Should infrared thermography be an in-house competency or outsourced?

Predictive technology has its place in both with proper certification.

By Mike Bacidore, editor in chief

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Infrared thermography can be a valuable tool in the hands of the right person. Certified thermographers offer an inside track to troubleshooting or predicting problems. And that translates into increased profitability from increased equipment uptime and avoided failures. But the technology doesn’t work by itself. Don’t follow the path of so many plants, where an infrared camera was purchased years ago, but now it sits in storage because the program lost momentum or the individual with IR expertise left the company.

Circumstances differ from plant to plant, but managers need to decide whether to bring IR thermography in-house as part of the condition-monitoring responsibilities of maintenance, reliability, and operations or to contract those services.

“In general terms, the decision to do thermography in-house or to outsource is based on the size of the company or facility,” says Brad Gilbertson, an Infraspection Institute certified level III infrared thermographer at Sandhills Thermal Imaging. “For smaller facilities, it might not be worth the expense to spend the money on the equipment, training, and administrative requirements of an in-house thermography team. Does the company have enough potential work to justify the expense of an in-house team? The purchase of an imager is usually the only figure anyone looks at. They forget that human capital is much more important. If a company decides on an in-house solution, they will need to invest in proper training for the personnel, as well. It may be that a facility manager may decide that the IR program will consist of a dedicated maintenance team who will regularly work with a contracted thermographer who visits the plant on a set schedule.”

Gilbertson’s larger clients tend to have their own in-house thermography teams as part of maintenance. “The advantage of having a thermographer in-house is they can use thermography as part of their regularly scheduled maintenance program,” he explains. “That thermographer may also be used for condition monitoring or to check equipment after repairs have been made. The thermographer is always available whenever needed.

No one ever thinks about the administrative costs when they simply purchase an imager as part of the thermography program. If a thermographer goes out into the plant and spends a number of hours imaging, he will then spend several hours writing reports. So, know a maintenance tech is spending time writing reports and not performing other tasks. Contracting an outside thermographer puts the report writing in the hands of the contracted company. The contractor comes in, does the imaging, and leaves to write the report. The maintenance department helps with the survey but is not tied up with any administrative tasks afterwards.”

Figure 1. Learning curves need to be traveled when using new technology and setting up system requirements.

The in-house vs. outsourced answer would be directly related to the time and capital resources that can be assigned to building a competent IR monitoring program, advises Kevin Lesnewski, product manager at the thermal imaging division at Testo. “As with any new program there are learning curves that need to be traveled when using new technology and the setting up of the system requirements,” he explains (Figure 1). “Basics include what to inspect, when to inspect, creating report templates, tracking of observations, issuing work orders, and tracking repairs; they all need to be defined and SOPs developed. If the resources can be assigned to develop the program, in the long term, costs are reduced and internal competence is built and expertise is developed. If not, the shorter-term approach of hiring an IR survey company to look at specific operations is a sound approach but it can cost more in the long term.”

Not every plant has the historical basis for cost-justification of the time and equipment, says Tony Shockey, thermography product manager, Fluke. “Five to 10 years ago, it could have cost $30,000-$50,000 for the camera alone, not adding in the cost of the individual, the training, and the full report based on the number of applications,” he explains. “Now that the cost and technology have improved greatly and the training requirements have decreased with ease-of-use, more facilities can see an ROI in just days, first by conducting a thorough inspection, finding small to large issues before they start to cost the company money, and then by having the inspection tool on hand to problem-solve faster, increasing overall maintenance productivity compared to an annual inspection.”

Given that most issues for electrical or mechanical will result in a rise in temperature, once an in-house team does its homework and establishes both level of criticality of equipment and then baseline images for each, then the entire team, not just those with tribal knowledge of specific equipment, can effectively assess conditions, says Shockey. “With a thermal image, the technician can quickly identify areas of concern and focus effort at those areas that show a difference in temperature vs. the historical or known temperature,” he explains. “The advantage of contracting speaks largest either for facilities with fewer critical machines or large electromechanical loads. In that case, it may be sufficient to have a level III certified thermographer performing the work and generating a report with all necessary information to present you with all of the findings.”

With the cost of infrared imagers coming down dramatically, there has been a move by many companies, who had previously hired all of their infrared inspections done by an outside company, to begin to move some or all of those inspection programs inside, explains Alan Clark, applications engineer/sales support, T/IRT level II thermographer, Palmer/Wahl Instrumentation Group. “The cost of one or two inspections, depending on the size of the organization and depth of the inspection, could pay for one or more imagers for internal use,” he says. “It soon became apparent to many of these companies who did bring the program inside that it really was not a simple point and shoot and find the problem issue. Things that appeared bad were not always so and things that looked OK turned into problems. Many made the decision to bring the professionals back in and some made the decision, instead, to get their own people properly trained, to make them the professionals.”

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