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Antonio Montes
Global Head Field Inspection & NDT, SGS
Jason Taylor
Global NDT Technical Support Manager, SGS
In 2017, SGS conducted market research on the use of digital industrial radiography,
inviting end-users in more than a dozen countries to take part in a survey. This
document looks at the subject, its definition, current state of the technology,
capabilities, and more importantly, its drawbacks. The key findings of the survey were
also reviewed and the document aims to provide insight to the reasons for the slow
transition from film to digital industrial radiography.

I. EXECUTIVE SUMMARY������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������3
II. DIGITAL RADIOGRAPHY����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������4
III. FILM VS. DIGITAL��������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������5
IV. CURRENT LIMITATIONS OF DIGITAL�������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������6
V. WILL THE FUTURE BE ALL DIGITAL?���������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������8
VI. CONCLUSIONS����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������9
Compared to film, digital industrial
radiography can be considered, in
general terms, as safer, as it requires
less radiation; being greener in its
operation, as it needs no chemicals, or
consumables. It is also faster in terms
of processing, as there is no need for
development, and fewer retakes are
needed thanks to the wide dynamic
range of CR imaging plates and DR flat
panels, which can be used repeatedly.
This also tends to reduce the operational
costs. However, this does not always
hold true, as the number of times an
imaging plate can be reused will depend
on multiple factors, for example, the type
of application, the environment where
the work is performed and the care
with which the plates or DR panels are
The advantages of digital radiography
don’t stop there. Being able to produce
a digital file that can be analysed, stored,
and shared with ease, is a strength that
has not yet been fully exploited. The
potential for remote image interpretation
and evaluation, and more importantly,
assisted or automated defect recognition required to qualify the personnel that will Finally, concerning the future of film, and
(ADR), are some of the most significant conduct the work, an area where CR/DR whether it will one day be completely
benefits this technology brings to the is lagging behind. Some industries and replaced by digital RT, it is believed that
market. authorities still need proof that digital the technology will continue to improve,
Despite all the features and advantages radiography and the evaluation of digital and that technological obstacles will
CR and DR have over film, there are images are equivalent to the results eventually be overcome. Codes and
some weaknesses and hurdles that must obtained with film radiography. standards will be developed where they
be overcome before the accelerated are missing, and training programmes
Great advances have been achieved over
transition from film to digital radiography will progressively get better. Thus, the
the last 12 years in the development
can occur. Among them, are a few that transition is inevitable and is likely to
of standards for digital radiography.
are linked to the technology, such as accelerate, especially as equipment
Today, ASTM, ASME, EN, and ISO
image resolution, which is still not as prices come down and training becomes
have included digital RT as an accepted
high as that achievable with fine grain widely available and affordable. There will
NDT technique, allowing its use for a
film. There are also other obstacles certainly be a few niche applications or
variety of applications, including the
that are more closely linked to the small-scale projects where film remains
inspection of welds in pipes, plates and
acceptance of this technique through more cost effective but by then, the
vessels, castings and the evaluation
codes, standards, and regulations, as bulk of industrial radiography will have
of corrosion and erosion in tubes and
well as by end-users. become digital.
pipes, for example. However, there
Film radiography is one of NDT’s most are other applications where codes
basic testing methods, and has been and standards are yet to allow the
continuously developed over a period of use of digital radiography. Digital RT
more than a hundred years. Today, film does have limitations in its use. With
radiography has clear standards that are the technology available today, large
widely accepted for its use in a variety of diameter, thick walled or liquid filled pipe,
applications. These codes not only cover are applications where digital RT would
the correct application of the method, not bring any improvement over film
but also the training and competency radiography.
Conventional radiography uses film to With CR the film is replaced with a DR uses a Flat Panel Detector (FPD)
capture the image. That is, the radiation flexible Image Plate (IP) which is coated to capture the image instead of a film
used passes through the object of with a phosphor layer. The radiography is or IP. The incidental radiation creates
interest exposing the film, which is held carried out in the same way as with film, a digital signal either indirectly, via
in a light-tight cassette, to the radiation with the IP inside a light-tight cassette. a scintillator that emits light when
not stopped by the object. A latent Once exposed, the IP is returned to a exposed to radiation (this is detected by
image is created on the film that can be darkened area for processing. a photosensitive diode layer) and a digital
revealed by processing in a darkroom. To process the IP, it is placed into a signal is produced, or directly where the
The resulting image is a physical item scanner, where a focused laser beam FPD converts the incident radiation to a
that can be viewed in the film with the is used to trigger the phosphor layer to charge pattern.
use of a light box viewer. It is worth emit light, the amount of light emitted The raw data is displayed
noting that the image on the film is made being directly proportional to the quantity instantaneously on the viewing computer
of silver halides and the excess silver of radiation that the IP was exposed system, allowing control of the exposure
is removed during the film processing. to. The emitted light is detected and live on the system. Once the image
Silver itself is a heavy metal element. converted to a digital signal. The digital is captured it can be manipulated to
signals can then be displayed via a produce the best image of the object or
monitor as a raw image. Subsequent area of interest. This image can then be
processing of that image can allow the annotated, stored and exported. The raw
operator to view the data captured and data is also stored unaltered for future
manipulate it to produce the best image reference.
of the object or area of interest. This Figure 1 shows the three different
image can then be annotated, stored systems (film, CR, DR). Note that for film
and exported. The raw data is also stored radiography, an automatic film processor
unaltered for future reference. can be used instead of manually
After processing, the system can wipe developing the film.
the IP clear so it can be re-used.

Figure 1
Film radiography is a well-established CR and DR have only recently started to CR IP’s can be exposed by a radiographer
process with numerous codes and be recognized in codes and standards for who has been trained in film radiography
standards covering all aspects of its their applications. As there are a variety with just an exposure adjustment. The
application and quality control. The of systems from multiple manufacturers, processing and image interpretation,
physical production of radiographs, training is only relevant to the particular however, requires specific training. The
subsequent processing, and system the training is for, thereby limiting operation of DR systems, on the other
interpretation of the results have well the pool of technicians that can be hand, require additional training of the
developed, and widely available, training considered as experienced on anything radiographer as the image is captured
courses, qualifications, and a large pool but a single system. Qualifications exist directly and requires monitoring during
of experienced technicians. but are tied to particular technologies the exposure.
or systems due to the differences in


The best way of comprehending Image quality is a complex topic and The third parameter affecting the overall
the limitations of digital industrial encompasses many elements. However, quality and therefore sensitivity of an
radiography is by recognizing the image resolution, ultimately determines image is the noise within it, be that the
strengths and weaknesses of what it is the quality of the digital radiograph. absolute noise or the Signal-to-Noise
trying to replace, i.e. film radiography. Image resolution involves three key Ratio (SNR). As systems become more
Film radiography is a widely used NDT parameters. The first is quite intuitive and sensitive they also tend to produce more
method which has been in use for almost well understood by the layman thanks to noise, that is, unwanted signals generated
a century and for which we have a clear the ubiquitous use of digital photography, by the electronics of the system, or
understanding of its advantages and and has to do with the number of pixels, external factors other than those relevant
disadvantages. Film radiography’s key or more importantly, the pixel size. Not to the image, i.e. other wavelengths of
strength is its high-resolution images, only the pixel size of the detector (DDA) radiation. All systems will have methods
but to achieve this level of image quality or the pixel size produced by scanning of filtering the signal to reduce absolute
it requires film processing facilities, an IP or digitizing a film radiograph, but noise and improve the SNR to an
and considerable time to develop and also as important is the pixel size of the acceptable level but this can also have
interpret the film. Film development also display screen that will be utilized to the effect of reducing the sensitivity of
exposes people and the environment to view and interpret the image. The display the image to small or fine indications.
hazardous chemicals and heavy metals. station resolution must be as good as, or Other filters, smoothing and extrapolation,
The other disadvantage of film is that it better than, the resolution of the image designed to improve the image, may
is not reusable and it requires resources file. also have a reducing effect on ultimate
to store and retrieve, and inadequate The second parameter of image sensitivity to indications.
storage practices will result in premature resolution is related to the number of The three factors that define image quality
deterioration of the radiographic film. grey levels or what is also called bit can be better understood by looking at the
Digital radiographic systems solve many depth, which is the number of bits used pictures in figure 2. The pictures on the
of above mentioned issues, eliminating to define each pixel. The greater the bit top row have different resolutions, with
the film development process in the case depth, the greater the grey levels that the middle picture having a 16x greater
of DR, and replacing film development can be represented. This will also have resolution than the left-hand side picture,
with IP scanning for CR systems. Once a direct effect on the sharpness of the and 16x lesser resolution than the right-
the images have been converted into image, that is, the ability to represent in hand side one. The pictures in the middle
electronic files, storage, retrieval, and the form of the image contrast the actual row have different number of grey levels,
sharing can be done at a very low cost, object contrast as a variation of spatial and the pictures in the bottom row have
in an easy and efficient way. However, frequency. different Signal-to-Noise ratios.
the main advantage of film, its image Although image quality is one of the
quality and primarily its high resolution, biggest limitations today, it is not the
has yet to be matched by digital only one. The geometry of the products
systems. to be inspected can also be a problem,
especially for DDA panels which are not
flexible and thus far are only commercially
available in a flat format. The inspection
of welds in large diameter pipes (e.g.
pipelines) with a relatively small flat panel
is not the most effective way of doing the
work from a cost perspective.
Figure 2
The answer is probably yes, but the real Manufacturers and suppliers of digital However, the future is already here for
question is when will this happen, and systems present curves showing a two main types of application, one being
the answer to that is a lot more difficult theoretical payback period based on the production line radiography, where DDA
to predict. In the previous sections number of images per year required, panels remain fixed in one position,
we have discussed current limitations and making ideal assumptions on shooting hundreds of images per day.
and technical challenges of CR and the number of times imaging plates The other is the inspection of pipes for
DR systems, as well as the relatively (in the case of CR) will be reused. corrosion damage. This only requires a
slow progress of the development and Unfortunately, imaging plates must be flat plate and maximizes the benefits
acceptance of codes and standards. handled in the field under all types of of CR/DR by exploiting the massively
However, there is another issue that is weather and environmental conditions, increased latitude of images produced by
holding back the pace of change from and the slightest scratch can make CR/DR. That is the increased image data
film to digital, and that concerns the them unusable. Additionally, the actual for different thicknesses and radiation
cost of digital systems. Digital systems number and size of the imaging plates absorption factors. The built-in measuring
are similar to film radiography, in that required for a specific job can make it tools also make the quantification and
a radiation source is required, but uneconomical to use CR in replacement highlighting of damage levels easier and
everything after exposure is different. In of film. DR panels would seem to more effective. See Figure 4.
the case of CR systems, imaging plates be the solution, but once again it is Another type of application where CR
and a scanner are required to produce the conditions and requirements of and DR are becoming increasingly
the digital image, and a computer individual jobs that don’t allow them available is laboratory environment
workstation is needed to visualize and to be cost-effective all the time, and industrial radiography (also known
interpret the image. One imaging plate the consequence of damaging a DDA as bunker X-ray) work, where the
can cost >100x the equivalent size panel can wipe out all potential savings. imaging plates, scanners, DDA panels,
of film and a scanner costs between Furthermore, the physical requirements and computer workstations remain
USD 40,000 – 140,000. A computer of the job may also preclude the use of in a relatively low-risk and controlled
workstation, which includes a high- DR altogether. environment, minimizing damages, and
resolution screen and software, can cost Figure 3 shows a sensitivity analysis on maximizing utilization.
USD 45,000. With a DR system, it is the cost per image with a DR system
only the DDA panel and the computer Field radiography applications,
based on the average utilization rate of however, are the bulk of industrial
workstation which can cost between the unit. According to analysis based on
USD 100,000 – 150,000. So, while film radiography, particularly for new
actual data for an ongoing operation, an construction applications. Nevertheless,
radiography has a relatively low initial average utilization rate of about 60%
cost, CR and DR systems require a the replacement of film with digital
is needed to match the cost per image systems has been taking place, and in
significant upfront investment, and the for film radiography, and a utilization
return on it will greatly depend on the recent years the pace of change has
of around 80% would be required to accelerated. In the last three years
volume of images per year that can be achieve a reduction of 10% in the cost
processed. This is currently one of the the use of digital RT, and primarily CR
per image. For countries with lower systems, has almost doubled, bringing
key reasons for the slow conversion from labour rates, the utilisation rate needed
film to digital system. the share of digital RT today to more
to achieve a 10% reduction in cost, than 10% of the total output of industrial
compared to film radiography, will be radiography.

Figure 3 Figure 4
The march towards CR and DR replacing • Status quo: many established Notwithstanding the above-mentioned
film may be inevitable in the long run, radiography end-users, such as the obstacles, it is expected that once
mirroring the almost complete change oil and gas industry, are often slow to a service provider or customer
from film to digital in the photographic accept new technologies. Due to the successfully uses either CR or DR in a
market. In the short term however, the high-risk environments in which they major project or specific application, and
principal obstacles are: operate there is a tendency to avoid experiences firsthand the advantages
• Capabilities of the technology: until changes, and continue to use what of the technology, then the rest of
CR and DR can produce images that is known to work. That said, the low the market will rapidly follow. The
not only meet the standards and oil price environment that started at manufacturers, service providers, and
codes but also allow the detection the end of 2014 is putting pressure end-users leading this transition will then
of all the defects that film can, there on operators and forcing them to find enjoy a significant advantage over their
will always be some reluctance in innovative and more efficient ways of competition.
the market to accept its use for all doing things.
applications. • Obsolescence: NDT service
• Cost of establishing a system: providers and end-users open to
unless a service provider can gain new technologies who became early
tangible benefits from using CR or adopters of digital radiography, may
DR, they will not consider making have purchased systems that are
the high investment of acquiring not as technically advanced as those
the technology, particularly, if they currently available. If the systems
can’t fully replace the use of film, as acquired did not prove to be as
it then becomes an additional cost effective as expected, these users
to maintain both techniques, rather may become reluctant to further
than an offset replacement cost. invest in newer technology until the
market prices match perceived value.
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