Have you ever wondered how engineers make sure bridges are safe to drive on or how airlines make sure planes are safe to fly in? Ever stopped to think about how many different pieces go into building a car and how the manufacturers make sure each one fits into place correctly? The answer to these questions, at least in part, lies in nondestructive testing.
Here, we’ll give you a crash course on the basics of nondestructive testing if you’re thinking about pursuing it as a career. We’ll cover the different certification levels, career prospects, how much you can expect to make and how to find a job as an NDT professional.
Nondestructive testing (NDT) is the name for a diverse field that covers many different disciplines. Collectively, these disciplines play a key role in ensuring that structures, materials, components and systems perform reliably.
Nondestructive testing personnel define and conduct tests that identify indications–also called flaws or discontinuities–in surfaces or materials. The key aspect that sets nondestructive testing apart from other types of testing is that it leaves the object or material being tested intact.
In practical terms, this means NDT can be performed on a bridge that’s currently in use, an aircraft that’s in service, or a product that’s being sold without damaging it. Destructive testing, on the other hand, carries out a test that results in the material or object’s failure. Because NDT facilitates inspection without destroying the final product, it’s a highly useful way for organizations to ensure quality while also controlling costs.
You might be surprised to learn that technologies you’re already familiar with, like x-rays and ultrasound, are commonly used in nondestructive testing. Here are a few of the most widely used types of NDT.
Without nondestructive testing, bridges would be more likely to collapse, dams to fail, pipes to burst and cars to crash. These are just a few of the most visible and dramatic examples; there are many more subtle but equally important implications of nondestructive testing that affect consumers and society as a whole.
Nondestructive testing personnel are certified at different levels for each NDT method they work with. Each certification level comes with increasingly robust responsibilities and is determined by education, training, work experience and a vision test.
There are several organizations that provide guidance for and certification in nondestructive testing, including the American Society for Nondestructive Testing (ASNT) in the U.S., the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) in Canada, and the International Organization for Standards (ISO) internationally.
Here’s a breakdown of what each level of certification entails.
Level I technicians work under the close supervision of a Level II or Level III technician. They can only perform certain calibrations and tests and record the results, and must adhere strictly to procedure when making determinations of acceptance or rejection.
One step down from level I is level I limited. Level I limited is composed of technicians who are trained to a very specific procedure and perform inspections only on a certain type of component.
It’s worthwhile to note that level I technicians are not trainees; rather, this is the first level a trainee reaches when they have demonstrated proficiency in certain tests.
Once a technician reaches level II certification, they are able to set up and calibrate equipment, perform tests independently, interpret the test results according to the applicable code, and document the results.
Level II professionals must demonstrate proficiency with all applicable codes and procedures that govern the NDT method being used. They should also be able to recognize the limitations of various techniques. A level II technician can supervise and train level I personnel.
Level III is the highest level of certification and comes with the broadest scope of capabilities and responsibilities. Professionals with level III certification have extensive practical experience, and NDT personnel at this level are usually in managerial or administrative roles. They might own their own testing facility or work as consultants.
Level III technicians can establish testing techniques and procedures, interpret codes and standards, and designate which NDT methods are to be used in different scenarios. This requires a firm grasp on materials, fabrication and product technology. Level III technicians are also responsible for training and supervising personnel at the levels beneath them.
Nondestructive testing professionals can earn a healthy income early in their careers, and the earning potential only increases the longer you’ve been in the field and the more advanced credentials you obtain.
According to Salary.com, the average level I NDT technician in the United States earns between $43,000 and $56,000 a year, with the median income falling around $53,000. The median income is $79,000 a year for level II technicians and $102,000 a year for those certified at level III.
As you build your resume and earn higher levels of certification, you’ll find a wealth of opportunities to move into increasing levels of responsibility (and earn more in the process).
Workers who start out as level I technicians can advance to jobs like quality engineer, quality manager, NDT supervisor, and NDT director. There are also opportunities to move into management, product engineering, research and development, NDT education, and more.
If you like to travel, a career in nondestructive testing could take you all over the world. It’s not uncommon for technicians in the United States and Canada to travel domestically on a regular or semi-regular basis with paid food, accommodations and a travel allowance. There are ample NDT jobs abroad, as well, like jobs with major oil and gas companies in the Middle East.
If you’re serious about forging a career path in nondestructive testing, you’ll want to have a high school diploma. Getting an associate’s degree from a college or technical school in an area of study like nondestructive testing, welding, quality engineering or quality control is also a good idea.
According to data from the Occupational Information Network, 40% of nondestructive testing specialists have at least a high school diploma or equivalent, while 25% have an associate’s degree and 15% have a bachelor’s degree. A bachelor’s degree becomes more important as you begin to pursue more niche specialization or if you aspire to move into upper management.
Perhaps the most meaningful reason to pursue a career in nondestructive testing is the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. Your work is directly tied to producing products that make life easier, ensuring that buildings and machines are safe to use, and keeping the infrastructure of society functioning properly.
Multiple studies have shown that people who do meaningful work are happier and more fulfilled than their counterparts whose work lacks meaning; not only that, but they’re more engaged on the job and more productive for their companies, as well.
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