Month: August 2020

Cornfields and Characterization: A Story of Failure Analysis

Dr. Jordan Moering, U.S. Eastern Sales Manager, EDAX

It was an icy morning in early November where I found myself, freezing, staring at a chunk of mangled aluminum, carbon fiber, and hickory nestled against mounds of pumpkins in a largely empty cornfield in Sussex County, Delaware. As the sun began to rise over the frosty ground, the carnal wreckage was investigated, pondered over, poked and prodded, touched, and engaged in any other means of characterization at the disposal of the rag-tag cohort of farmers, engineers, enthusiasts, and politicians surrounding me. In hindsight, this scenario seems like something out of a science fiction novel or perhaps a post-apocalyptic memoir, but I can assure you that this is a common sight to behold. Common, at least, at the World Championship Punkin Chunkin.

As it turns out, the twisted composite beam was one of the first instances I experienced in witnessing true engineering failure firsthand. Although the beam failed in some of our early testing, it had previously been attached to a world-class, 7-ton, torsion catapult capable of launching pumpkins over a kilometer at nearly the speed of sound. It could withstand tensile loads exceeding the weight of a Boeing 747 and extended nearly 20 feet in length. All of that impressive performance was a thing of the past as I closely examined the jagged features at the fracture surface, the twists along the flanges of the I-beam, and the shards of carbon fiber shattered amongst the corn husks.

Figure 1. Replacing the broken “Throwing Arm” with a convenient spare that we had brought with us.

Although I was just a student at the time, I already recognized the characteristic ductile fracture surface before me. I might have squinted my eyes and imagined some fatigue striations within the metal surface, but sadly this was the only means at my disposal of diagnosing the problem at the time. In a laboratory setting, I would have been able to not only characterize the elemental composition of the beam (it was a gift from a benevolent team sponsor) but also fully describe the crystalline structure with techniques like EBSD, XRD, and EDS. This type of material identification study is routine with modern analytical instruments, but recent advancements have taken this a step further. Had I known then what I know now, the unprecedented capabilities of high-resolution EBSD and ultra-high sensitivity of direct detection could have allowed me to understand and quantify, quite literally, the stressed state of the surrounding metal at the fracture surface.

Figure 2. The most frequently used deconstruction and characterization device we had at our disposal – an angle grinder.

While my first foire into failure analysis lacked the sophistication of modern analytical capabilities, it did spark an intense curiosity into this critical line of work. The modern electron microscopist, lab technician, or researcher has a wealth of opportunity at his/her disposal for understanding how materials fail. Sometimes these failures originate at some inclusion or material defect that could have previously been detected by methods like micro-XRF or EDS elemental analysis. Other times, inherent weaknesses in the system concentrate stress in ways that might not be apparent to the naked eye. Techniques like high-resolution EBSD and X-ray diffraction might be used to prevent these calamities. The list goes on and on.

I’ve only been working at EDAX for several months now, but every day I wake up and get to work with individuals who face scenarios, not unlike my previous encounter with twisted beams and flying pumpkins. Although a researcher at semiconductor foundry might not be surrounded by farmers in the middle of a cornfield, they certainly may find themselves staring at an improperly functioning device, wondering where things went wrong. In this capacity and many others, I find myself relating to our customers. I empathize with their challenges, and I am excited to help them uncover solutions to some problems that they previously were not aware of.

Because if there is one thing I have learned from Punkin Chunkin and Advanced EM Characterization, it is that you never know what you will find under the surface of your material.

The video below is of the beam in operation prior to its demise:

Sunshine of My Life

Lin Nan, Regional Sales Manager, EDAX

EDAX is in a scientific business, exploring the unknown by looking at small materials. As EDAX employees, this makes us proud because we know that small things matter and our products and services help people discover scientific breakthroughs that make the world a better place.

But even for people like us, at least it never occurred to me, that a small virus, just nanometers in size, can change our lives so significantly. It reflects how little we know and how insignificant we are compared to the massive nature of the unknown. Science and human civilization still have a long way to go. We should remain respectful and humble about the world and nature.

COVID-19 has changed our lives in a way that no one expected, and maybe no one ever wanted with suffering and loss of life. Furthermore, the impact on our perception of society and the world may have been changed forever.

For the past six years at EDAX, like lots of our colleagues, I have always performed the majority of my job on the road. In my position as a Sales Manager, I promote and manage EDAX business and help our customers explore unknowns in small scale samples, hoping that it contributes to science. Airports, hotel breakfast, and complaints from my wife have become routine to me. Luckily, with “known” science and technology, the FaceTime and video calls do make it much easier for me to stay connected with my family while I’m traveling.

But for the past six months, my routine has changed completely. I have been sitting still within my apartment, like most people around the world. Ironically, instead of using video calls to connect with my family, I am now using video conferences and other internet resources to conduct business remotely and keep in touch with our customers. I have become the family man that I never dreamed I would become over the past 10 years, and it is a dream come true.

(left to right): Yuanna, Rong Xu, and Lin Nan enjoying time together during the pandemic.

Face-to-face communication is certainly always the most effective form of real-time interaction, but it requires close proximity to others. But when this is impossible, we realize the advantages of online meetings, including time, convenience, and economic impacts.

For us, we can almost respond and interact immediately, without trying to squeeze another customer site visit into our busy travel schedules, which could take another few weeks or even months. Without physically traveling, we actually get more support from our colleagues in applications and R&D, even from different time zones, which provides more expertise and profound knowledge to our customers that salespeople normally cannot deliver. In the scientific field, this is really valued by customers.

On the other hand, for customers, it is easier to set up and participate, since meetings can be attended from anywhere and at any time with a smart device and internet access. Especially when a meeting is presented by an application scientist, rather than a salesperson.

This may become the new norm for communication.

This type of lifestyle change probably only comes once in a lifetime. It can be depressing and frustrating, but at the same time, it is valuable and enjoyable to me that I could spend more time with family, something that I never did before, and I can make up for lost time with them.

Especially with the birth of my new baby daughter this July, I have been fully involved and able to foster her growth without being away, missing moments that I missed with my two and half year old son. There is no escape from waking up in the middle of the night, changing diapers, and bottle feeding. Like it or not, that is all part of our life.

I named my son “煦” pronounced “XU” and my daughter “熙” pronounced “XI”.

Not only do both characters look similar, but the spelling is similar as well. The only difference is the last letter, which is “U” and “I”.

Both characters mean warm and harmonious sunshine, which my son and daughter bring to my life. It reflects my faith as well, there is always a bright side, and everything is at its best arrangement.

Among the world of unrest we are experiencing now, a little sunshine is particularly important to keep the faith within.

Tomorrow will be fine!