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Improving efficiency with thermal imaging

19 December 2016

Food Processing finds out how thermal imaging can help improve efficiency, as part of a preventative maintenance strategy. 

In 2010 the food and drink industry consumed nearly 37TWh – enough energy to power 125,000 homes for nearly 15 years and up to three times as much energy per square foot as the average commercial building. Bearing this in mind, the importance of managing the energy efficiency and running costs of a facility becomes obvious. 

This, coupled with the continuous production pressures being place on the industry today means that an emphasis must be put on keeping production machines running at optimum capacity. Maintenance downtime costs at least 5% of the productive capacity of every production line, and many can lose up to 20%. Maximising efficiency and minimising downtime then, is a clear challenge faced by any production team. 

Component wear, and subsequent failure, is one of the biggest causes of unplanned downtime and any increase in operating temperature is an early indicator of potential problems. 

Thermal imaging cameras offer an important tool to help reduce downtime and improve energy efficiency. It is a mature technology and is already often used in food processing facilities both for maintenance and monitoring food product temperature and levels. Using a hand-held thermal imaging camera as part of a preventative maintenance programme can identify failing components without interrupting production before an incident occurs.

Thermal imaging cameras can also be used to identify opportunities for energy saving measures. Wasted energy, in the form of thermal leaks and inefficiencies, can be easily identified using a thermal imaging camera to visually inspect oven temperature spreads, door seals on refrigerated areas, pipework, ventilation and any other thermal processes on site. 

The main areas in which modern thermal imaging cameras can benefit a food processing facility include: 
• Energy savings – The camera can be used to check the seals on cool stores and ovens to stop wasting energy and potentially spoiling product. Typically, a refrigerator with a split door seal uses up to 11% more energy than an efficiently operating refrigerator and a split door seal on an oven can lose 20% of its heat. 
• Mechanical wear – maintenance staff can check mechanical components for wear so that preventative maintenance can be scheduled to replace components that have degraded over time before they cause catastrophic failure and loss of production. 
• Insulation surveys – check the integrity of pipe insulation to save energy. A 2in hot water pipe with 4in of insulation, which has suffered just ½in of damage, would require 7% more energy to maintain temperature. A thermal imaging camera lets engineers locate the heat signature of damaged pipe insulation in need of repair. 
• Electrical surveys – identify failing electrical circuits which, left unchecked, could cause unscheduled downtime or even electrical fires. Fuse clips will start to lose their spring tension at approximately 200°C and when this happens the fuses become loose, small gaps develop and more power is needed to jump across that gap, generating heat. These tell-tale hot spots and heat signatures allow easy identification of necessary replacements and maintenance requirements using a thermal imaging camera. 
• Vessel checks – save time and gain access to difficult locations to check the fill level of vital liquids. Make monitoring the surface temperatures or contents of large containers, such as tanks or vessels easy and efficient. The ability to perform these inspections is particularly important for safety purposes, checking fill capacity or temperature maintenance purposes. Thermal imaging cameras have been more affordable in recent years. Their primary benefit is that all tests can be performed quickly and without any contact with the equipment, minimising production disruption. 

Used as part of a preventative maintenance schedule thermal imagers can provide a comprehensive understanding of the operating environment and the conditions components are under in everyday operation. A thermal imaging camera can be used to capture and log the process and its components. Thermal survey reports can be created as a reference showing temperature profiles in normal operation and subsequent anomalies can be compared with the reference reports to aid decision-making in a condition-based assessment. 

The regular use of thermal imaging can highlight when certain tasks are needed, rather than wait for the allotted time on a fixed schedule in a predictive maintenance schedule that involves the monitoring of wear conditions and equipment characteristics against a predetermined tolerance to predict possible failures. If a bearing begins to show signs of operating at a hotter than expected temperature, lubrication can be applied to remedy the situation. 

The key to successful use of thermal imaging is to determine basic parameters so that when abnormal conditions are encountered they can be easily detected, analysed and remedied. This means establishing operation criteria as part of the original acceptance inspection or following a planned maintenance overhaul when everything is operating within expected tolerances. By reviewing these images against the reference images, more effective decisions can be made about repairing or replacing components. 

Dale Green, maintenance manager at the Nestle’s Newcastle facility is convinced of the benefits of thermal imaging. He uses a Testo camera every day in the plant, which produces a variety of chocolate confectionery and sugar products. 

“I was pleasantly surprised at how easy the camera is to understand and use in smooth operation. Compliance and performance are the key issues. I needed a compact and versatile system at hand to back up our ongoing specialist contractor activities. The Testo 875 camera gives me easy access and instant accurate measurement and diagnostics in real time across every aspect of our operations," said Green. "It can assist in mechanical assessment of machinery, the condition of bearings, chiller units, checking electrical panels and conveyor belts to penetrating jacketed water pipes in the digital sense for blockages and ensuring that moulding plants are properly insulated and not leaking anywhere.” 

His belief is that prevention is certainly better – and cheaper – than cure and so Green regularly employs the technology to help find and prevent problems which can have a major impact on downtime and costs throughout the plant. 

The adoption of thermal imaging technology can result in cost-savings through reduced maintenance hours, increased plant operating efficiency and allow the more effective operation of maintenance engineers.


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