Virtual component testing on the horizon

Louise Smyth

Virtual testing of newly manufactured components using 3D X-ray imaging could be on the horizon, thanks to research led by Swansea University, which has just been awarded £1 million in funding. Virtual tests could provide a big boost to the manufacturing sector.

Rigorous testing is essential to make sure that components work as they should, especially in high-value manufacturing (HVM). This is particularly true when repairing or replacing a part would be difficult, impossible or very expensive, for example in a nuclear plant or a satellite.

Or a racing car: not knowing about a weakness in a £52 spark plug in his multi-million pound Ferrari arguably cost Sebastian Vettel the Formula 1 Championship.

Increasingly, 3D X-ray imaging is being used to create image-based simulations. This has the potential to be used instead of physical experiments, to see if components meet the required standard – a development known as virtual qualification.

Micro-accurate digital replicas of a component are created, which include any manufacturing flaws, and then assessed to see how they perform.

The problem is that image-based modelling is still very time-consuming, as images still need to be processed manually. This can take weeks for each component.

This is where the new research project comes in. Led by Dr Llion Evans of Swansea University’s College of Engineering, the project will look at automating the virtual qualification workflow, using new software tools.

This would speed up the testing process considerably – what currently takes weeks could potentially be done in a matter of hours. As a result, it becomes more viable for the industrial sector to use the technique.

An additional benefit is that automated processing of the images reduces the risk of human error.

The £1 million funding for the five year project comes from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Virtual qualification is seen as strategically vital to the UK manufacturing sector.

The project will involve experts from other organisations including the UK Atomic Energy Authority, Airbus Defence and Space, Nikon Metrology, TWI, Synopsys and Diamond Light Source.

As a case study, the team will be testing out their work on a batch of heat exchange components at the UK Atomic Energy Authority.


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