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Hardness Testing with a Closed Loop Control System

The most common hardness testing instruments used by industry have utilized

dead weights to apply the test forces for the past 75+ years. The reason for this

is fairly simple, dead weights are low cost and relatively easy to manufacture to

the degree of accuracy required by the test methods normally used. The

problem is that in every case the force must be applied to the test piece through

some type of small indenter. The transfer of any dead weight force, especially

one as large as the 150kg (330 lbs.) used for a Rockwell HRC scale test, for

example, to the tip of a small diamond or ball indenter is difficult to accomplish.

The large size and mass of a 150kg weight requires the designer to utilize

smaller weights with levers to magnify the force to the desired levels. Levers

require pivots, guides and other friction producing elements that induce errors.

While the instrument manufacturers have done an excellent job trying to control

these sources of error, any friction point in the system will have a negative effect,

which will increase during use.

Since the dead weights have to be moved to apply the test force, stopping them

quickly without overload and oscillation is difficult. Older testers used dashpots

to control the application of the test forces. Dashpots can work very well;

however, they are prone to serious variations due to seal wear and temperature

changes. Many newer designs replaced the dashpot with a motor. While this

eliminated some of the dashpot problems, the desire to test as fast as possible
makes the motor speed critical. As a result, force overshoot and oscillation are

frequent problems.

Open vs. Closed Loop Systems

Instruments that use dead weights are normally open loop systems. The forces

are applied based upon the calculations of the weighs, lever ratios, etc. The

manufacturer normally does an initial calibration to make sure that the forces

applied are within tolerance by using an independent measuring device, normally

electronic load cells are used for that measurement. They are normally never

checked again. It is assumed that they are correct during the life of the

instrument. While dead weight systems have proven to work very well in many

applications, including hardness testers, there has always been a performance

level that typical (i.e. affordable) dead weigh systems could not surpass due to

the inherent problems.

During the 1950’s, Instron pioneered the use of closed loop systems on tensile

testing instruments. Closed loop systems are different from open loop systems in

that they have a means to electronically measure the force being applied during

every test and feed (or loop) the information back to the control system. The

control system is designed to use the feedback to adjust the force application

mechanism to apply only the desired force. These systems work so well that

today all electronic tensile/compression instruments use closed loop control

Are Closed Loop Systems Better For Hardness Testers?

In addition to the systems’ ability to constantly measure the test force being

applied, the components used in a closed loop system inherently lend

themselves to a much simpler design than a dead weight system. As mentioned,

dead weight systems require levers, pivots, and other friction inducing

components to function efficiently. The indenter, the only part of the system in

contact with the test sample, is far detached from the weights themselves,

separated by the levers and pivots, etc. In contrast, the main component of a

closed loop system is a strain gage load cell. This compact, low weight device

provides an electronic output proportional to the force applied to it. These load

cells come in many different shapes, therefore it’s possible to design a hardness

system with the indenter attached directly to the load cell. The Wilson/Instron

Rockwell 2000 and Tukon 2100 series of testers use this feature exclusively. In

this design, sources of error between the indenter and the test force are

eliminated. While these designs utilize actuators to apply the test forces and

these actuators have bearings and sliding surfaces, etc. that may introduce

friction, the design isolates these negatives influences above the load cell so they

do not affect the critical test force. If, for example, friction in the actuator were so

excessive that the desired force is not applied to the indenter, the load cell would

not indicate the correct force; therefore, the system would abort the test rather

than give an incorrect result. In this way, the system is constantly checking itself

to make certain that only the correct test forces are applied to the indenter. The

mass of the actuator can be easily controlled because of the feedback loop.
How Do I Know That These Systems Work Better?

A common way to measure the performance of a hardness tester is to use GR&R

techniques. This method tries to quantify the performance of measuring

instruments by comparing variations from an instrument with the total variations

allowed for the part that is being measured. The result is a percentage that

indicates how much of the tolerance is being used up by the instrument. The

smaller the percentage the better the instrument is performing. Typically users of

this method want to obtain GR&R results of 10% or less, however, 30% is

accepted in some situations. Hardness testers frequently fall into the 30%

category because they typically don't perform that well and variations within the

sample consume a percentage that is difficult to quantify.

Depending on the age and design of the hardness tester, GR&R results from

typical dead weight Rockwell scale testers normally range from 12% to 25%.

Under controlled conditions, the 10% target has been reached. These results,

however, do not reflect reality. Under the same conditions, a Wilson/Instron

Rockwell 2000 tester using a closed loop system can routinely achieve less than

7%. The average unit will achieve 5% and tightly controlled units have achieved

results as low as 2%. (Note- 2% is considered the lowest attainable due to the

non-uniformity of the test samples). In addition, closed loop systems have proven

to be more stable from day to day increasing your confidence in the test data.
How Does Increased Performance Save You Money?

How important are your test results? If you are just trying to verify that a part has

been heat-treated or not, 10 % of GR&R improvement may not be important.

However, if you are working to specific tolerances, any reduction in the

uncertainty of your results can save you money by minimizing the possibility of

either rejecting a good part or accepting a bad one. Just having a better

knowledge of the hardness value will enable you to adjust your processes for the

most economical operation.

Uncertainty is the buzzword today of the people doing calibrations. Anyone

working to ISO Guide 17025 must provide an uncertainty statement with most

calibrations performed, including hardness. It’s a logical extension that customers

may someday ask for an uncertainty statement with every test performed. While

this is a difficult value to accurately determine, the calculation will be influenced

significantly by the performance of the hardness tester. The better the hardness

tester performs the lower your uncertainty will be.

Availability Of Closed Loop Systems

Hardness testers made by Wilson/Instron using closed loop systems are

currently available for Rockwell, Vickers, Knoop, and Brinell testing in a variety of

test force ranges. Load cells typically have force range limitations of 100 to 1. In

other words, if the lowest force were 10kg, the highest force would be 1000kg.

This is normally a greater range than most dead weight testers provide plus a

closed loop system has the capability to allow the use of any incremental force
within the usable range. Dead weight systems are restricted to the discrete

weights. Some of the newer load cells can exceed the 100 to 1 limitations.

Another benefit derived from closed loop systems is their inherent flexibility.

Since the force application process is controlled by a microprocessor, the test

cycles can easily be changed. Not only is this feature desirable for special testing

requirements but it also will guarantee that your tester can be easily modified to

meet any new or revised test method. This can be very helpful, for example, if

you are interested in having a Rockwell tester that can match the time cycles

used on the new NIST Rockwell hardness standards as close as possible.

Are Closed Loop Hardness Systems For You?

Closed loop systems are proving to be the desirable method for performing a

wide range of hardness tests. Their inherent design features have benefits that

can significantly improve performance compared to the dead weight testers

widely used in industry today. The older testers cannot match the repeatability,

stability, and flexibility of a tester with a closed loop system. If having a hardness

tester that provides the best possible hardness test results is important to you,

then one that uses a closed loop system should be considered.