Gemma McGeough and David Stanier discuss taking non-destructive testing to the next level
Offering a way to test components and systems without causing damage, non-destructive testing (NDT) has seen a rise in demand over recent years. From ultrasound to visual inspection, these analysis techniques are becoming increasingly popular in industries where continual operation is vital. However, with some industrial manufacturers still viewing NDT technologies as a sunk-cost that brings extra cost and delays, innovators are on a mission to improve their functionality.
Process industries that currently rely on NDT include aerospace, power generation and automotive. Continual operation is important in these industries, meaning the benefits of NDT often outweigh the costs. For example, using NDT technologies can extend the life of machine parts and minimise disruption, reducing downstream costs. The data gained from NDT can also highlight flaws in the design of a specific component that might otherwise have been missed.
Although some businesses are reluctant to introduce NDT as a regular part of their operations, demand is steadily growing. The increasing complexity of new materials, and the increasing irregularity of their contours and shapes, increases the likelihood of introducing defects and makes NDT a valuable tool. This trend is expected to continue, although there is greater focus currently on remote NDT, due to the need for social distancing during the pandemic. This type of technology allows important data to be collected remotely, without the need for factory visits.
Remote working appears to be the way forward for the UK, and innovators are seeking to reflect this in their inventions. They are also aiming to speed up NDT solutions, so there is less disruption to manufacturing processes or in-service operability. By addressing these issues, NDT could become more attractive to those industries that have been hesitant about implementing it in the past.
General Electric, a multinational company based in the USA, has a granted US patent (US9588515B2) relating to a remote setup for controlling an NDT device. This can be operated simultaneously by multiple people in different locations, meaning thorough NDT can be carried out without the usual physical constraints.
On a similar theme, a pending US patent application (US2014047934A1) allows operators to perform an NDT routine remotely, this time using a virtual reality (VR) environment. Therefore, although not physically there, the NDT process is still experienced by the operator as if they were present on the production line.
Another pending US patent application (US2018129211A1) focuses on improving the safety of NDT for the operator. Infradrone, a data analytics and automation company, has adapted an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) for the purpose of remote NDT. As well as being expensive, manually testing civil infrastructure can be a dangerous task. Lifts or cranes are often used to allow the operator access to the areas where damage may have occurred. However, due to the inaccessibility of such infrastructure, safety can be compromised. As such, a UAS would allow these challenging locations to be analysed remotely and safely.
Corestar International’s pending US patent application (US2018328890A1) for a pair of ‘smart glasses’ also focuses on improving safety. These offer a heads-up display when performing NDT, which allows the operator to use the technology single handed. As such, they can reach less accessible areas without having to juggle equipment and potentially compromise their safety. Data and other information is displayed in real-time in the same field of view as the part itself, also making it more user-friendly.
Since 2000, there has been a considerable rise in the number of patent applications containing the term ‘non-destructive testing’, both in Europe and worldwide. Globally, records have shown an increase from just under 750 in 2000 to around 1,750 in 2020. It is difficult to speculate exactly why this dramatic upturn has occurred. It may be linked to increasing demand and wider acceptance of the benefits of such technologies, but it could also be the result of momentum, as more technological improvements come to light.
Securing patent protection is vital for innovators, especially in fields where demand for technologies is increasing rapidly. It allows them to commercialise their innovations and bring new products to market, while preventing competitors from copying them and potentially undercutting them on price. Securing patent protection can also boost the company’s visibility in a particular sector, strengthening their market share over time. For NDT innovators, whose inventions frequently involve innovative ways of processing and analysing data, it is important to recognise that such developments may be patentable if they are new and achieve a real-world advantage.
Wider application of NDT means technologies are likely to become more sophisticated. Whether that’s to enable a remote working future, improve safety or efficiency, statistics show that there are plenty of innovators out there that are rising to the challenge.
Gemma McGeough and David Stanier are patent attorneys in the Advanced Engineering group at European intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers.