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Pressure Vessel Inspections Using Ultrasonic Phased Arrays

Michael Moles, Noël Dubé and Frédéric Jacques


Phased arrays offer significant technical advantages for weld inspections over
conventional ultrasonics. The phased array beams can be steered, scanned, swept and
focused electronically. Beam steering permits the selected beam angles to be optimized
ultrasonically by orienting them perpendicular to the predicted defects, especially Lack of
Fusion. Electronic (linear) scanning permits very rapid coverage of the welds. Beam
steering (usually called sectorial or azimuthal scanning) can be used for mapping welds at
appropriate angles to optimize Probability of Detection of defects. Electronic focusing
permits optimizing the beam shape and size at the expected defect location, also to
optimize Probability of Detection. Overall, the use of phased arrays permits optimizing
defect detection while minimizing inspection time.

The paper describes the application of phased arrays for inspecting pressure vessel welds.
Phased arrays offer significant practical advantages over conventional automated
inspections. Thick section weld inspections typically use the established “top, side, end”
or “top, side, TOFD” views of the weld. Other displays can be used, e.g. strip charts for
zone discrimination scanning of narrow gap welds. Special inspections can be easily
performed with phased arrays, e.g. additional beams for extra coverage, multiple angles
or inspection set-ups simultaneously, or special scans such as tandem probes. Different
delivery systems and instrumentation can be assembled for any required scan. Fitness-
For-Service inspections requiring high PoD and accurate sizing can be performed using
upscale systems. These phased array inspections can be tailored to any known code


A wide variety of pressure vessels are used in a similarly wide variety of industries:
petrochemical, defense, oil and gas, energy, general manufacturing. These vessels are
typically made from sections (usually ferritic steel) and welded together. Unfortunately,
welding often produces defects, which can propagate with time and fail, sometimes
catastrophically. The welds are (usually) inspected for defects, normally using the ASME
code. For pressure vessel inspections, ASME Section V (ASME 2001) is the relevant
code, with NDT covered under Articles 4 and 5. The ASME code has been the mainstay
of PV inspections for decades.

02 a 06 de Junho de 2003 / June 2 to 6 2003

Rio de Janeiro - RJ - Brasil
Why Ultrasonics?

Radiography has been the mainstay of pressure vessel inspections for many years.
However, radiography has significant technical disadvantages. First, it is hazardous;
personnel have to be moved away, or the vessel must be moved to a safe location for
inspection. Second, radiography typically delays production or delays inspection,
potentially leading to bottlenecks or unexpected repairs. Third, radiography only detects
critical lack of fusion and cracking defects when they are suitably oriented. Fourth,
radiography cannot size the vertical height of defects, which eliminates any application of
Engineering Critical Assessment (ECA) (also called Fracture Mechanics). Fifth, it is
subjective. Six, film costs and exposure times are high.

The competing inspection technology is ultrasonics. In contrast to radiography,

ultrasonics is safe, can be done on site, can be performed as soon as the weld is cool
enough, should minimize any production delays, and can size the vertical height of
defects with some accuracy and confidence.

Until the nuclear industry started developing automated ultrasonic techniques a couple of
decades ago, ultrasonic testing was performed manually. Manual UT is time-consuming
and highly operator-dependent. Round robin testing showed significant variations in
ability and results, including human factors. Mechanized or automated ultrasonics (AUT)
has been available for some time, but has been slow and relatively expensive for day-to-
day use. However, speeds have increased and costs reduced with time. Generally, AUT
has proved a lot more repeatable than manual UT. The advent of diffraction-based
techniques like TOFD have significantly improved defect sizing for ECA applications.

More recently, ultrasonic phased arrays have become commercially available. Phased
arrays now offer the considerable flexibility needed for the wide variety of pressure
vessel welds on the market, plus increased inspection speed. Phased arrays have been
penetrating the market for key applications, but still suffer from the disadvantage of being
a new technology, and requiring skilled operators. Equipment purchase costs are still
comparatively high, but are decreasing. However, operating (i.e. variable) costs are lower
than radiography.

The ASME Code and AUT:

ASME Section V is normally used for manual ultrasonic testing (MUT), but has
provisions for AUT as well. For example, Article 4 T-436 refers to “Computer Imaging
Techniques”, while Article 5 requires details of data recording and scanning mechanisms
to be included in the procedure description. For example, ASME V permits alternate
techniques to the usual DAC (Distance Amplitude Correction) curves, calibration block
design and targets. In fact, Section V Article B-4 Appendix B-6 specifically states that
other techniques can be used, while Section V Article 1 in T-150 indicates that alternate
techniques should be equal or superior to the standard techniques (i.e. MUT). An
Authorized Inspector must approve any such (documented) procedures.
Ultrasonic inspections are required in several of the ASME pressure vessel and power
piping Codes and Code Sections. These Sections; I, III, VIII and XI as well as the piping
requirements of B31.1 and B31.3; invariably reference Section V for details of
requirements in methods, procedures and qualifications. These inspections usually
specify “raster scanning” in pulse-echo mode, using two suitable angles at least 10o apart,
with specifications on coverage etc.

ASME Code Case 2235

More recently, ASME published Code Case 2235-4 (ASME 2001), which permits “non-
amplitude, computer recorded” inspection techniques, which are widely interpreted as
Time-Of-Flight Diffraction (TOFD). Code Case 2235 is an option for replacing
radiography for fitness-for-service acceptance under specific circumstances (ASME 2001
a). This Code Case requires a performance demonstration, showing detection on three
flaws, as a minimum.

Other Codes

There are other Codes or Standards regulating the requirements of pressure vessels,
including API 510 (pressure vessel code), API 570 (piping), API 572 (inspection of
vessels) and a variety of European codes.

Ultrasonic phased arrays

How phased arrays work

Ultrasonic phased arrays are similar in principle to phased array radar, sonar and other
wave physics applications. However, ultrasonic development is behind the other
applications due to a smaller market, shorter wavelengths, mode conversions and more
complex components. Several authors have reviewed applications of ultrasonic phased
arrays (Clay et al, 1999, Wustenberg et al., 1999, Lafontaine and Cancre, 2000), though
industrial uses have been limited until the last few years.

From a practical viewpoint, ultrasonic phased arrays are merely a method of generating
and receiving ultrasound; once the ultrasound is in the material, it is independent of
generation method, whether generated by piezoelectric, electromagnetic, laser or phased
arrays. Consequently, many of the details of ultrasonic inspection remain unchanged; for
example, if 7.5 MHz were the optimum inspection frequency with conventional
ultrasonics, then phased arrays would typically use the same frequency, focal length, and
incident angle.

Phased arrays use an array of elements, all individually wired, pulsed and time-shifted.
These elements are typically pulsed in groups from 4-32, usually 16 elements for pipeline
welds. In order to make a user-friendly system, a typical set-up calculates the time-delays
from operator-input, or uses a pre-defined file containing inspection angle, focal distance,
scan pattern etc (see Figure 1). The time delay values are back calculated using time-of-
flight from the focal spot, and the scan assembled from individual “Focal Laws”. Time
delay circuits must be accurate to around 2 nanoseconds to provide the accuracy required.

Figure 1: Schematic showing generation of linear and sectorial scans using phased arrays.

While it can be time-consuming to prepare the first set-up, the information is recorded in
a file and only takes seconds to re-load. Also, modifying a prepared set-up is quick in
comparison with physically adjusting conventional transducers.

Types of scans
Using electronic generation and receiving provides significant opportunities for a variety
of scan patterns.

Electronic (Linear) Scans

Multiplexing along an array produces electronic scans (see Figure 2). Typical arrays have
up to 128 elements, pulsed in groups of 8 to 16. Electronic scanning permits rapid
coverage with a tight focal spot. If the array is flat and linear, then the scan pattern is a
simple B-scan. If the array is curved, then the scan pattern will be curved. Linear scans
are straightforward to program. For example, a phased array can be readily programmed
to inspect a weld using 45o and 60o shear waves, which emulate conventional manual

Figure 2: Schematic illustration of electronic (linear) scanning.

Sectorial (Azimuthal) Scans
Sectorial scans use the same set of elements, but alter the time delays to sweep the beam
through a series of angles (see Figure 3). Again, this is a straightforward scan to program.
Applications for sectorial scanning typically involve a stationary array, sweeping across a
relatively inaccessible component like a turbine blade root (Ciorau et al, 2000) to map out
the features (and defects). Depending primarily on the array frequency and element
spacing, the sweep angles can vary from + 20o up to + 80o.


Figure 3: Schematic showing sectorial scanning used on turbine rotor.

Combined Scans
Combining electronic scanning and sectorial scanning with precision focusing leads to a
practical combination of displays (see Figure 4 for an example). Optimum angles can be
selected for welds and other components, while scanning permits fast and functional
inspections. A related approach applies to weld inspections, where specific angles are
often required for given weld geometries; for these applications, specific beam angles are
programmed for specific weld facets at specific locations. This is the principle of zone
discrimination (see below).

Figure 4: top, ultrasonic scanning pattern using sectorial and electronic scanning;
bottom, ultrasonic image using all data merged together.
Many multiprobe systems and phased arrays use a “linear scanning” approach. Here the
probe pan is scanned linearly round or along the weld, while each transducer sweeps out
a specific area of the weld. This makes AUT with linear scanning much faster than
single transducer techniques. Phased arrays for linear weld inspections operate on the
same principle as the multiprobe approach, though the probe pans are much smaller;
additionally, phased arrays offer considerably greater flexibility than conventional AUT.
Typically, it is much easier to change the set-up electronically, either by modifying the
set-up or reloading another; often it is possible to use many more beams (equivalent to
conventional transducers) with phased arrays; special inspections can be implemented
simply by loading a set-up file.

Evaluating the ASME Code for Ultrasonics:

Not surprisingly, several attempts have been made to determine how well ultrasonics
performs on the detection and sizing of defects. These have been primarily driven by the
nuclear industry, which has both the need and resources. The most extensive and
expensive trial was the PISC II program, which involved over thirty teams and many
thick samples (Nichols and Crutzen, 1988). Many of the inspections were performed
using ASME –related procedures, though alternative techniques and procedures were also
used. The data permitted some general conclusions on Probability of Detection, and
earmarked some novel techniques, such as TOFD for defect sizing.

The PISC and other trials were aimed at evaluating techniques and procedures. In
contrast, phased arrays are a technology, which can use any technique or procedure. AUT
technology has advanced significantly since the nuclear trials in the early 1980’s: focused
transducers, improved procedures and techniques (TOFD and tandem), better data
collection and display.

Typical Inspection Approaches

Due to their flexibility, phased arrays can perform any of the ASME code inspections. It
is possible to divide the inspections into three approximate categories:
1. ASME CC 2235 TOFD scans: The simplest solution is to perform linear TOFD
scans using phased arrays. To properly inspect the known TOFD dead zones on
the inside and outside of the vessel, R/D Tech also believes in combining TOFD
with pulse-echo. These inspections can be performed with a limited amount of
equipment, but are essentially “single technique” approaches.
2. General phased array inspections: This approach uses the flexibility of phased
arrays to perform raster scans to fulfill ASME Section V requirements. Thus
linear scanning is used along the weld, with the arrays performing electronic
scanning to give multiangle coverage. Besides conventional scans and TOFD, it is
possible to perform specialized scans for specific defects, e.g. transverse scans or
pitch-catch for vertical defects.
3. Premium phased array inspections for ECA: Highly reliable inspections are
required for some fitness-for-purpose inspections. With phased arrays, it is
possible to develop custom systems which can use two or more independent
inspection techniques for all areas (outside surface, inside surface, mid-wall
region, transverse defects), plus use alternate diffraction techniques to improve
sizing. These systems offer maximized Probability of Detection (PoD) with high
inspection speeds.

Figure 5 below shows the electronic scanning approach for fulfilling the ASME Section
V code requirements. In this instance, traditional 45 and 60o raster scans are used, with
the axial movement mechanical and the rastering movement electronic. By collecting all
waveform data, full image reconstruction can be performed by merging the data.

Figure 5: rastering at two angles using a single array and linear scanning.

Typical results on a medium pressure vessel weld inspection (around 50 mm) are shown
in Figure 6 below. These results show merged 45o and 60o scan results in “top, side”
format, plus an additional double TOFD display from twin TOFD pairs.

Figure 6: Left, “top, side” view of weld with defects. Right; TOFD scans of the same
The scan speed is primarily dictated by the specifications, specifically the type of scan
(raster, TOFD or zone discrimination), amount of data collected (amplitude only, or full
waveform), number of pulses etc. For zone discrimination, scanning speed is 100
mm/sec, while thick pressure vessels are usually scanned at speeds of 10-20 mm/sec.

Delivery Systems

Like pressure vessels themselves, there are many different types of delivery systems.
The simplest system is a handscanner, as shown below. Handscanners will work for a
pair of arrays, plus some additional TOFD or other transducers. This is adequate for
ASME CC2235 inspections, or raster inspections of thinner vessels.

Figure 7: Typical handscanner configuration.

Belt Scanners

Belt scanners work well for pipes and vessels up to around 1.5 m diameter. Accurately
positioning them on larger vessels becomes difficult. Figure 8 below shows a welding
band in use for pipeline girth weld inspections. Belt scanners permit much faster travel
speeds than handscanners.
Figure 8: Welding band for pipeline girth weld inspections.

Rotate the Vessel

For larger vessels, the simplest and cheapest solution is to rotate the vessel. This is shown
schematically in Figure 9 below. However, it is important to be able to track the weld
with known accuracy.

Figure 9: Schematic showing rotating the vessel for weld inspections.

Magnetic Wheel Scanners

Another alternative is to use magnetic wheel scanners, such as TRAKER shown below in
Figure 10. TRAKER can follow a magnetic strip, so that any straight weld, nozzle or
bend can be tracked simply by adjusting the strip.

Figure 10: TRAKER magnetic wheel scanner inspecting vertical weld.


Automated ultrasonics (AUT) is now permitted for many pressure vessel weld
inspections, and offers significant advantages over radiography: no safety issues,
inspections shortly after welding, better Probability of Detection, plus defect vertical
sizing capability for ECA applications.

Phased arrays offer excellent potential for pressure vessel weld inspections: both TOFD
and ASME V raster scans can be performed, inspection speeds are significantly higher
than older mechanized conventional ultrasonics, there is minimal operator subjectivity,
and inspections can be custom tailored. The main problems are initial equipment costs
and the availability of trained operators.

1. Automated ultrasonics can overcome the limitations of radiography for pressure
vessel inspections: safety, high probability of defect detection, vertical defect
sizing, low data storage costs, plus offers the practical ability of inspecting right
after welding.
2. Phased arrays offer significantly improved inspections over conventional
ultrasonic systems: great flexibility for different components, high inspection
speeds, custom-tailored scans for specific defect types and geometry’s, tailored
imaging, rapid set-ups using electronic files.
3. The main limitations of phased arrays are the high (but dropping) initial cost,
technology awareness, and operators.

Keywords: welds, pressure vessels, ultrasonics, phased arrays, beam steering, electronic
scanning, sectorial scanning.


ASME 2001, ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel code, Section V, Nondestructive
Examination, 2001 Edition, July 1, 2001, The American Society of Mechanical

ASME 2001, ASME Code Case 2235-4, November 30, 2001, The American Society of
Mechanical Engineers.

ASME 2001 a, ASME Code Case 2235-4, November 30, 2001, The American Society of
Mechanical Engineers. See Section I, para. PW-11; Section VIII, Division 1, para. UW-
11(a); and Section VIII, Division 2, Table AF-241.1.

Ciorau P., D. MacGillivray, T. Hazelton, L.Gilham, D. Craig and J.Poguet, “In-situ

examination of ABB l-0 blade roots and rotor steeple of low-pressure steam turbine,
using phased array technology”, 15th World Conference on NDT, Rome, Italy, October
11-15, 2000.

Clay A.C., S-C. Wooh, L. Azar and J-Y. Wang, “Experimental Study of Phased Array
Beam Characteristics”, Journal of NDE, vol 18, no. 2, June 1999, page 59.

Lafontaine G. and F. Cancre, “Potential of Ultrasonic Phased Arrays for Faster, Better
and Cheaper Inspections”,, vol 5, no. 10, October 2000
R.W. Nichols and S. Crutzen, “Ultrasonic Inspection of Heavy Section Steel Components
- The PISC II Final Report”, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988.

Wüstenberg H, A. Erhard and G. Shenk, “Some Characteristic Parameters of Ultrasonic

Phased Array Probes and Equipments”,, vol 4, no. 4,
The Authors

1. Michael D. C. Moles (Author for correspondence)

R/D Tech
5205 Tomken Road
Mississauga, Ontario
Canada L4W 3N8
Tel: (905) 629-0220
Fax: (905) 629-8383

2. Noël Dubé
VP, Industrial Division
R/D Tech
505, boul du Parc Technologique
Québec, PQ
Canada G1P 4S9
Tel: (418) 872-1155
Fax: (418) 877-0141
E-mail :

3. Frédéric Jacques
Manager, Heavy Industry
R/D Tech
505, boul du Parc Technologique
Québec, PQ
Canada G1P 4S9
Tel: (418) 877-9535
Fax: (418) 877-0141