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Scanning For Fractures On Assembly Lines

January 13, 2011
Written by: , Filed in: Diagnostic Imaging, Musculoskeletal Radiology
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Hairline fractures can cause bigger problems outside the human body than inside. A tiny crack in a turbine blade, for example, could wreak havoc on a jet engine. A new generation of industrial CT machines helps guard against such catastrophes. They can find flaws as small as 1 micron in size—about one-50th the diameter of a human hair.

The scanners are called micro CTs. To penetrate dense materials, they have to pump out a lot of radiation. But when the “patient” is a machine component on an assembly line, it doesn’t matter.

Anne Eisenberg of the New York Times recently examined the state of the industrial scanning art. Early industrial CT systems were slow and hard to use, she reported. But micro CT machines can inspect small components in as little as six seconds, making them usable on production lines for inspecting individual parts or assemblies.

Industrial CT machines, unlike medical scanners, have a stationary X-ray source and detector. In the factory, it’s the subject that turns. Fortunately, unlike human patients, inanimate objects don’t complain.

Neil Gershenfeld, PhD, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, installed a micro CT machine at MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, which he directs.

He said it can measure the external and internal dimensions of objects so precisely that a duplicate can usually be created from its data. That, said Dr. Gershenfeld, makes it popular on campus with engineers, biologists, and artists.

An engineer or artist, for example, can make a clay model that can quickly be turned into a prototype or full-size sculpture without the necessity for creating drawings. “Once it’s scanned,” Dr. Gershenfeld said, “the data can go right to a 3-D printer for rapid prototyping.”

The scanner can also be used for less original purposes, such as reverse engineering.

“Historically, the term has meant industrial espionage,” Dr. Gershenfeld said. “But in a world of open-source software, reverse engineering can be used not to infringe, but to learn how objects work and what’s in them.”

Not that one would use that knowledge to copy someone else’s creation without permission or anything.

Micro CT scanners even have medical applications, though not involving living organisms. Baylor College of Medicine in Texas has one that it uses for bone research.

Related seminar: Computed Body Tomography: The Cutting Edge

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