On any streets and sidewalks, we can be walking over buried steel pipes that may be transporting water and natural gas to homes and businesses. At eye level, thinner tubes can become fences, railings, scaffolding—or protective sheaths for electrical wiring. Their lives begin in the manufacturing plant as steel strips that are heated until they are red-hot, then formed, cut and welded into different-sized tubes.
Until now, making steel tubes has been time-consuming and expensive, since operators had to remove them from the production line when they reached 900°C, wait for them to cool down, cut them and measure the wall thickness. If their size did not meet specifications, tubes had to be rejected or retooled.
With game-changing sensor technologies developed by the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), this process has become faster, more efficient and less wasteful. This means that companies can set up production lines to meet product specifications more quickly, and better control the entire manufacturing process.
The NRC's online laser-based ultrasonic thickness (LUT) is a real-time monitoring system that arms operators with the information they need within a few seconds. "It uses a laser that sends ultrasonic pulses through the hot tubes moving through production," says Dr. Alain Blouin, Optical Technology Team Leader at the NRC's Energy, Mining and Environment Research Centre. "When the LUT detects fabrication issues, the operator can react immediately and production can resume." He points out that in addition to improving production yield, this reduces the amount of scrap metal and related disposal costs.
From the lab to the factory
Dr. Blouin adds that one of the NRC's challenges is getting their inventions to market, so relationships with Canadian industries are critical. "Our goal is to support Canadian industry by helping them develop their own technology, or creating original technology that suppliers can license and commercialize."
The LUT solution is a case in point. Originally invented and developed by an NRC research team at the NRC's labs in Boucherville, Québec, it was licensed to Tecnar, a small Canadian company founded in 1989. Today, the firm based in Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville, Québec, is manufacturing and exporting not only LUT gauges, but also other NRC-developed technologies such as thermal spraying particle sensors and industrial laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) sensors.
According to Tecnar CEO Alexandre Nadeau, the relationship with the NRC is a symbiotic fit. "The NRC bridges the gap between academia and corporate, and supports us in a number of ways," he says. The organization works with researchers and enterprises to shorten the time between research and commercialization by identifying opportunities for partnerships with companies that can sell their inventions, and helping them make connections to expedite the process. In this case, the NRC's vision is aligned with Tecnar's—and their sensor technology has taken off.
The 45-employee company has distributed products to global leaders in aerospace, power generation and heavy industry in more than 23 countries. Further growth is on the horizon, especially with solutions such as LUT, which is now in its second generation. Since 2001, Tecnar has sold 26 LUT systems to some of the world's biggest tube manufacturers. Plans are to produce about 2 gauges annually at a unit cost of C$1.7-million, with a longer-term goal of saturating the 500-unit global market.
Tecnar's customers are also attracted by wide-ranging benefits that go beyond in-plant efficiency and safety. "There are about 200 lines of pipes in the world, each producing about 100,000 km of tubes weighing 100 million tonnes a year," says Nadeau. "Using our product, you can reduce waste by about 5%."
While Tecnar is still considered a small company, its products are so unique and advanced that Nadeau is confident of their position in a market with very little competition. His advice to CEOs of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is that "if you're building relationships, be sure to include the NRC because they have so much to offer with 14 research centres—and the knowledge that comes with the world's finest scientists and more than a century of R&D."
From Boucherville to the world
According to Dr. Blouin, the type of support the NRC has given Tecnar over 30 years is just one example of what the organization does—and how it helps Canadian companies succeed. "One of our licensees, for example, recently won several Canadian and international prizes for soil-monitoring for efficient agriculture as well as for carbon capture."
Sensor technology platforms the NRC has developed, such as an in-the-mine portable LIBS gold analyzer, are also being transferred to various industries, including the mining sector and environment. Forward-thinking solutions not only improve operational efficiency today, but also anticipate future needs.