Ultrasound… A Jack of All Trades

The Swiss Army Knife of Condition Monitoring

“Versatile” is an attribute often used to describe ultrasound technology. Some have even coined it the “Swiss Army Knife” of condition monitoring. Depending on your perception of Swiss army knives, that could be both flattering and condemning at the same time. The knife itself is iconic with Swiss-made quality, while the phrase “Swiss Army Knife”, over time, morphed into an adjective to describe craftspeople with diverse skills, capable of practically any task.The Jack of All Trades evolved from a simpler time. Before technology spawned the need for “specialists”, handymen were called upon to fix practically anything. They remain a holdover from our rural roots, when it was good economy to just fix it yourself. My father is a JAT personified.

For some ultrasound brands, the swiss army knife analogy to durability and quality are appropriate. Yet there is a tendency to be wary of things — and people — who claim they can fix everything and anything. A “Jack of all Trades” may seem handy at times, but he also comes with the stigma of being good at many things, but master of nothing.

Is it dangerous in today’s high-tech world to call upon unskilled tradespeople who consistently demonstrate their willingness to help? A skilled carpenter has more than likely dabbled with electrical wiring, but unless he is trained and certified to a national electrical code, it’s probably not a great idea to ask him to wire your home. Similarly, a licensed plumber is always a better choice over a DIY handyman for your bathroom renovation.

This is not the case for ultrasound testing where there are so many applications. More hidden defects are found with this technology than any other condition monitoring technique. What’s more, these issues are often discovered by inspectors with little or no experience. And that may be ultrasound’s most significant appeal. It is a technology for the people.

Operator Driven Reliability

Many of the tasks possible with ultrasound are easy to execute. Some require less than an hour of instruction in the hands of a conscientious inspector. Scanning for leaks, inspecting shaft couplings, and testing steam traps are just three examples of simple checks an operator might perform on her work area at the beginning or end of a shift to ensure assets were found and left in good working order. And there are many more tasks that should be considered the primary responsibility of asset operators; not the Condition Monitoring team.

This strategy leverages the familiarity operators have acquired from working with the same assets, day in and day out. Operator inspections can reduce energy waste and even lead to fewer unplanned emergency maintenance interventions. They help take a load off the condition monitoring and maintenance teams who now have more time to focus on assets with higher criticality ratings.

Ultrasound also has its limits. Conducting a plant-wide leak survey on your compressed air network? Ultrasound is the tool of choice. On the other hand, searching for a minuscule Freon leak in an air conditioning system might be asking too much. There are better technologies for finding Freon leaks. The risk of deploying this trusted technology for tasks where it is not well-suited is very real. Consequently, understanding when and where ultrasound gets utilized, is as important to your success as are the skills and techniques of the inspector.

The Eight Pillars of Ultrasound

In all, SDT identifies eight domains for applying ultrasound to asset reliability. These eight are famously known as “The Eight Pillars of Ultrasound” and address these elements:

Stay FIT

The eight pillars support reliability in a world of unreliable assets. But it is easy to understand how the technology could be prone to misuse. To guide novice inspectors SDT devised a simple, three-letter acronym. All assets will produce ultrasound in the presence of three phenomena; Friction, Impacting, and Turbulence. Together they spell FIT. If you believe the failure mode you are searching for produces one, two, or all three of these conditions, then Ultrasound is a FIT for your FMEA (Failure Mode and Effects Analysis).

Reliability leaders who laud ultrasound’s versatility are cautioned not to over-extend its capabilities. A proven defender against so many potential failure modes, resist the temptation to push ultrasound to perform unsuitable tasks. The expression, “you’re only as good as your last win” cuts with a double-edged blade. The exuberance from finding one game-changing production-halting defect can quickly be replaced with the depressing apathy of one failed diagnosis. The foundation of trust built by ten wins can crumble under the weight of one missed call.

In our family, receiving a Swiss Army Knife on your birthday was a rite of passage into manhood. The tradition served as a reminder of our heritage and a simpler, do-it-yourself era. Whether the gadget was used to cut a length of string, remove a screw, whittle a piece of word, or trim a stubborn fingernail, the multi-faceted tool gifted the user with convenience and self-sufficiency.

The parallel to ultrasound instruments emphasizes that every condition monitoring inspection need not be carried out by specialists. While the importance of good training is still important, simple techniques with easy-to-use technologies can net significant rewards for reliability.

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