Did you think film would be history by 2008?

North Star Imaging Blog

Seth Taylor

Business Unit Manager

When I first began working at NSI in 1998, I clearly remember one of my first visits to a testing laboratory in Wisconsin. That particular company was interested in converting their X-ray film systems to digital detector technology-based systems. Nearly all of their radiography work involved the inspection of castings for voids and shrink, making the utilization of a digital detector very practical with the opportunity to show a great savings in a short term. At the time, the technology had just been released and I really knew very little about digital technology in general; my father-in-law had just purchased a digital point and shoot camera sporting 640 X 480 resolution and it was wonderful! Of course that is the resolution of a thumbnail today. The person representing the manufacturer of the digital detectors we were testing that day proclaimed that industrial digital technology would completely replace industrial film in the next ten years. Seemed logical; at that same time the consumer grade film camera was rapidly being replaced by digital technology. It certainly made sense that industrial X-ray would go down the same path; who could argue at the time?

Seventeen years later there are industrial radiography applications that require the use of film; there will be for the foreseeable future. However, there are tremendous advantages in utilizing digital technology and most applications can be solved applying today’s technology. Here are some notable benefits:

  1. Cost. The initial cost of converting to digital is expensive, but recurring expenses are virtually gone and the price of film and film processing is increasing. Yes, the capital expenditure approval process can be challenging but the return on investment has been proven by even small volume film users.
  2. Time is money. Depending on the type, digital detectors can provide virtually instantaneous results at the point of production. Film processing and manual image analysis take time and are almost always away from production reducing efficiency greatly.
  3. Environmental responsibility. X-ray film and processing chemicals are made up of materials which must be handled and disposed of conscientiously. With a worldwide focus on our impact on the environment, evaluating our processes and implementing the least harmful is critical and often points to the digital method.
  4. Archival. In many industries image data must be held for an extended period of time such as the life of an aircraft, service of a pressure vessel, etc. Some companies have warehouses full of exposed film costing tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Liability on such storage is high, as a strong storm or power loss could destroy years of records. Of course there is a cost associated with digital storage as well, but those costs are no longer comparable.
  5. Image quality/manipulation. And don’t forget the resolution and sensitivity benefits found in today’s digital X-ray and computed tomography systems. Digital technology allows for easy measurement, reporting, software analysis, and visualization not available in an analog system.
  6. Data accessibility and transfer. Obviously a piece of film cannot be sent via email in moments like a digital image can, but the value is much more. Viewing a ten year old image takes a few mouse clicks and fidelity is not a factor.  

Here we are roughly twenty years after the introduction of industrial digital technology and film still exists, but the investment into digital gives better returns every day. I suppose industrial film will still be in use ten years from now, but the cost to use it will be skyrocketing or maybe impractical. I ran across my old film camera the other day and noticed there was half a roll of film that had been exposed. Then the thought occurred to me… where could I have it developed? It will be interesting to see where we are ten years from now.


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