrochemicals, bulk storage, power, pharmaceuticals and renewables said, ‘Machine learning and data analytics are rising in prominence across a whole range of industries. The amount of data able to be stored and processed far exceeds what we’ve been able to do in the past.’
 
However, getting good information relies on collecting good data in the first place so topics such as metrology, calibration and traceability are also being revisited, noted Potter. ‘It’s very difficult to make a good decision using bad data so we’re seeing an increased focus on these topics. We’re also noticing an increased interest by regulators such as the Health and Safety Executive, especially when the data collected is used to justify life extension of equipment or increasing examination intervals of a safety critical plant,’ he added.
 
Encouraging users to see the benefits of new technologies remains important while integrating digitalisation, said NewGen NDT’s Managing Director, Marc Berry. ‘People naturally fear change and new concepts but this presents big opportunities. With digitalisation comes more efficient, secure and cost-effective processes for the end users [of NDT], which is vital in the ever-increasing competitive business world.’
 
Not all problems are related to the human-digital interface though. Jacqueline Wahl, Principal Metallurgist of Cannon-Muskegon Corporation, USA, brought it back to basics and expanded on the safety point raised by Axiom. ‘Analytical accuracy problems and even mechanical testing issues, such as creep-rupture with highly alloyed SX superalloy turbine castings with the independent laboratory community,’ are all challenges.
 
‘The reliability of critical turbine engine castings in flight engine applications has also become a critical issue for the new high gas temperature turbines, with the necessary lower fuel burn/CO2 emissions footprint,’ she added.
 
This type of problem clearly shows that testing remains strong and relevant, confirmed Mark Phipps, Senior Regional Account Manager at TA Instruments: ‘Testing laboratories are becoming more important, where industry continues to contract its in-house facilities and expertise. There is opportunity for niche and focused laboratories to hone in on specific applications and industries. In turn, they require highly tailored instrumentation solutions to make testing easier, more robust and more compliant to testing requirements.’
 
Changing requirements 
 
So, where do the organisations see an increased role for testing in 2020? Phipps continued ‘There are growing requirements for highly engineered, high-performance materials. Being able to be confident in the quality and properties of the products our customers supply is critical as material performance is being stretched further and further, with much tighter tolerance in specification. To be competitive, customers require more from the materials they use.’ 
 
The way customers achieve this will change, warned Berry, ‘Assisted or automated defect detection will play a huge role over the next decade within non-destructive testing (NDT). Almost all of the inspection data acquired is analysed by qualified technicians and this is both an opportunity and challenge in the new world of digital imaging. When combined with AI and machine learning, the benefits will be endless. I also think collection of data and use of the data will be a driving force for testing within the next decade.’
 
Whal and her colleage Ken Harris are keen to see improved and more comprehensive testing, including ‘longer term, under oxidation and hot corrosion conditions – this is critical in relation to the requirements throughout the OEM flight engine and IGT industry for improved component reliability, combined with the necessary engine performance improvements.’
 
Bruker’s Samuel Lesko, Senior Manager, Optical Metrology Applications, is clearly on the same page, ‘The aeronautical industry has a high, very visible demand for increased performance, better tolerances, and guaranteed safety that will necessitate ever more stringent testing and analysis,’ he said.
 
‘Automotive will also require lead angle measurements for high-rotation speed shafts. Likewise, the constant demand for higher pin count and ever shrinking footprint in semiconductor packaging cannot be achieved without advanced testing and new technology. Additive manufacturing is another rapidly growing area. As materials for these  processes become more complex, we see an increased demand for better metrology at the sub-µm level.’ 
 
Sometimes though, ‘it’s not about competition or increasing performance but simply about keeping things going,’ said Axiom’s Potter. ‘In our sector, many plants in the UK were built in the 1970s, which means they’re around 50 years old. The challenges to keep such plants in operation for the next decade will no doubt involve increased testing as the materials they are made from approach end-of-life.’
 
Fit for use
 
Keeping a 50-year-old plant in service is no picnic and this is where testing and inspection helps extend material lifetime, ‘Both improvements for in-service destructive and NDT methods can aid early detection of damage mechanisms that would otherwise render materials unfit for use. Improvements in signal processing capability have also enabled unusual geometries to be tested, that would otherwise require equipment to be retired,’ said Potter.
 
All agreed that improved testing offered improved product life. ‘Giving more robust data that is more accurate and reproducible, allows our customers to enhance the performance of the materials they use and extends the working or shelf life of their materials. They need to be able to have confidence in the claims they make, and that confidence can only come from better data,’ Phipps said.
 
Excited by new opportunities, Berry added, ‘Improving testing and inspection will in turn increase the lifespan of the components. Digitalisation, collection of data, machine learning and AI will help identify and understand the origins of defects and, in turn help us address and eradicate the root causes.’
 
Cid expressed what was already possible, ‘It is well known that very small changes in surface roughness and texture conversely can have a large impact in a product’s or material’s performance and longevity. For example, finer surface texture can improve sliding conditions and minimise wear without any further additions. Texture can be fully assessed through real roughness parameters from ISO 25178.’
 
He reminds us that for complex additive manufacturing processes, better metrology has already led to improvements in product performance and material development. This allows the designer to bring designs to market that were not possible with non-additive processes.
‘Similarly, in flexible electronic films, reduced defect density can ensure proper ability to withstand high current density to avoid mid-term failure. And proper interconnects ensure better signal-to-noise ratios for electrical signal and avoid hot and/or dead spots responsible for early electronic failure or malfunction,’ he concluded.
 
Set for growth
 
But with a full decade ahead, what are the companies working on right now? Cannon-Muskegon Corporation is focusing on potential flight engine applications testing of a new improved third generation SX superalloy – CMSX-4 Plus (SLS) – with a novel, internal cooling, airfoil casting coating technology for hot corrosion and oxidation protection, developed by Applied Materials of Santa Clara, USA. Also in view, is the development of an improved large industrial gas turbine alloy, CMSX-8 [B/C].
 
Bruker is refining accuracy of roughness measurements from nm through µm in single-acquisition mode to cover raw manufactured surfaces through to complete finish. It is continuing to delve into effective screening of defects undetected by other optical methods, for example, in advanced optics and polymer films in flexible electronics. Incremental design improvements concentrate on enabling higher throughput while improving core metrology performance. 
 
In particular, Bruker noted advances in throughput to allow for non-contact metrology to expand into production lines. There will be continued focus on increasing its analysis portfolio to better classify defects and apply optical detection to new areas, such as the overlay between layers in semiconductor packaging.
 
Axiom for one is focused on growth. ‘We’re recruiting and investing in our people to equip ourselves for the future. We’ve opened up an office in Scotland last year and another one up in the North West and are using these as a springboard for further expansion,’ said Potter.
NewGen NDT is also growing, while currently focusing on improving the collection of data. ‘We are also branching out into providing used NDT equipment as a cost-effective alternative to buying new equipment in order to provide a service to SMEs who do not have lots of capital to spend.’
 
Major product launches have TA Instruments’ attention. ‘For us, there is a constant R&D cycle for all the technologies and markets we serve. TA Instruments is a diverse instrument supply company, so we have a very large R&D team focused on improved performance. We expect major product launches in 2020.’
 
COVID-19 allowing, NewGen NDT will be exhibiting at the 59th Annual British Conference on Non-Destructive Testing, 15-17 September 2020, Northampton, UK. Bruker has its eyes on collaboration, ‘We are excited to work with such a diverse range of customers, from large industrial manufacturers and academic institutions to stealth start-ups and niche material developers. Through collaborations, innovative metrology capabilities are working their way into our product offerings.’
 
Axiom, meanwhile, is seeing more data being produced and the management of it will provide future challenges for owners. ‘In order to spot problems early enough to prevent unwanted business disruption, careful thought is needed to identify how data is processed. We have been providing a data-oriented platform for inspection and testing results since 2005 and we have projects in the pipeline to expand this capability to suit our clients for this decade and beyond,’ added Potter.
 
According to TA Instruments, the analytical instrumentation industry looks set for significant growth, ‘both organically and through product developments, as customers seek to showcase the performance and differentiation of their offerings and add value to their product ranges’. The future looks bright for those who test.