In this article we profile Alexander Ballisat, Research Engineer at CFMS with an Engineering Doctorate specialising in Ultrasonics and Non-Destructive Testing.
What is your background and area of study?
I am a Research Engineer at CFMS having recently completed an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) at the University of Bristol. I was studying in the Ultrasonics and Non-Destructive Testing (NDT) group in Mechanical Engineering which involved working with the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL). I researched the optimal use of computer models to demonstrate the capability of non-destructive inspections, rather than performing large experimental trials on manufactured samples. I developed methods and tools that use modelling to significantly reduce the cost and time of bringing new technologies into service. Overall, I concluded it was possible to achieve this kind of optimisation in a practicable time if you had access to a model of your inspection.
Prior to starting my Engineering Doctorate (EngD) I worked as a Systems Engineer in the Space group at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL Space). This was following completion of my undergraduate degree in Physics, also at the University of Bristol.
Why did you choose this particular area of study?
I had no idea what I wanted to do after my GCSE’s which led me to choosing A-Levels in Maths, further Maths, Physics and also History, just for a bit of fun. Again, I hadn’t decided on a particular career so chose Physics as my undergraduate course. I figured it involved general maths and problem solving, without too much application and would enable me to do whatever I wanted afterwards. During my third year at university, we had a module on technical problem solving and numerical modelling which really caught my interest. This built the foundations for the subject area for my EngD. The way my Doctoral Training Centre worked, unlike most doctorates, was that you were presented with an industry challenge to solve. In my case, DSTL had a problem they needed fixing and that is how the topic for my EngD arose. In regards to NDT, it was never really a passion of mine, however it appealed to me as an interesting project: I would get to create and use models. It integrates numerical modelling with many fields of maths including sampling, interpolation and statistics with a focus more on the use of models and drawing practical conclusions from their output rather than the development of them which I prefer.
What area do you specialise in now?
I am a specialist in NDT, inspection qualification and in the optimal way of using models to demonstrate capability and reliability. This could be applied to anything from a non-destructive inspection to a generic design process. In my current role I am applying the tools and techniques I developed during my EngD to a range of other applications.
What is the critical nature of this on organisations and industries?
In relation to my background and NDT, everyone wants to use the latest and greatest techniques but the biggest challenge is, how do you demonstrate that they are reliable and cost effective? Technique qualification for safety critical applications can cost upwards of £100k however the use of models can potentially reduce this by an order of magnitude. Likewise, there is potential to reduce a timeframe from years to months. This highlights the huge advantage gained in practical application by using models. Plus, you have the added benefit of being able to reuse a vast amount of information previously used, providing you are only making minor changes to processes. This hits on a wider point - models are often cheaper and faster than performing experiments, therefore it is possible to investigate a large design quickly and efficiently to find a range of possible solutions. This process is becoming more common not just in NDT but across a broad range of industries, and the work I have been doing has been useful in translating this work into understandable quantified metrics that can be used to make design and business decisions.
What predictions can you make for the NDT industry?
We are starting to see an increase in the use of models to develop and qualify inspections which is helping to improve inspection, reduce cost and starting to feedback into design. I expect this trend to continue, the largest challenge is embedding the skills and knowledge in organisations to leverage these technologies. As many techniques are now developed primarily through the use of models, I expect these to start to be used more by end users to optimise their inspections for specific applications. This will have a big impact on SME suppliers as they will be able to demonstrate the capability and reliability of inspections far more easily to customers.
What are your most notable projects, awards, and areas of study?
During my EngD I was awarded a Royal Commision for the Exhibition of 1851 Industrial Fellowship. This provided me with the resources to maximise the impact of my research and disseminate it to a wide audience. I went to several conferences around the world and was able to visit various organisations who do NDT qualification in the US, Canada and Australia. This gave me great feedback on my work as I was able to present it to a wide range of NDT specialists and also (hopefully) start to drive a change towards the greater use of modelling in the community.
What are you looking forward to in your career?
I like the challenge of using maths and computing to solve real world problems so I am looking forward to doing this on a regular basis. I want to keep developing my skills in modelling, the process of modelling and how these can be used to make meaningful decisions. I think a big hurdle to this is how to integrate your modelling process with all your other existing processes. It is essential to find a good and efficient way of doing this in regards to the coding side, as well as the people side. I am hoping to gain experience and knowledge of embedding the use of models into the organisation and seeing the benefits this can reap. Likewise, I have always enjoyed numerical modelling so my career aspirations are to become a technical expert in the process of using programming and physics and working out how to apply it.