1.1 Computed tomography (CT) is a radiographic method that provides an ideal examination technique whenever the primary goal is to locate and size planar and volumetric detail in three dimensions. Because of the relatively good penetrability of X rays, as well as the sensitivity of absorption cross sections to atomic chemistry, CT permits the nondestructive physical and, to a limited extent, chemical characterization of the internal structure of materials. Also, since the method is X-ray based, it applies equally well to metallic and non-metallic specimens, solid and fibrous materials, and smooth and irregularly surfaced objects. When used in conjunction with other nondestructive evaluation (NDE) methods, such as ultrasound, CT data can provide evaluations of material integrity that cannot currently be provided nondestructively by any other means.
1.2 This guide is intended to satisfy two general needs for users of industrial CT equipment: (1) the need for a tutorial guide addressing the general principles of X-ray CT as they apply to industrial imaging; and (2) the need for a consistent set of CT performance parameter definitions, including how these performance parameters relate to CT system specifications. Potential users and buyers, as well as experienced CT inspectors, will find this guide a useful source of information for determining the suitability of CT for particular examination problems, for predicting CT system performance in new situations, and for developing and prescribing new scan procedures.
1.3 This guide does not specify test objects and test procedures for comparing the relative performance of different CT systems; nor does it treat CT inspection techniques, such as the best selection of scan parameters, the preferred implementation of scan procedures, the analysis of image data to extract densitometric information, or the establishment of accept/reject criteria for a new object.
1.4 Standard practices and methods are not within the purview of this guide. The reader is advised, however, that examination practices are generally part and application specific, and industrial CT usage is new enough that in many instances a consensus has not yet emerged. The situation is complicated further by the fact that CT system hardware and performance capabilities are still undergoing significant evolution and improvement. Consequently, an attempt to address generic examination procedures is eschewed in favor of providing a thorough treatment of the principles by which examination methods can be developed or existing ones revised.
1.5 The principal advantage of CT is that it nondestructively provides quantitative densitometric (that is, density and geometry) images of thin cross sections through an object. Because of the absence of structural noise from detail outside the thin plane of inspection, images are much easier to interpret than conventional radiographic data. The new user can learn quickly (often upon first exposure to the technology) to read CT data because the images correspond more closely to the way the human mind visualizes three- dimensional structures than conventional projection radiography. Further, because CT images are digital, they may be enhanced, analyzed, compressed, archived, input as data into performance calculations, compared with digital data from other NDE modalities, or transmitted to other locations for remote viewing. Additionally, CT images exhibit enhanced contrast discrimination over compact areas larger than 20 to 25 pixels. This capability has no classical analog. Contrast discrimination of better than 0.1% at three-sigma confidence levels over areas as small as one-fifth of one percent the size of the object of interest are common.
1.6 With proper calibration, dimensional inspections and absolute density determinations can also be made very accurately. Dimensionally, virtually all CT systems provide a pixel resolution of roughly 1 part in 1000 (since, at present, 1024 X 1024 images are the norm), and metrological algorithms can often measure dimensions to one-tenth of one pixel or so with three-sigma accuracies. For small objects (less than 4 in. in diameter), this translates into accuracies of approximately 0.1 mm (0.003 to 0.005 in.) at three-sigma. For much larger objects, the corresponding figure will be proportionally greater. Attenuation values can also be related accurately to material densities. If details in the image are known to be pure homogeneous elements, the density values may still be sufficient to identify materials in some cases. For the case in which no a
1.7 In some cases, dual energy (DE) CT scans can help identify unknown components. DE scans provide accurate electron density and atomic number images, providing better characterizations of the materials. In the case of known materials, the additional information can be traded for improved conspicuity, faster scans, or improved characterization. In the case of unknown materials, the additional information often allows educated guesses on the probable composition of an object to be made.
1.8 As with any modality, CT has its limitations. The most fundamental is that candidate objects for examination must be small enough to be accommodated by the handling system of the CT equipment available to the user and radiometrically translucent at the X-ray energies employed by that particular system. Further, CT reconstruction algorithms require that a full 180 degrees of data be collected by the scanner. Object size or opacity limits the amount of data that can be taken in some instances. While there are methods to compensate for incomplete data which produce diagnostically useful images, the resultant images are necessarily inferior to images from complete data sets. For this reason, complete data sets and radiometric transparency should be thought of as requirements. Current CT technology can accommodate attenuation ranges (peak-to-lowest-signal ratio) of approximately four orders of magnitude. This information, in conjunction with an estimate of the worst- case chord through a new object and a knowledge of the average energy of the X-ray flux, can be used to make an educated guess on the feasibility of scanning a part that has not been examined previously.
1.9 Another potential drawback with CT imaging is the possibility of artifacts in the data. As used here, an artifact is anything in the image that does not accurately reflect true structure in the part being inspected. Because they are not real, artifacts limit the user's ability to quantitatively extract density, dimensional, or other data from an image. Therefore, as with any technique, the user must learn to recognize and be able to discount common artifacts subjectively. Some image artifacts can be reduced or eliminated with CT by improved engineering practice; others are inherent in the methodology. Examples of the former include scattered radiation and electronic noise. Examples of the latter include edge streaks and partial volume effects. Some artifacts are a little of both. A good example is the cupping artifact, which is due as much to radiation scatter (which can in principle be largely eliminated) as to the polychromaticity of the X-ray flux (which is inherent in the use of bremsstrahlung sources).
1.10 Because CT scan times are typically on the order of minutes per image, complete three-dimensional CT examinations can be time consuming. Thus, less than 100% CT examinations are often necessary or must be accommodated by complementing the inspection process with digital radiographic screening. One partial response to this problem is to use large slice thicknesses. This leads to reduced axial resolution and can introduce partial volume artifacts in some cases; however, this is an acceptable tradeoff in many instances. In principle, this drawback can be eliminated by resorting to full volumetric scans. However, since CT is to a large extent technology driven, volumetric CT systems are currently limited in the size of object that can be examined and the contrast of features that can be discriminated.
1.11 Complete part examinations demand large storage capabilities or advanced display techniques, or both, and equipment to help the operator review the huge volume of data generated. This can be compensated for by state- of-the-art graphics hardware and automatic examination software to aid the user. However, automated accept/reject software is object dependent and to date has been developed and employed in only a limited number of cases.
1.12 The values stated in SI units are to be regarded as the standard. The values given in parentheses are provided for information only.