Most recently, the company has optimized its ultrasound NDE system to support large and complex structures and very attenuated products, such as rocket payload fairings. Ultran’s latest applications incorporate interconnectivity and networking to partner with systems integrators. These partners bring robotics and multi-axis scanning capability to the projects.

“We fit the non-contact ultrasound system on the robot and establish a protocol to speak to the robot’s motion controller,” says Michael Whetzel, COO of the Ultran Group.” We must be aware of cable locations and deal with electrical noise from the robot’s motors while still maximizing acquisition of the data. There’s no standard protocol, and so each time, we work with the system integrator to either transmit our data to the robot controller or to use our software to present the data to the customer in a way that is easy for them to interpret.” Whetzel says the Ultran Group is one generation away from standardizing a communications protocol, however there aren’t enough projects to require that just yet.

Like Blake of Aligned Vision, Whetzel views big data as the key to refining the composites industry’s approach to defining a defect. “Right now, ultrasound can identify a part that is not uniform, but it can’t tell you whether that constitutes a defect. The customer must correlate non-uniformities and variation to interpret whether it is a defect in their world,” says Whetzel. “I believe that in the future, big data will automate the determination of defects so that a technician isn’t required.”

For now, says Whetzel, most one-off composite parts are constantly changing so there’s not enough data yet, especially in aerospace and rocket applications. But the automotive industry has volumes, which can facilitate data analytics in the future. “That will lead to closed-loop manufacturing that can detect and correct the process when it falls out of specification limits,” says Whetzel.

State-of-the-Art Thermography

While many NDE methods require the evaluation equipment to be close to or touching the part, Thermal Wave Imaging Inc. departs from that model with its Large-Standoff, Large-Area Thermography (LASLAT) system, which performs NDE of large composite structures using projection thermography and high-resolution cameras.

LASLAT operates at a 10- to 15-foot standoff distance from the part being inspected at rates as high as 8-square-feet per minute, depending on the material and minimum defect size requirement. Instead of moving the instrument along the body of the large part with a robot, gantry or drone, LASLAT is set in one position and its beam is automatically scanned over the target surface. At each defined subsection, the scan stops, projects heat via light and measures the rate of cooling to identify issues such as delamination, impact damage or water entrapment.