ARTICLE - Real-time Inspection with X-ray Vision

By David Campos / November 18, 2019

Ryan Green, Shaw Pipeline Services, USA, offers his outlook on the digital future of pipeline inspection and the pioneering technology available to the industry. Portability and ease of use make all the difference. As digital radiography gains ground and paves the way for safer pipeline construction and maintenance, it is not the concept of the system that needs improving, only the capacity.

“The future of NDT is digital!” – and with 16 years under his belt working for Shaw Pipeline Services (SPS), 12 of which he spent as a technician in the field, Operations Manager Ryan Green knows what he is talking about. In the past decade, SPS has been pioneering a transition into digital X-ray technology for pipeline weld inspection. This has completely changed the game of the industry, allowing it to provide faster, safer, better as well as more environmentally friendly services.

SPS is part of the Shawcor Ltd family, a leading oilfield service business that operates in 25 countries with more than 100 manufacturing and service facilities. SPS employs an average of 200 technicians in the field to assist contractors and ensure pipeline integrity in onshore and offshore projects across the world. Since the 1970s, SPS has been specializing in ultrasonic testing, which the company has advanced through the 1990s into a pioneering, automated girth weld inspection system that has enabled the accuracy and efficiency that is considered today’s industry standard.

“Only a few years ago, most of our work was predominantly performed with gamma and film, and we are still running our mobile darkroom for onsite film processing,” says Ryan Green. “But digital radiography is taking off right now, and in a couple of years, you will see it more and more. Gamma and film will always be around, but once people are on to digital X-ray on their projects, they won’t want to go back again.”

The reasons for this are obvious: The digital technology that SPS is using has enabled hitherto unmatched high-resolution images obtained in real-time and onsite – at twice the speed. For pipeline contractors, this not only means faster project time, but it also means that anomalies in the weld can be detected with extreme accuracy – which is huge for the contractors’ promises on pipeline integrity. In 2018, SPS introduced its next-generation digital system, TrueScan, which furthers its capabilities to even larger diameters, all while continuing to employ the COMET tube technology and maintaining its system portability.
 
Faster inspection means quicker projects
SPS are using X-ray equipment from COMET GROUP with panoramic tubes for the company’s crawler systems. For double wall inspection, SPS uses a portable set-up consisting of directional tubes with constant potential generators from COMET and a digital panel in combination with SPS’s specially developed mounting device. This set-up has turned out to be a winning combination, which has made it possible for SPS to pitch on much larger scale projects: “The set-up with digital radiography and the directional tube has made it possible for us to shorten inspection time compared to conventional film radiography, which, of course, means quicker projects. These systems have a really good cooling system, which allows the tubes to run for more extended periods without overheating. And you need the long exposure on a thicker pipe. With our good size fleet of these tubes, we can bid on larger projects,” Ryan Green explains.

SPS applies digital NDT for all pipes in the petrochemical industry, from gathering lines to processing and transmission lines. Pipe diameter is not an issue, and the digital radiography system can be set up to provide a single wall, single image, and double-wall, single image. The thickness of the steel is not a problem either. SPS’s fleet of EVO tubes from COMET is all three mA and 300 kV, which is the most powerful one you can get without losing the portability of the system. Ryan Green estimates that today, SPS uses portable, digital X-ray set-up on approximately 80% of its projects.
 
Portability gives a business advantage.
With digital comes portability, and with portability comes both remote image display and remote control of the X-ray set-up. The implementation of portable, digital radiography set-up with real-time imaging has meant a happy goodbye to the time-consuming development of films. The images are acquired instantaneously, and the data is simultaneously stored for immediate audit review as well as for the archive – also doing away with the process of digitizing film radiographs. In the world of pipelines, where time is as crucial a factor as in most other industries, instant access to high-resolution images has been no less than a paradigm shift for SPS’s weld inspection business. “Portability is huge and what makes our digital set-ups really nice. We have been awarded projects because of our ability to be more portable,” says Ryan Green.

The digital, portable set-up is a lot easier to operate and enables a much higher turnover. Welds can be inspected almost as soon as they have been completed, and the images are accessible straight away. The evaluation experts do not even have to be onsite but can, in principle, sit anywhere in the world with an Internet connection and scrutinize images for any anomalous weld seams. Needless to say, faster feedback time is a huge advantage for the contractor who has hundreds of miles of pipe to build or maintain.

Safety and the environment come first
This goodbye to gamma and film means not only faster and easier inspection, but also a much safer work process for personnel. The high collimation of the digital tubes has significantly reduced the exposure risk for those people working on inspection projects. And with no chemicals involved in the processing of the images, another big safety – and waste – the issue has simply disappeared. The introduction of digital radiography to the construction and maintenance of pipelines has provided the industry with a tool that can contribute to generally improving the integrity of pipelines. Needless to say, ensuring the safety of the environment and valuable nature reserves that the thousands of miles of pipelines sometimes have to cross through, as well as for people living nearby, is the top priority for everybody in the industry.

At SPS, every field worker on all the pipeline projects is aware of his/her responsibility. The simpler the radiography method and the higher resolution images generated by digital X-ray not only reduce the cost of carrying out inspection routines, but they also narrow the error margin – which again will lower the risk of incidents on the pipeline. As the digital approach becomes more widely applied across the world in the coming years, one may also see pipeline safety improved.
 
The future is definitively digital
For Ryan Green, there is no doubt that the digital approach to NDT is here to stay and that it will be the preferred method of pipeline inspection, as it will be requested more and more by clients. For SPS, the main challenge in the next few years will be in fleet management and the cost of investing in new equipment to keep up with the latest technology.

“Our first-generation of X-ray equipment is aging. We have had them for some years now, and it will be a key thing for us in the future to replace our old gear with new EVOs,” says Ryan Green. In the company’s expansion of its digital X-ray program, SPS has decided to partner up with one supplier, because a good relationship with the systems provider is of great importance: “We have decided to stay with COMET because we want to keep everything within one group – and not just because we can get some good deals price-wise on our large bulk orders. COMET supplies everything for our X-ray systems, and we get everything that we need from them. We like to maintain a good relationship because we get better service. The equipment is provided with great training on the systems and really good troubleshooting service if we need it,” says Ryan Green. “The COMET sales team is good at staying in touch – they visit, and they help take care of our needs. Things like that make a huge difference for us.”

The good relationship between SPS and its supplier of X-ray systems are also an example of how the industry makes technological advances. Users in the field provide feedback on the systems, and via the communication between the COMET support team and SPS, R&D in Denmark receives input on how their systems can be improved for even better performance in the future. For Ryan Green, it is the portability and the ease of use of the systems that matter most in driving the industry to safer pipeline construction and maintenance. For him, the only real challenge lies not in the proof of the system itself, but rather in increasing his company’s capacity.

“Penetration power to scan thicker steel is what we have obtained with the 300 kV EVO tubes. What I would like to see in the future is even more powerful X-ray tubes without losing portability. With more power, we increase the quality and production of inspections,” Ryan Green concludes. 

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