Virtual testing of parts could replace physical tests

Written by: Tom Austin-Morgan | Published:
Virtual qualification captures geometries on the micro-scale, enabling bespoke modelling which accounts for minor imperfections that are usually disregarded, e.g. in this fusion energy heat exchange component.

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 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

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.

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.

“Virtual qualification can be a big boost for the manufacturing industry. But to make it worth companies’ while using it on their production lines, it has to be quick enough to work on the large scale they need,” explained Dr Evans. “As well as saving time, automatic processing can give better data on how each individual part is performing, not just a simple pass or fail.”

The Swansea-led project will run for five years, involving 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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