How do you explain what we do and does it enlighten the general public?

How many times have you been asked what you do for a living and, when you reply ‘non-destructive testing (NDT)’ or ‘non-destructive examination (NDE)’ (not ‘near death experience’, unless we do not do our job correctly), you see the person’s eyes glaze over? I often start my explanation by asking if they fly and, if so, whether they would like the plane to be checked for cracks before they fly and, without fail, they say yes. This usually gains their interest, so I then try to relate it to a medical experience that they or an acquaintance may have had in hospital, such as an ultrasound scan during pregnancy, an X-ray for a broken bone or an endoscopic examination, where the doctor is able to see inside the body with a camera on a flexible rod. Usually, there is confirmation that they have had experience of or heard of one of these techniques. I can then explain that we are able to use these technologies to check aircraft, nuclear power stations, bridges, chemical plants and many other items. I do like to use the more dramatic applications just to show how important we are and then throw in some of the other methods, such as infrared, magnetics and, for good measure, some condition monitoring.

When my daughter was younger she would say that I tested bits of metal. This is in no way as exciting as my explanation, but no less correct. She has seen some of the methods in action and found fluorescent magnetics and penetrant testing the most interesting, probably due to the ‘cool’ UVA lights and the appearance of cracks that could not be seen in daylight. Strangely, ultrasonic testing did not appeal too much, which was probably due to the couplant and the greater need to understand the method to obtain results.

My wife works with the elderly and, often, after a fall, they attend hospital for an X-ray to check for a break, only to be discharged without any problems being diagnosed but still complaining of pain. After another visit and additional X-rays, a fracture is sometimes found that was missed on the first X-ray. The explanation for this is that the beam of radiation needs to be at the correct angle to the line of the fracture to create the difference in the received radiation.

The challenges do not stop with laypeople: engineers can be equally challenging if they have little knowledge of NDT. They have skewed expectations and often do not relate to codes, standards or procedures, expecting that ‘we’, the experts, know what needs doing and will not find anything wrong as the lorry is due in an hour to take the component.

How do you explain what we do and does it enlighten the general public?

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