Improving Operations with Thermal Imaging

September 1, 2005
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Advances in infrared detector technology and software are bringing new versatility and added cost-effectiveness to the portable cameras used for process control and predictive maintenance.

Glass manufacturing was one of the first industries to use non-contact infrared (IR) temperature measurement, and many of today's infrared sensor designs evolved directly from this industry's diverse needs and harsh operating environments. Today, specialized portable and fixed infrared thermometers are used for a variety of point-measurement applications ranging from molten glass, metal and thin films to furnace interiors.

However, if a single point of temperature measurement is useful, a thermographic image reveals much more. A thermograph uses 76,800 temperature sensors (the 320 x 240 pixel array of a microbolometer) to electronically create an image based on temperature readings. An isotherm color palette is then applied to render a visual image with cooler temperatures represented as blues, violets and blacks, and the hottest ranges as reds, yellows and white.

Uncooled microbolometer detectors made portable thermographic imaging affordable, truly portable, and practical for all kinds of predictive maintenance applications, such as finding overheated bearings, leaking furnaces, roof moisture detection and failing electrical components. The cost savings provided by predictive maintenance with thermography is well known among plant engineers. It is estimated that every dollar spent on IR imagers can provide a return of $4 or more in avoided downtime. Because of the evolution of technology, the cost of IR cameras has come down nearly 50% in the last four years. As a result, the return on investment for predictive maintenance using IR imaging technologies is increasing dramatically.

Conventional IR Imaging

The previous generation of thermography technology, which still has its place and is widely used for mid-wave infrared applications, is based on a cryogenically cooled (approximately -200°C) detector. These cameras are large, heavy and typically are not portable. They cost $50,000-80,000, consume batteries at a rapid rate, and require service costing up to $15,000 if the cooling system fails. Newer generations of microbolometer-based IR cameras can be obtained for somewhere between $11,995 and $43,000, depending on the resolution of the detector array (320 x 240 pixels is common).

The principal difference between these two imaging technologies is that microbolometer cameras are ideal for the 8-14 micron long-wave infrared range, while the cryogenically cooled detectors work in the 3-5 micron mid-wave band. The 8-14 micron band is ideal for general-purpose plant thermography because it can be calibrated to read much larger temperature bands (e.g., 0-500°C) with ±2°C accuracy, and it is immune to problems from moisture, fog and smoke. However, when measuring glass temperatures with infrared in the 8-14 micron band, reflectance can seriously skew readings. Glass also changes its properties in the process, and a small change in emissivity causes greater errors in the 8-14 micron range. Glass temperatures are ideally measured in the 5-micron spectral band because glass is a nearly perfect emitter of IR-that is, it absorbs and emits 100% of the radiation that corresponds to its characteristic temperature, resulting in the most accurate surface temperature measurements. Applications that require looking through flames are best handled in the 3.9-micron band.

Maintenance monitoring of high-voltage electrical connections, looking through a 0.5-in. viewport with a fisheye lens-equipped IR camera.

IR Imaging Advances

Until recently, the lower-cost, 8-14 micron long-wave cameras used in many manufacturing plants for preventative maintenance were of little use for measuring glass temperatures at the surface or just below, forcing many glass manufacturers into solutions that were more costly and far less flexible in application.

That has all changed as a result of patented advances in detector, filtration and software technologies.* These developments allow the long-wave camera to accurately measure temperatures and produce excellent images in the specific mid-wave infrared bands of

5 microns for glass and 3.9 microns for "through-flame" applications. Several

8-14 micron cameras are now available that can be configured for one of these optional mid-wave bands. The fixed-mount cameras are designed for remote monitoring and process control applications on the factory floor, and can handle ambient temperatures up to 100°C with optional cooling. Even the portable cameras are sealed to IP54, equipped with a Firewire® interface, and can tolerate ambient temperatures to 50°C, allowing them to be used for fixed process monitoring or taken off line for predictive maintenance use.

*These advances were developed and are patented by Mikron Infrared, Oakland, N.J.

For process control in flat glass manufacturing, a high-speed infrared line-array (not a bolometer) camera captures images in the 5-micron wavelength, providing data on thermal profiles across glass panels for furnace control.

Closed-Door Inspections

The multipurpose capability of the new IR cameras allows them to handle specialty applications such as glass, while paying for themselves day to day with predictive maintenance inspections of motors, gear drives, couplings, bearings, furnaces, roofs, etc. The versatility of these cameras is probably best illustrated by one of the new interchangeable lenses recently developed for inspecting electrical switchgear in closed cabinets.

One of the most common causes of unplanned downtime is failure of electrical connections and components locked away-for safety reasons-in protective cabinets. Until now, the options for performing an infrared scan of switchgear have not been appealing. Removing or opening electrical panels for infrared scanning always poses a risk when high energy is involved. Human error, equipment failure and other factors can lead to an arc flash explosion, which can be fatal for the inspector and anyone nearby. As a result, specialized personal protective equipment and barricading are needed, but the heavy protective suits, gloves, hoods and face shields often required make this work challenging even in a cool environment.

Closed-door inspection is safer, allowing the thermographer to work with reduced protective equipment and without the help of an electrician. Previously, however, closed-door inspection required the installation of costly and fragile IR-transparent windows (or sight glasses), which created serious limitations. IR sight glasses are made of various crystalline materials, all of which reduce to some degree the amount of IR energy getting to the detector. Some windows transmit IR energy only in the wavelength of 0.13 to 10 microns. However, as previously mentioned, the ideal range for most microbolometer cameras is 8-14 microns. If the sight glass only transmits up to

10.0 microns, then the camera misses 71.5% of the energy from the target. This reduction of signal/energy on the detector results in lower image quality and severely compromises temperature values based on the camera algorithms established for the energy from 8-14 microns.

IR sight glasses also have other drawbacks. Some crystal materials are hygroscopic, so they absorb moisture over time, reducing image quality. Additionally, sight glasses allow only a small portion of a cabinet interior to be viewed through a camera. Because a standard lens cannot focus closely enough, it has to be backed off, which limits the useful field of view. The crystal material can also be easily scratched or cracked, which prevents the camera lens barrel from being pushed against it. And any sight glass will attract dirt and oils over time, which creates a dilemma for cleaning the inside surface. Sight glasses are also expensive, costing hundreds of dollars for just a few square inches, and four or more might be required in each cabinet (at a cost of about $200-300 each) to allow the thermographer to image the interior.

The new interchangeable IR camera lenses now allow a thermographer to scan a panel looking through a 0.5-in. opening in the door. This new system combines a viewport, which has no IR sight glass, with a mating fisheye lens. The patented viewports are UL approved and meet NEMA Type 1, 2, 3, 3R, 4, 5, 12, 12K and 13 enclosures.

The fisheye lens/viewport system enables closed-door thermal inspections of connected electrical switchgear, while maintaining the original safety rating of the cabinet. This applies to cabinets energized with 480 to 15,000 volts, as well as motor junction boxes with 4160 volts.

The fisheye lens has a wide field of view (53° horizontal by 40° vertical, or 66° diagonal) that allows easy scanning of the interior of the electrical cabinet through the viewport, while providing a temperature measurement accuracy of ±3°C. The lens focuses as close as 3 in. and provides a significant depth of field, thereby reducing the need to refocus the lens for different electrical cabinet depths. The viewport can be installed on any application where an expansive and unobstructed view behind a panel or door is desired, including mechanical rooms, motor control centers, transformer terminal boxes, air circuit breakers, motor lead boxes and a wide range of mechanical equipment.

The viewport is designed to dock with the cone-shaped tip of the fisheye lens barrel. The tip works with the viewport like a ball-and-socket joint, allowing the camera to be rocked at different angles to look up, down and to the sides, as well as straight ahead. When not in use, the port is covered by a sealed, screw-on or lockable cap to maintain the safety rating of the cabinet.

A locking style viewport with the cap open.

A Cost-Effective Solution

Few people would argue that thermal imaging can help manufacturing plants save money long-term by allowing them to accurately predict and correct maintenance concerns before such concerns lead to extensive downtime. However, thermal imaging devices have not always been affordable, and newer generations of microbolometer-based IR cameras have not been feasible for all applications.

Recent advances in IR imaging technologies have addressed these issues, enabling thermal imaging to be used as a cost-effective process control and predictive maintenance solution for many of today's glass and ceramic manufacturing facilities.

About the Author

Jim Lancaster is president of Infrared Technologies, Inc., an infrared applications consulting and thermography service company based in Louisville, Ky. He has been performing contract inspection and developing infrared process control applications at major manufacturing plants in the Midwest since 1989. He is a Level II thermographer with an extensive background in plant predictive and preventive maintenance. He can be reached at or (502) 326-0521.

For more information about thermal imaging equipment, contact Mikron Infrared at 16 Thornton Rd., Oakland, NJ 07436; (800) 631-0176 or (201) 405-0900; fax (201) 405-0090; e-mail; or visit

Table 1.

SIDEBAR: The Importance of Detector Resolution

The latest generation of thermal imaging cameras uses an advanced vanadium oxide detector with a resolution of 320 x 240 pixels. Pixels are the data acquisition points for thermal measurement, and this data is used to form the visual image of the thermal profile. More data acquisition points mean that more information is provided for accurate thermal interpretation, and that greater visual resolution is provided in the acquired image- that is, for a given field of view, finer, smaller details will be seen in the visual image and accurately measured for temperature.

Vanadium oxide detectors have traditionally been reserved for medical applications where real-time imaging, with precise temperature sensitivity and repeatability, is required. Many industrial infrared cameras use detectors with pixel counts of 160 x 120, with or without interpolation, as a cheap alternative. However, this is one-fourth the resolution of the 320 x 240 detector (see Table 1). The larger detector produces an image twice as wide and twice as high, with four times the data for a given field of view. From a practical standpoint, the high-resolution camera can be farther from the target without loss of temperature resolution. The 160 x 120 systems trade marginal resolution, lower image quality and overall lack of performance for a lower cost.

Table 2.
Another fine point in detector design is fill factor-the space between pixels on the detector that has to be interpolated when the image is formed electronically. The newest detectors have reduced this spacing by 25% to provide a high fill factor and superior imaging capability. Everyone knows how photographers like to boast about the resolution of their newest digital cameras. In infrared imaging, the resolution affects temperature measurement accuracy, not just image quality. The 320 x 240 detector, with 76,800 temperature-measuring pixels, resolves an area smaller than 1/10 in 2 at 6 ft, while the 160 x 120 detector, with just 19,200 pixels, can't see anything smaller than twice that size (see Table 2).

The 160 x 120 detector image (left) shows an obvious lack of definition, compared to the image produced by the 320 x 240 detector. The temperature resolution and accuracy of the 160 x 120 image are also proportionately lower.
Lower resolution also means that more background is averaged into temperature readings, so the readings are less accurate. Likewise, the low-resolution thermal image looks like it's made of tiny squares, no matter what the viewing size.

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