Infrared thermography hits the (hot) spot

Infrared thermography has always been a great maintenance tool. New features and capabilities allow manufacturers to do everything from pinpoint hot-spots on the production line to identify leaks in the facility’s roof. Manufacturers can more accurately predict where maintenance is needed, preventing costly downtime and the accompanying drag on the bottom line.

By Kevin Campbell, Senior Editor April 15, 2007

Infrared thermography has always been a great maintenance tool. New features and capabilities allow manufacturers to do everything from pinpoint hot-spots on the production line to identify leaks in the facility’s roof. Manufacturers can more accurately predict where maintenance is needed, preventing costly downtime and the accompanying drag on the bottom line.

Michael Stuart, senior product marketing manager of thermography for Fluke Corp., Everett, WA, said the relationship between maintenance and cost-savings is crucial today. “Because the potential savings are so great, more and more companies are realizing the benefits of thermal imaging when used either as a troubleshooting tool or (as) an important part of a predictive maintenance program,” Stuart said.

New features, new applications

Plant workers are expanding their infrared camera use beyond inspection of electrical systems, motors, pumps and processing lines, said Gary L. Orlove, P.E., director of the Infrared Training Center.

“Thermal imagers today offer a host of new features for finding leaks in roofs and walls, conducting energy audits, finding problems with HVAC and plumbing systems and much more,” Orlove said. “Some cameras feature automatic ‘dew-point alarms’ and other features that allow the operator to just scan buildings with visual and audible alarms, letting you know where you might have a water leak or even the presence of mold. Scanning for moisture intrusion in roofing systems or walls, and detecting the presence of conditions favorable for mold growth are also major new uses of the IR camera.”

“Many manufacturers are realizing that thermography is an excellent tool for building diagnostics, building envelope troubleshooting and preventive maintenance,” Stuart added. “With energy costs as high as they have been in the last few years, it’s also more important than ever to make sure that you have proper insulation in the walls and ceilings and that you don’t have unwanted warm or cool air leakage around windows and doors. It’s all part of driving cost savings to the bottom line.”

Energy conservation is a new application for IR thermography. “The most common new uses are to conduct energy audits, especially with the high cost of energy really impacting bottom lines,” Orlove said.

A helpful feature widely available on some thermal imagers is the addition of digital imaging capabilities.

“Some thermal imagers also capture a digital visual image that corresponds to the thermal image,” Stuart said. “This is useful for showing a reference image.” Some of these imagers also allow what he called a ‘fusing’ of the thermal and visual images, giving the user a ‘picture-in-picture’ view of what’s happening and where it’s happening.

And as with manufacturing processes, ergonomics is an important consideration with thermography equipment. In addition to the numerous features, the thermal imagers available today are easier to handle and use.

“These cameras need to be lightweight, and some of the newest models weigh just ounces over one pound — a major benefit considering the past difficulties of heavier cameras,” Orlove said. “Ergonomics and ease of daily use are perhaps the most important new features workers are demanding.”

Maintenance and reliability still reign supreme

“Manufacturers are beginning to realize the value of IR to the overall reliability of their facility,” said Dallas Fossum, regional operations manager for Allied Reliability, Inc., Franklin, OH. “Companies are starting to perform scans on a more frequent schedule than in the past.

“Historically, scans were performed on an annual or semi-annual basis,” Fossum said. “Today, the frequencies are being moved to a quarterly basis and having great success in identification and elimination of faults early on, with increased results in reliability.”

Troubleshooting and preventive maintenance remain key applications for infrared thermography, Stuart noted. From switchgear to conveyors, wheels and bearings to heating and cooling equipment, thermal imaging can be used effectively to identify potential problem areas.

“Essentially, any situation where equipment is moving or very hot, difficult to reach, impossible to shut-off, dangerous to contact or where contact would damage, contaminate or change the temperature could be a potential place to effectively use thermography,” he said.

A recent push for the use of IR is with medium and high-voltage cabinets that are installed with windows, Fossum added. Many of these cabinets are rated for arc flash protection and allow the equipment within to be scanned safely without requiring additional protective gear for the thermographer.

Making thermography fit on the bottom line

As with any other piece of equipment, infrared thermography equipment incurs a cost that impacts the bottom line. But with recent increases in capabilities and the potential it offers manufacturers, justifying that cost may not be as difficult as one would imagine. The technology can offer plant managers a range of benefits as ammunition in the cost-justification debate.

“These benefits include averting unscheduled shut-downs, improving equipment reliability, maximizing equipment life with timely repairs and creating a safer working environment,” Orlove said. “All of these advantages add up to cost savings.”

“There have been many studies performed across multiple industry vertical types that have unanimously shown the cost benefits of having an IR program in place,” Fossum said. “The largest cost benefit of having an IR program is the early identification of faults, which enables a proactive work-flow model and more efficient planning and scheduling, increased wrench time for craftsman and less failure maintenance.” In turn, this produces higher production rates, better quality outputs and lower maintenance costs.

“Justifying the cost of using infrared thermal imaging is actually much easier than you might expect,” Stuart added. “On average, in a manufacturing environment, the cost of downtime for a given piece of equipment is greater than $20,000 an hour. By some estimates, that is a rather conservative figure.”

Stuart said that the U.S. Federal Energy Management Program estimates half of the electrical failures that occur could be prevented with regular maintenance; that unplanned downtime due to equipment failure costs manufacturers up to 3% of their annual revenue; and that predictive maintenance can save 8% to 12% over reactive maintenance.

“Most facilities pay for their thermal imaging program the first time they go out in search of potential issues,” Stuart said.

That’s a hot spot for the bottom line.

Impact of Unplanned Downtime

Industry Sector Revenue/Hour
Source: Jacksonville Energy Authority
Chemicals $704,101
Construction and engineering $389,601
Electronics $477,366
Energy $2,817,846
Food/beverage processing $804,192
Manufacturing $1,610,654
Metals/natural resources $580,588
Pharmaceuticals $1,082,252
Utilities $643,250

The Bottom Line…

Infrared thermography is for finding more than just the hot-spots on the production line.

Maintenance and reliability remain key applications.

The benefits of reduced downtime and predictive maintenance, as opposed to reactive maintenance, a safer working environment and others can ease the cost-justification debate for its use.

FYI Online…

More information about IR thermography is available online at

Allied Reliability’s Dallas Fossum offers tips for selecting IR thermography equipment that suits your needs.

Gary L. Orlove of the Infrared Training Center talks about resolution. As with digital cameras, resolution of an IR camera will affect your results.

Also check these sites for additional information on IR thermography: