Friday, June 22, 2012

Canary in a coal mine

As late as 1987, canaries were used in British coal mines to act as an early warning system. If the canaries dropped down dead, the miners knew that they had most likely been killed by toxic gases -- a clear indication that it was probably time to hurry out of the mine before they suffered the same fate.

Thankfully, the use -- or abuse -- of these particularly lovely songbirds was phased out in British mines in 1987, two years after the end of the British miners' strike which resulted in the UK Government of the time closing most of the state owned mines anyway.

Now, however, the concept is being revived -- albeit in a somewhat different form -- by researchers at the UK-based National Physical Laboratory (NPL; Teddington, UK). Yes, that's right. The research team at NPL is conducting a study into the field of prognostics, the art of monitoring the health of electronic assemblies and estimating their remaining useful life.

Knowing when an electronic assembly is going to fail can give a company a competitive edge, as it allows for longer periods of time between scheduled maintenance and an associated reduction in costs. By replacing components before they fail, equipment downtime can also be minimized.

There are several different approaches to prognostics. But the researchers in the new project aim to examine the interconnections between in electronic assemblies, measuring their electrical impedance, noise and linearity to identify suitable indicators for predicting the remaining useful life of the components.

And there's a vision aspect to the whole affair too, you'll be pleased to hear. The NPL team is also going to be trialing the use of lock-in thermography (LIT) too. Using the LIT system, they will generate thermal maps which they will then attempt to correlate with the age of the components of the electronic system.

The researchers will also look at so-called 'canary components', which are designed to fail earlier than any other electronic component to warn of the impending failure of a device -- much in the way that those poor old birds were once used in coal mines as an indicator of the toxicity of the air.

Industrial partners are encouraged to get involved in the project and to help decide on what components and conditions to include in the research. The folks at NPL advise any interested parties to get in touch with them by the 30th June 2012.

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