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Why use thermal imaging?

04 January 2016

Predictive maintenance can be assisted by thermal imaging as the technology comes of age. Thermal imaging can be a vital part of any predictive maintenance programme. With food and beverage companies trying to minimise their downtime and increase their uptime, faster, better and more efficient production – at a lower cost – is vital.

Thermal imaging can be the sixth sense of manufacturing operations, revealing when components or electrical connections are verging on failure before unscheduled downtime occurs.

“Essentially, thermal imaging makes the invisible visible, providing clear evidence of a fault via an abnormal heat signature,” explains Andrew Baker, UK & Sales Manager, FLIR Systems. “It can be applied to an extremely wide range of applications from high voltage equipment, low voltage cabinets, motors, pumps and heating elements to monitoring systems for energy loss or missing insulation. Thermal imaging will demonstrate a problem in its infancy so that remedial action can be taken to avoid any loss of productivity.”

With technology evolving at an increasing rate, there comes the challenge of making sure that these new technologies are effectively employed. Thermal imaging has seen a particularly significant increase in technological development, usage and accessibility across a range of industries, both as a self-contained industry and a tool used in other industries.

“We are currently in a period of heightened awareness surrounding thermal imaging technology, and this knowledge is spreading across industries, accompanied by a hugely encouraging number of new companies integrating this technology into their businesses,” says Warren Mansfield-Smith, Country Market Manager – Food & Drug at Testo. “As more applications for thermal imaging equipment become more apparent, more organisations are seeing the potential benefits that infrared technology can offer.”

Thermal imaging can be used to monitor conveyor ovens, for example, and even be used as part of a feedback loop to help control oven temperature. Thermal imaging technology can also monitor temperature uniformity across the width of the cooking belt. If the heating element inside an electric oven fails, or there is uneven heating across an air impingement oven, one side of the product stream will be cooler. This anomaly can be quickly discovered with an infrared camera.

“Quality inspections of this sort are much more difficult with conventional contact type temperature sensors,” says Baker. “Thermal imaging is much better suited to correcting variability. It allows the problem to be picked up before it has a detrimental effect on the quality of the product and the necessary repairs can be scheduled rather than cause unexpected downtime.”

Cold and hot
Thermal imaging is ideal for both hot and cold temperatures. While higher than normal temperatures are common indicators of impending problems in electrical connections and components such as bearings, a lower than normal temperature can also demonstrate a problem, so it’s important to be aware of both.

“As infrared cameras can be used to visualise sub-zero temperature patterns as well, they are equally suited to ensuring industrial freezers are working optimally with no energy waste,” says Baker. “In a single pass, the camera can provide a thermal image showing any failure in insulation that will compromise performance or lead to costly downtime. In this sense, inspecting freezers, cold rooms and other types of large commercial refrigeration units is very similar to checking the integrity of building fabric. Indeed, the only difference is the direction in which the heat is travelling. The main concern in the built environment is heat leaking out, whereas with refrigeration, the requirement is to prevent higher ambient temperatures influencing the sub-zero freezer space.”

Averting fire
A small electro-mechanical fault can have far-reaching consequences and the effects of a fire are often underestimated. In fact, around 35% of all industrial fires are caused by electrical faults and the cost isn’t just downtime and water damage, but can also include the loss of human life. 

“With thermal imaging included in the preventative maintenance regime, the majority of problems that could cause an outbreak of fire are not left unchecked,” says Baker. “They are detected before they can damage the efficient running of the operation.”

Universal thermal imaging solutions
“As with a lot of industrial instrumentation, the variety of applications where thermal cameras can offer businesses real benefits means that in order to ensure that all parties are catered for, a full range of cameras with different levels of technical specification is necessary,” says Mansfield-Smith. “The ability to visualise infrared radiation, and as such, heat patterns and thermal anomalies, is hugely useful in a wide variety of areas ranging from the mapping of underfloor heating to the analysis of high temperature thermal processes in research laboratories. This current boom in the adoption of thermal imaging technology is the result of a number of factors coming together in harmony to provide perfect conditions for the technology’s growth.”

There are such a vast range of applications where thermal cameras can be used that some are only just really beginning to become fully utilised. As thermal imaging becomes more cost effect and seeps further into mainstream consciousness. 

The rise of entry level cameras
“Perhaps the most significant development for thermal imaging technology is the downwards trend in prices and the reduced cost of initial set-up for users due to a rising number of affordable, entry level thermal imagers,” says Mansfield-Smith. “In the last 12 months, we have seen a notable reduction in the cost of previously expensive – and as such relatively exclusive – technology and this has been key to the current explosion in the use of thermal imaging cameras. Further, this increased level of accessibility has allowed for a parallel growth in the knowledge base surrounding the benefits that thermal imaging offers. This in turn has been followed by growth in demand for thermal technology and services. It is apparent then that a strong link exists between the level of knowledge and information available to the professionals of a given industry and the likelihood of that industry recognising the relevant benefits and adopting new technologies.”

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