R&D: remote use of the scanning electron microscope

20/07/2020 - Digital

Lockdown has forced our scientists to adapt how they work. At Vallourec Research Center France, in Aulnoye-Aymeries, the teams were able to bounce back by conducting analyses of our tubes remotely, using a scanning electron microscope (SEM) connected to Microsoft Teams, the collaborative platform used at Vallourec. Véronique Da Ros, Plant Quality Support Manager, Sébastien Boquet, Technician and SEM Operator, and Florent Potdevin, R&D Engineer in materials development, explain what makes the scanning electron microscope special…

Scanning Electron Microscope

Can you explain what a scanning electron microscope does? And why do we use it to control the quality of our tubes?

The SEM is a highly sophisticated microscope. It can be used to observe the tube material at a much higher magnification than traditional optical microscopes, i.e. x50,000 or x100,000. It is mostly used in the design phase and in defect studies. During the design phase, if the analyses show that the material has harmful phases, either the heat treatment needs adjusting to eliminate them, or the material needs redesigning. In defect studies, we use the microscope to understand the causes of material failure. There are two SEMs at VRCF: one is primarily used for observing coatings and connections, and the other one is more powerful and is used to observe the core of the material.

How do you use the SEM efficiently?

The technician in charge of operating the SEM works closely with the engineers and research officers studying the material. The device calls for a high level of technical expertise and very regular practice, therefore it can only be used by trained technicians, whose number is limited. The technicians’ role is to exploit the potential of the SEM as much as possible to provide images and chemical analyses, which the research officers will then be able to use. The engineers then use the images obtained by the technicians to fine-tune the diagnostics. Each operation is always supervised, and the results are systematically checked and verified by experts before they are communicated.

How have you had to adapt to continue working efficiently during lockdown?

There are normally three people in the SEM room, but during lockdown, only the technician could be on site. So as not to waste time sending images and then analyzing them later, we came up with the idea of connecting the SEM to Teams so that we could discuss the adjustments together remotely and study the images in real time. On this kind of device, the study outline is not fully traced: you need to spend time investigating. A session lasts 2 to 4 hours, and we would have needed 2 or even 3 sessions to achieve the same diagnostics without this remote collaboration. 

Scanning Electron Microscope

Will you keep using this remote method?

During lockdown, a client appointed a TPI (Third Party Inspector) to attend the metallographic inspections of an order. We therefore did our analyses and answered the client's questions remotely. The examination was completed on time, and the inspection was a real success.

In the future, online collaboration may help to eliminate travel constraints, even if nothing can replace human contact.
The R&D department continues to innovate to develop new processes or new, more efficient products.

  • • TPI: ''Third-Party Inspector'', inspector appointed by a client to check the procedures and the quality of the tubes