The following article originally appeared in the September, '96 edition of "SlipLines" a publication of the International Metallographic Society. It is reproduced here with the permission of Faith Reidenbach, "SlipLines" Editor. You'll find valuable clues about what's necessary to create a winning entry for the International Metallographic Contest. The article has been updated for 2007.

What Does it Take to be a Winner in the IMC?

by Jim Nelson, Buehler Ltd.

During my 20 years of judging the International Metallographic Contest, I have had ample opportunity to ponder the various elements that comprise a winning entry. Unfortunately, many really fine entries just miss the mark, sometimes for seemingly insignificant reasons. Sometimes the problem is that some thing important has been omitted, or sometimes one of the contest rules has been violated.

The purpose of this article is to help contestants get the best shot at a "Best in Class" or even the prestigious and lucrative ($3000) Jacquet- Lucas Award. The following tips could make a real difference in the way the judges respond to your entry. They are listed in the order of highest to lowest potential score.

Technical Content

All entries except those in classes 9, 10 and 11, the artistic microstructure classes, are critically judged for their technical content. The maximum score of 45 points is the highest of the four categories, and this is as it should be.

Your entry should demonstrate how microstructural analysis plays an important role in solving an engineering problem, revealing the cause of a material failure, or explaining some significant material fabrication process. It may also demonstrate the important role of microstructural analysis in monitoring a critical metallurgical process, such as austempering, hardening or the analysis of thermally applied coatings.

A strong entry uses various elements such as macrophotography, photomicrography, scanning microscopy, elemental analysis or any analytical tool that supports the story and its conclusions. However, trying to dazzle the judges with unnecessary elements will cost valuable points. Each element should specifically contribute to the telling of a technical story.

Avoid excessive descriptive text! Your presentation is not an academic thesis; the photomicrographs, captions, graphics and other illustrations should carry the bulk of the story. Most of the verbiage should be confined to a brief introduction that states the problem clearly and concludes with a summary of the main points of the presentation. In more picturesque language, use the KISS principle, "Keep It Simple, Scientist!"

Quality and Uniqueness of Preparation

Too many entries are submitted with photomicrographs that display scratches, polishing pits or other preparation artifacts. This drives a stake in the hearts of the judges, many of whom are former exhibit winners. There is only one way that a less than artifact-free photomicrograph can receive high points, and that`is if the conditions under which the samples were prepared were extremely difficult. Two examples that come to mind are: (a) metallography performed in a hot cell or glove box and (b) field metallography, where the work was performed outside the normal laboratory environment, such as at a construction site or a destruction (failure analysis) site. A former colleague of mine used to humorously refer to scratches as "reference lines,' but the judges won't accept this tongue-in-cheek excuse.

High marks will go to entries that employ less conventional specimen preparation methods where conventional methods were inadequate. Some examples are vibratory or electrolytic polishing, multiple etching of dissimilar materials and the use of a sputter coating on a non-metallic material to enhance contrast. The use of anodizing to produce color contrast is acceptable as long as it reveals the microstructure better than simpler methods. Because there are 6 to 8 judges who possess a remarkable pool of experience, your entry will be judged critically but fairly. The judges seriously discuss the various merits of the entries before assigning a score. The maximum score in this category is 25 points.

Photographic Quality

An unprecedented number of imaging and printing options are now at our disposal. One of the first and most used is the instant print devel oped by Dr. Land many years ago. (Note that I avoided the use of the very familiar commercial name.) This and video printers have become popular and do produce reasonable quality, but when placed alongside prints made by conventional photochemical methods they still do not compare well. Some new advanced imaging methods are becoming available but are in limited use due to the cost of the equipment.

The important point here is not how the prints were made but whether they have sufficient resolution, contrast and density. It should be a crime to record the microstructure as a fuzzy or muddy photograph after you took great care in the preparation of a specimen.

The use of color in non-color entry classes is discouraged and the judges will instinctively downgrade an exhibit board that uses color when black and white would have worked just as well. Although the maximum score in this category is only 20 points, why risk losing points when a few points sometimes separate winners from losers?

Uniqueness of Presentation

The maximum score in this category is 10 points. It pertains to the physical appearance of the board: how well it is laid out and whether it is graphically pleasing. Although manner of presentation may seem unimportant, it is the judge's first impression of you. As the old saw goes, "You have only one chance to make a first impression!"

In the early days of the contest, most entries were rather plain and simple, consisting mostly of macrophotos and photomicrographs mounted on plain white poster boards with block lettering and no color. The boards themselves were usually lightweight and sometimes flimsy and could not stand upright without support.

More recently, however, the trend has been toward the artsy presentation produced by the company graphics department or an outside concern. In many cases the art has been so obvious that it seems to compete with the message, and in such cases it can be described as overkill. For the judges, there is the risk of being unduly influenced by the glitz beyond the measly 10 points allotted to this category. The judges are advised to resist allowing the artistic influence to spill over into the more scientific judging categories. This influence can be so subtle that a less experienced judge may unconsciously succumb to its influence when judging the technical merits of the board. Most grand prize winners have scored high in this category, but it's refreshing when a black and white presentation has such a high technical quality that the jazzy-looking boards are left behind.

The important rule of presentation is that the judge or spectator viewing the board should be able to follow the story line effortlessly. Neat, stylized lettering applied directly to the board adds a professional touch that enhances the appearance of an entry and when applied to a stiff poster board makes a really neat presentation. Matting is used more and more but should not be necessary. In many multi-element boards it actually may break up the flow of the story rather than strengthen it.

In Summary

A great entry is usually the product of clear thought and early planning. Start with a strong technical story and gather as much information as you can to support it. Work hard at reducing text and captions to a bare minimum, and check your initial lay-out against the comments above. Enlist knowledgeable persons within your company to act as judges as though they were the actual IMS judges. If you score less than 65 points, see where you can improve.

Remember, don't wait until May or June to begin work on your entry.

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