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Metals testing transformed by 21st-Century technology

Feb 28, 2014 | 08:00 PM | Bill Beck

Tags  XRF, X-Ray flourescence, XRF handhelds, Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., AGT400, Advanced Gauging Technologies, Steve Venters, Ronald Cook isotope thickness gauges

Metals testing has been transformed by 21st-Century technology. In a field that was more art than science just 20 years ago, when eyeball inspection was the norm rather than the exception, computerization and LED technology have revolutionized metals testing.

Today, an operator with a laser device can determine the thickness of steel coils in a fraction of the time it took before. A sorter in a scrapyard can use a handheld tool the size of a cordless drill to accurately measure the alloys of a piece of scrap. Workers in a pipe and tube mill can use sophisticated hydrostatic testing to reveal hidden flaws or minute cracks in the interior walls.

Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., a Waltham, Mass.-based manufacturer of sophisticated handheld alloy analyzers, said its products “are engineered from the ground up to deliver new levels of productivity and analytical capability to today’s metal recycling industry.” The company said its alloy analyzers “allow users to perform more than 1,000 readings in an eight-hour shift--from trace-level analysis to pure metals and everything in between.”

While larger companies dominate a large portion of the testing equipment market, some breakthrough technologies still come out of tiny mom-and-pop companies, reminiscent of the computer technology that came out of California garages a half-century ago.

For much of the past few decades, the thickness of coil, sheet or strip metal has been measured by service centers with isotope gauges such as the AGT400 manufactured by Advanced Gauging Technologies LLC. An isotope gauge typically consists of a computer, monitor, printer and advanced electronics located in an electronics cabinet connected to a C-frame that includes a source head and a detector head. The C-frame is mounted on the processing line so that the material being measured passes between the source and the detector head. Isotope gauges such as the AGT400 use a very small amount of radioactive material to measure the thickness of the material passing through the C-frame.

“There is a shutter in the source head that opens and releases the radiation. The detector head located on the other side of the material measures the amount of radiation that passes through,” Steve Venters, sales manager at Advanced Gauging Technologies, explained.

Entrepreneur Ronald Cook and his son, Scott, co-founded Advanced Gauging Technologies nearly 20 years ago in Plain City, a small town halfway between Columbus and Marysville, Ohio. The company’s small staff manufactures an average of 10 to 16 AGT400 isotope thickness gauges annually and services more than 400 gauges, most located in metal service centers across North America. About half the devices serviced are isotope thickness gauges manufactured by Advanced Gauging Technologies.

Isotope thickness gauges comprise only a small part of the total cost of a production line, and Advanced Gauging Technologies said its product typically “pays for itself within a year or less.”

But there is one drawback to an isotope thickness gauge: the radioactive material used in the gauge. “It’s a very small amount of radioactive material, basically the same material used in many smoke detectors,” Venters said. Still, because the material is radioactive it must be licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and inspected at regular intervals, which means paperwork requirements for both the vendor and the customer.

As a result, Advanced Gauging Technologies has spent the past year designing and testing its new AGT800 laser thickness gauge, which it released for commercial use in late 2013. “It works the same way as the isotope gauge,” Venters said, “except it uses laser beams mounted on the C-frame to measure the thickness of the material. One of the biggest advantages, of course, is that there’s no NRC licensing requirement.”

Advanced Gauging’s first production AGT800 has been installed on a new 96-inch Butech Bliss stretch leveler/cut-to-length line at an Alabama service center. “We’re very excited about the opportunity to offer the AGT800 to our customers. It also gives us the capability to measure additional types of materials, such as films and plastics, which opens the door for new markets,” Venters said. “Accordingly, we are anticipating a pretty good period of growth over the next few years.”

One problem plaguing owners of U.S. scrapyards is the difficulty of sorting various grades of ferrous and nonferrous scrap. For most of the past 100 years, sorting has involved eddy (or electromagnetic) currents, along with the sharp eyes of experienced human sorters.

In 2002, Woburn, Mass.-based Innov-X Systems Inc.--which in 2010 was purchased by Olympus NDT Inc., part of Tokyo-based high-technology company Olympus Corp.--came out with the first fully operational X-ray fluorescence (XRF) handheld detector using a fully operational X-ray tube instead of radioactive material. Olympus, as well as Thermo Fisher Scientific and several other manufacturers, make XRF handhelds for a variety of applications, from sorting scrap to identifying microscopic ore samples in mining operations.

Olympus noted that the advances in electronics during the past dozen years that have made cell phones, tablets and computers smaller, faster and less expensive have had the same impact on XRF handheld analyzers. The company pointed out that the size and flexibility of its product line can help scrapyards sort everything from metals turnings to medical-grade stainless steel. Bill Beck

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