It could happen anywhere. An airline is about to send a jet to the gate, when a mechanic detects a possible crack in the fuselage during a routine check.
The carrier, which stands to lose more than a million dollars per day on a plane that’s grounded, calls in a more experienced technician who does more tests and quickly confirms or rules out the damage. “Today, that’s the ideal scenario,” says Bob Ward, a general manager at GE Inspection Technologies. “But it’s not always possible to get verification of testing data so quickly.”
Ward, whose specialty is electromagnetic eddy current testing, and his team recently developed a portable system connected to the Industrial Internet that allows mechanics to test parts and tap the wisdom of the crowd to analyze them. “We saw that there was a need in the marketplace to lower the learning curve for young inspectors and transfer knowledge to them from older workers,” Ward says.
The technology is similar to GE systems already working in medicine. Rural doctors in Sweden, for example, use it to share patient X-rays with specialists at a central hospital. The goal is to provide radiologists with quick access to patient files and images, reduce the number of duplicate exams and speed up second opinions.
Likewise, workers can use Ward’s system, called Mentor EM, to inspect everything from airplanes to welds joints and pipeline walls.
The system records testing data, matches it with inspection guidelines developed by experienced inspectors, and displays the results on a tablet-like device. It also ditigizes the paper trail.
Technicians can use it to communicate with their peers around the world. “The customer can feel confident the data inspectors are getting when they need to decide whether a plane should fly,” Ward says.
Like other non-destructive diagnostic tools, the system uses eddy-current to detect tiny cracks inside parts or under layers of paint. The probe generates a complimentary magnetic field that induces eddy current in parts made from conductive materials. Defects change the flow of the current and alter the magnetic field.
Reading the signals, however, is a complex task that often requires years of expertise with the instrument. Even experts frequently rely on thick field manuals to read the data and compare notes with colleagues to interpret the results.
The best inspectors are not getting younger. Some 40 percent of them are 56 years old or older. “There’s a problem with the pipeline of technicians,” Ward says. He believes that Mentor will help to bridge the skills gap.