Make the most of your infrared thermography initiatives

Thermography requires management initiative to succeed.

By J. Stanton McGroarty, CMfgE, CMRP, senior technical editor

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In brief:

  • The primary obstacles limiting success of PdM initiatives are budget constraints, undefined financial benefits, lack of training, limited engineering support, lack of executive support, undefined operational benefit, and lack of IT support.
  • Thermography allowed precise noncontact temperature measurement from safe vantage points while monitoring dangerous and inconveniently located systems.
  • Thermal imaging, along with several other PdM technologies like vibration analysis and ultrasound has gotten a lot more flexible, friendly, and affordable in recent years

For managers, it’s tempting to purchase an interesting technology, learn a couple of tricks with it, and then return to business as usual. Capturing the full value from a new technology demands a higher commitment, though. According to a joint study conducted by Plant Services and ARC Advisory Group (www.arcweb.com), the primary obstacles limiting success of PdM initiatives are budget constraints, undefined financial benefits, lack of training, limited engineering support, lack of executive support, undefined operational benefit, and lack of IT support (Figure 1). The good news is that all of these obstacles are under management control. The bad news for managers is that management must take the initiative to overcome them.

Figure 1. Undefined financial benefits and budget constraints ranked as the biggest obstacles to limiting the success of PdM initiatives.
Figure 1. Undefined financial benefits and budget constraints ranked as the biggest obstacles to limiting the success of PdM initiatives.
Figure 2. Thermography allows temperature measurement of dangerous or inconveniently located systems.
Figure 2. Thermography allows temperature measurement of dangerous or inconveniently located systems.

Sometimes a technology will become the victim of its own success by proving so handy for one task that nobody can picture it doing anything else. Thermography is a good case in point. Most infrared thermography initiatives began as support for electricians performing power distribution system surveys. In this context, it provided a wonderful tool for allowing inspection of systems while they were under load. Thermography allowed precise noncontact temperature measurement from safe vantage points while monitoring dangerous and inconveniently located systems (Figure 2).

As brilliantly as infrared thermography has performed in its early applications, it should not be thought of as a one-trick pony. If an organization hasn’t recently challenged the way it’s using infrared thermography, it may be missing some new and useful tricks. Some of these opportunities result from changes to the thermography equipment itself, and some are improvements in the information distribution equipment available today in the average factory.

“Modern computers, better color printers and new digital data handling techniques help move data around,” explains Dan Simon, 35-year industrial manufacturing manager turned consultant at Great Lakes Infrared (www.greatlakesinfrared.com). “Thermal imagers that take immediate visual images of thermal scenes, the recording of data verbally within the thermal imagers while on predictive routes, infrared detectors with higher resolution and 14-bit or higher thermal data allow expansion of thermal ranges. Better software to analyze data and cameras capable of auto-focusing thermal scenes all provide better output. Sending the IR data easily through emails, as well as the maturing of infrared technology — data, uses, and concepts — within the minds of our workers, engineers, and managers have all added to this enabling technology (Figure 3).”

Figure 3. Technology can provide context to a thermal image by dropping a thermal image in picture.
Figure 3. Technology can provide context to a thermal image by dropping a thermal image in picture. 

Surprising applications

“In a major Florida brewery, scanning with a thermal imager revealed that the gearbox of a bottle labeling machine was running hotter than normal, nearly boiling hot,” says Michael Stuart, senior product manager, Fluke Thermography (www.fluke.com). “A physical inspection showed that the box was filled with water, not lubricant. A damaged seal had allowed the water in. A breakdown could have shut down the bottling line.”

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