Focus on the ROI of IR

For infrared camera, proper training and use can reduce downtime and protect your assets.

By Gary Orlove, P.E May 14, 2015

In this era of machine-to-machine communications and instant information, it’s getting more important for manufacturers to see potentially damaging events coming so the correct remedial action can be taken. Unfortunately, many problems in the making can’t be diagnosed by sight alone. They require a combination of insight and the right tools to make up for the blindness lurking beyond our senses. Here are some examples:

  • An automotive OEM’s minivan fuel tanks were crumpling. The problem was poor plastic integrity—something hard to spot with the naked eye on the production line. After inspecting that line with an infrared camera it was discovered that some of the cooling lines to the molding machines forming the gas tanks were turned off, so the plastic was not being cooled properly—hence the strength problem.
  • At a printing plant ink was not adhering properly to their paper. The company knew it was a cooling problem, so they believed the remedy would be buying another 10,000 to 20,000-ton chiller. Before doing that, however, a consultant came in with an infrared scanner and discovered that the cooling lines were plumbed in backwards. This discovery negated the need for that expensive purchase.
  • Floor stacked-columns of corrugated cases stored in a warehouse started collapsing. Excess moisture was the obvious culprit, but only made obvious after the collapse. The bigger challenge was discovering the source of the moisture—was it in the corrugated manufacturing process or was it a problem associated with the warehouse itself? In any paper product, moisture content must not exceed specifications. For paper sheeting thermography can help spot problems with moisture content at the point where the paper web comes onto the reel. This can then be traced back to a faulty steam nozzle that’s not producing the heat necessary to dry the paper.
  • In a manufacturing plant, thermography can help discover moisture emanating from the building envelope—whether due to roof failure or the inadequate condensate return of the facility’s HVAC system. If it’s a roof leak, the water’s transverse travel from the point of entry to the top of a stack of corrugated or of someone’s head can be traced by someone with an infrared camera looking for areas of water saturation.

The key point from all of these issues is that infrared scanning not only helps spot equipment and facility problems, but problems with staff training and education, as well. The ROI on this equipment requires operators who know how to read what it’s telling them.

A layered approach

Even in facilities where infrared cameras have been used for a while, poor ongoing education on the proper use of this equipment is problematic. That’s why large companies like Ford and General Motors employ their own expert thermographers who travel from plant to plant on a regular basis, inspecting electrical distribution equipment, spot welding lines and conveyors carrying assemblies from station to station.

Smaller plants may rely on their maintenance people to do the same thing, equipping them with lower-cost cameras to do quick troubleshooting, then relying on expert thermographers from the outside to verify any trouble spots found or to just come in annually to do a clean sweep inspection of the entire facility. That’s called a layered approach to thermography.
Technology’s value is only as high as the level of training invested in its users. That knowledge will help them avoid making big mistakes or having to fix problems that don’t exist.

What can go wrong?

Take the case of the rookie thermographer who reported a hot area on a $5,000 circuit breaker, for example. Upon its discovery, the plant disconnected that section of the electrical system and replaced the circuit breaker. After re-firing the system then taking a second look at the “faulty” circuit breaker, technicians couldn’t find anything wrong with it. Meanwhile, back at the plant, that same thermographer found the same hot spot in the new circuit breaker. What he was actually reading was his own thermal reflection in the screws—his body heat.

Proper training would have taught him about reflectivity and emissivity, and how to differentiate true hot spot problems from heat reflections. He would have learned to move his camera around to see if the hot spot changes or travels along a piece of reflective material or whether it always maintains itself in the same location.
Other problems arise when equipment is misapplied—for example, trying to analyze, or compare, areas that are too small to measure with a particular infrared camera. All optical systems have limitations. Often, an operator tries shooting at a target 30 or 40 feet away but the camera cannot resolve the object properly. That operator will miss problems just because he has no idea there is an optical resolution limit depending on his equipment’s lens, detector or just the design of his camera. A telephoto lens or a higher resolution camera may be needed to analyze this particular object properly.
While this is a problem of education, it’s also a problem with those doing the educating—the vendor selling the system. They should be advising customers on choosing the appropriate technology for their environment. This failure to educate is happening more and more as equipment is made available online. Many buyers look at an infrared camera with the same naked eye that misdiagnoses problems in their work environment—and the result is equally problematic. That’s why many an infrared camera used today is unsuited to its application.

Get the best of IR technology

Training notwithstanding, the raw technology of thermal imaging is improving with each generation of product, offering educated users a broad selection of thermographic solutions. Although 640 x 480 pixels is state of the art, that will soon double and quadruple for unprecedented image quality. That will enable users to see smaller targets or to get more detail on a target.

With today’s capabilities, a technician can:

  • Store those images along with additional data such as the electrical load on the system at that point in time;
  • Identify a particularly problematic piece of equipment; 
  • Document recommendations for repair and follow-up (those notes can take the form of text or voice comments stored on the image);
  • Download an image onto a mobile phone or tablet and input data there;
  • Archive information for later data trending over time and situational analysis.

Also, being able to go from a very general, "I see a hotspot," to specifying what part of a component is heating up, can determine which parts need to be ordered for a repair and minimize the chances of selecting the wrong ones—then having to re-order or even to shut down.

For those cases where long distances need to be covered, the newest equipment can do the work that previously required heavy telephoto lenses.

For example, thermographers looking at overhead bus duct runs as far as 30 to 40 feet away won’t have to carry around a 2X telephoto lens to see small defects. Instead of looking for large temperature differentials, some of the newest equipment enables users to see the smallest ones. A difference of 5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit can foretell a critical fault. While the cost of a telephoto lens can range between $1,325 and $11,500, having such capability built into the next generation of cameras will pay for them. 

Recipe for ROI

The following checklist can help speed that return on investment:

  • Develop a regimented inspection plan so that all critical system connections are checked on a regular basis. For such a plan to be effective, the IR equipment must be sized to the job—meaning to the connections being analyzed, to the distances being covered and to the temperature ranges being measured.
  • Develop a list of components to be surveyed, then dedicate one person to do that list. If you give that responsibility to your entire crew of technicians, something will be missed.
  • Arm that person with the right equipment and the right training. Then as your safety net expands and as your ability to upgrade evolves you can make changes that best fit your situation.
  • Whether you decide to invest in thermography yourself or in service providers who specialize in it, the return on that investment depends on its smart application. Users should be certified at one of three levels
    • Level I is an entry-level thermographer who can do basic analysis and troubleshooting and save images;
    • Level II thermographers have more diagnostic capabilities and can oversee surveys and put together full reports;
    • Level III thermographers can write procedures and specifications and determine temperature limits for different pieces of equipment; This person could oversee an infrared program at either a plant or a company-wide level, providing advanced image analysis and consulting. This person can be an engineer who can design solutions.

Wherever you needs fit in this spectrum, an investment in thermography education will not only pay back in better use of infrared technology, but in the equipment and systems it safeguards as well.

Gary L. Orlove, P.E. is the Global Curriculum Manager at the Infrared Training Center and Chairman of the InfraMation Thermography Conference. He can be reached at