By Abe Danaher | March 2, 2020
Michael Sutton’s election to the National Academy of Engineering is validation.
Not that he’s ever needed it – he wouldn’t be joining engineering’s most prestigious organization if he did. But, it’s validation to everyone who ever doubted the importance of the digital image correlation (DIC) technology he has spent the last 38 years of his career developing. And, more than anything, it’s proof to his students and future generations of engineers that dedication and belief in oneself are the defining prerequisites for greatness.
“When people get involved in something like we did with the creation and development of the transformative DIC method, the important part is perseverance,” says Sutton, a distinguished professor in the University of South Carolina’s mechanical engineering department. “You have to stay on it.”
For most of Sutton’s career, believing in DIC technology was pretty thankless. The idea for the technology started a long time ago, around 1978, when Sutton was a doctoral student at the University of Illinois learning from his advisor, Chuck Taylor.
At the time, F.T. Mendenhall III, a fellow graduate student of Sutton’s, approached Taylor with an idea – to get rid of the film they were using in their research imaging and replace it with emerging digitization procedures so that they could analyze images in their digital form. Though the idea never gained traction at the University of Illinois, similar ideas were under consideration by William Ranson, a former student of Taylor, and Walter Peters at the University of South Carolina College of Engineering and Computing.
We certainly wouldn’t run a large test without it. It’s just revolutionized the way we do structures and materials testing.
-David Dawicke, Senior Scientist, Analytical Services and Materials, Inc.
When Sutton completed his doctoral work in 1981, he joined the digital imaging group at South Carolina. During the early years, progress was slow for the team, since digital imaging technology was rudimentary and the analysis of the digital images was very slow. However, even with these limitations, the technology was already showing promise by greatly simplifying experiments.
Over the next few years, as faculty interests changed, Sutton inherited the DIC research activities and continued to improve the method. By 1993, DIC technology using a single camera was capable of analyzing digital images in a reasonable amount of time, and the technology was extended into a few practical areas of interest. It also caught the attention of colleagues at the NASA Langley Research Center, who brought Sutton on a sabbatical to learn more about DIC technology.
After observing Sutton for a year using the technology, NASA funded him to build the next generation system, a stereovision-based DIC measurement system capable of obtaining three-dimensional motions of general aerospace systems. It would be the first technology ever developed capable of measuring three-dimensional deformations on an aircraft fuselage.
In January of 1995, the first version of the technology was completed. Sutton, his colleague Stephen McNeill and his student Jeff Helm flew to Seattle, Washington, to demonstrate the technology on a Boeing 727 airframe. There, they realized the true potential of what they had created.
“When we finished the experiments and we were all at home, we knew this technology was going to change things for everyone,” Sutton says. “We had used it in the field, on a real aircraft structure under pressure loading – just like a plane sees when it goes to high altitude – and the data was really good.”
Even though the experiments were successful, neither Boeing nor the broader research community were ready to adopt the technology. In fact, not only had Boeing moved on, but the federally funded research was declined for patenting by NASA, who stated that it did not appear to have long-term impact. In the following months, UofSC also chose not to pursue a patent, citing NASA’s decision.
For some individuals, having the private, public and higher education sectors indicate a lack of interest in the technology would seem like the logical end to this story. Instead, Sutton and his team forged ahead, and to this day he firmly maintains that quitting never once floated through their minds.
“When you’ve seen the data, and you see how simple experiments are with this technology, and you’ve been in the lab with your students, and you see how good the data is, you realize that the people outside just don’t understand what you’ve accomplished,” he says. “We really didn’t care what they said. There was just no question in our mind. This was going to be something special. And it turned out it was.”
Fast-forward almost 30 years, to 2020. Digital image correlation is one of the most important discoveries of the last 100 years, with one NAE member going as far as to call it the most significant measurement advancement in history. It has infiltrated not just the field of engineering, but also manufacturing, biomedicine, aerospace, and military development. And Correlated Solutions, Inc. – the company Sutton co-founded in 1997 with three students that he mentored in DIC – is now a global distributor of DIC technology.
“It’s to the point where we don’t want to test without it,” says David Dawicke, a senior scientist at Analytical Services and Materials, Inc. who has been working with NASA’s Fatigue and Fracture Laboratory and Dr. James H. Starnes Jr. Structures and Materials Research Laboratory since the last 1980s. “Or if we do, it’s just unusual that we would. We certainly wouldn’t run a large test without it. It’s just revolutionized the way we do structures and materials testing.”
The technology that no one believed in is now used by companies such as Proctor and Gamble to assess the effectiveness of their anti-wrinkle creams. The U.S. Army uses it to make their equipment more resistant to the shock of exploding IEDs. It is helping increase railway safety, the effectiveness of bridge inspections, and the reliability of manufacturing standards. And, Sutton only sees its impact growing in the coming years.
“Computer technology is still growing and improving,” he says. “The faster it goes; the more real-time the technology’s measurements will become.”
The UofSC College of Engineering and Computing’s dean, Hossein Haj-Hariri, hopes students and younger faculty can learn from Sutton – not just the ins and outs of one of the world’s most pervasive technologies, but the dedication it took him to reach his level of success.
“You have to have good ideas,” Haj-Hariri says. “But stick-to-it-ness is really important, particularly in engineering. Some days you just think you are not making any progress and you want to give up. But eventually you have a breakthrough, you go forward, you find a solution and for one or two days, you know something that nobody else in the world knows. And that’s the greatest joy – it’s yours.”
As one of just 2,590 members ever elected to the National Academy of Engineering and one of the most influential engineers of his generation, Sutton echoes just that to students and faculty. No, not every person will create this pervasive of a technology. But, with the right outlook on life, everyone can innovate and change the world.
“I think for a lot of people, when you get into difficult problems – persevere,” he says. “You have to find a way to keep going, to push the boundaries any way you can so that once you get to a point, and you suddenly realize people are beginning to follow what you are doing, then you can step back and say, ‘yeah, I stayed. I didn’t quit. I didn’t give up. I didn’t move on. I kept going because it was the right thing to do.’”
The words ring true across all of Sutton’s accomplishments – from 1981 when he started at South Carolina, to today, where he is still at the college working with long-time team members Stephen McNeill, an assistant professor at the CEC, and Hubert Schreier, the CEO of Correlated Solutions, to grow DIC and expand applications of the method.
“We stayed with the ideas because we believed that this was the right thing to do,” he says as he reflects on his meandering journey to receiving engineering’s highest distinction. “It turned out we were right and DIC is a transformative advance that is being used worldwide.”
Though he never needed it, there is no better validation than this.