The Reliable Role of Ultrasound in Asset Condition Management

The quest to solve complex asset reliability issues are handcuffed when an organization’s leadership rebuffs the benefits of a multi-technological approach to condition monitoring (CM). Their hands are further tied when they do invest in CM technologies, but not the manpower to deploy them. One colleague stoically relayed his frustration thus; “there is never enough of us (manpower), but there is more of them (problems) every day.”


Monitoring asset condition cannot be done effectively with just one CM technology. Yet how many maintenance departments rely predominantly on data from “just vibration” or “just oil analysis” (as only two examples… there are surely others)? There are so many failure modes that threaten asset health and not every symptom is detectable using a single method. Some organizations have a strong vibration programme but that’s all. Others may see clearly with infrared thermal imaging but lack a good oil analysis solution. Their focus must be broader.

Benefits of Ultrasound 

Ultrasound testing presents a solution to those finding themselves with less manpower to solve a growing number problems. First, it’s versatile. So many of the defects that haunt maintenance personnel are detectable with ultrasound. Second, it’s not prohibitively expensive. Quality equipment requires an investment on par with, or even lower than conventional CM technologies. Third, it’s deployable. Implementing ultrasound into a reliability department is painless and fast. 

Reliability and Operational Excellence

Improving Reliability and Operational Excellence are absolute priorities within every organization. Ownership by every person is a must and each must be made to feel some level of leadership. Then questions are answered, tasks are completed, and obstacles tossed aside. Still, we clearly witness that many reliability projects fail, or perform at a level far below expectations. 

Reliability Improvement and Operational Excellence must start with a revolution and continue as an evolution. There is no timeframe for continuous improvement. If there were, we would improve up until the deadline and then just revert to old ways again. It would just be called improvement… without continuous. Each team member must accept they are part of the revolution and it is not going away. 

Communication plays a big role. It is a fact that less than 10 percent of employees clearly understand companies’ strategies. The purpose for the revolution must match the organization’s operational mission and be communicated from the executive suites to the plant floor. Some call this “line of site” (CRL, Uptime Elements). Poor communication should trigger alarms. Strategies, ideas, and tasks become blurrier and mystified as they travel from the top of the pyramid to the base. 

There is a lot of talk about culture change within an organization these days. The concept of creating a reliability culture and creating programmes to make it happen, leads to more blurriness and mystification. The real cultural changes need to start by changing the way strategy is explained to, and implemented in, the behavior of employees. 

Instead of asking why culture change is difficult to create, why not search for the point where the culture to do things the reliable way was rejected? If the complexity of knowledge is too great can we take these ideas that resemble large blocks and slice them into smaller, more digestible pieces? 

Ultrasound solutions implemented in concert with organization’s reliability mission answers this question. This technology promotes a high level of involvement across the entire operation and has the capacity to lead culture change. 

Ultrasound is a versatile technology. Its many uses appeal to departments at all levels. Its positive impact resonates through energy efficiency, asset longevity, product quality, and bottom line. But being versatile doesn’t mean complexity. For every ultrasound guru, there are ten inspectors who need only adopt a small slice of knowledge for the technology to have positive impact. Each user receives training on the applications that improve reliability in their area. Micro projects all contribute to macro results. 

Ultrasound solves complex machine issues in a simple way. It detects Friction, Impacting, and Turbulence, three phenomena commonly associated with asset defects. Most Failure Mode assessment projects (FMEA) point to ultrasound as a good candidate for condition monitoring. For some assets, it is the first line of defense while for others it is the only line of defense. Does that make it the best condition monitoring technology? Far from it. That doesn’t exist. This is no “better or worse” when it comes to CM. It all boils down to matching the technology to the defect. It just happens that ultrasound matches well to a broad spectrum of potential failures, either in a direct or complimentary way. 

Where is Ultrasound Useful?

The eight pillars of ultrasound suggest that it should be employed for: 

  • Machine condition monitoring
  • Acoustic lubrication of bearings
  • Leak detection
  • Steam trap assessment
  • Electrical inspections
  • Valves 
  • Hydraulics Tightness testing

Defects related to the eight pillars all produce Friction, Impacting, or Turbulence. Some defects are binary; meaning they are either there or not (compressed air leaks are a good example). Still others are defects identified by trending frequent measurements over time. 

The eight pillars of ultrasound represent tremendous opportunities for Reliability and Operational Excellence. These inspections can be carried out by various levels of skilled personnel. Each application exists as a micro project inside a macro mission. Each tiny win contributes to the grand prize, which for some companies is the difference between staying in business and closing the doors for good. 

One case story involved implementation in a thermal power generation plant where the focus was to improve the effectiveness of CM on rotating machinery. Bringing two complementary technologies together for one task allowed for the inclusion of more assets with the same manpower. Remember our “less of us” and “more of them” problem? Less skilled inspectors collecting ultrasound data left time for higher skilled analysts to focus on only the bad actors. Since ultrasound detects defects at an early stage many of the corrective maintenance activities prescribed were simple in nature. Catastrophic failures were averted meaning less downtime, fewer spare parts, and repairs done by in-house maintenance instead of out-sourced specialists. 

In time, more assets were added to the database. More inspectors were added to the programme. Everyone shared their knowledge and took a sense of ownership and leadership. More technology was purchased and training investment was budgeted to increase everyone’s capabilities. Adding these assets to the programme is a decision taken by management. What happened to suddenly create budget and belief at all levels of the organization? Somewhere the message was communicated from the base of the pyramid back to the top and this time the message arrived intact. Culture change happened right before their eyes and no one saw it coming. 

Identifying new areas for ultrasound deployment was the logical next step. Rotating assets were only part of the focus. All eight pillars were fully adopted and the little slices of micro projects came together. A team dedicated to managing compressed air and exotic gas leaks was formed. That same team assessed steam system function. Lubrication of motor bearings was identified as critical and on-condition lubrication replaced calendar based lubrication full stop. Immediately the “grease monkey” became a lubrication technician. Consumption of grease decreased. Grease-related motor failures disappeared. The way grease was stored even improved. Rounding out the adoption of ultrasound was a project to focus on identifying and replacing faulty steam traps. 

The versatility of ultrasound lends itself well to Reliability and Operational Excellence but not on its own. More technology is always better than not enough. Effecting change is a revolution followed by an evolution that is ongoing until someone decides it is no longer a good idea. Ultrasound provides a way to affect that change by breaking complex blocks of knowledge into small slices that are easily digested by teams of engaged and empowered personnel. Improving the reliability of your facility is a huge project. The eight pillars of ultrasound serve to create micro projects that contribute to the cumulative greater good. And it is done in a way that empowers all team members with leadership.  


SDT270 Application in STPG

To increase the reliability of our power plants we use Condition Monitoring; we already have a Vibration instrument and Thermography Camera but recently have focused on Ultrasound with SDT. SDT270 is very easy, simple, and comfortable to use. It helps us in many areas of our power plant such as in testing the passing of valves, pumps vibration and greasing with the use of ultrasound. We have also taken some measurements with it for steam turbines. 

Change of culture is now our main goal in order to make ultrasound the way of life for us – in other words to keep condition monitoring running. So far we have done three presentations at our main power stations.


Haris Trobradovic
SDT International

Asset Management | 22.11.2016

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