A Guide to Infrared (IR) Thermography
Kathy | March 1, 2007
An infrared inspection program can provide users with a quick return on investment-sometimes paying for the equipment on its first use. Estimates of return on investment generally run from a minimum of 4:1 to as high as 20:1, depending on such factors as the cost of downtime for equipment failure, labor, parts and materials.
Hurdles to program adoption
With such high returns, it would seem an easy matter to sell management on the value of establishing a thermography program and either hiring a contractor or purchasing the equipment and providing the training for an in-house initiative. Unfortunately, the initial investment required still raises eyebrows in many front offices.
Granted, the cost of IR thermography equipment can be substantial (sometimes reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars). But, properly used, it becomes almost insignificant in comparison to the potential savings.
Proper usage is the real rub. An effective program requires high-level education and training of the people involved in it. The best thermography technicians understand not only thermography, but also such associated topics as materials science, physics, thermodynamics, mechanics, electrical systems, thermal insulation, HVAC systems and more. Of course, a thorough knowledge of all safety aspects of the equipment and systems involved is paramount.
Data processing also can be a challenge. In the best of circumstances, thermography data can be integrated with CMMS or EAM software, but this is not always possible-or necessary. So long as data can be analyzed in an appropriate database, thermographers can find ways to spot and track trends and learn to predict potential problems.
Building a program
Contrary to what many users might think, buying the equipment should not be the first step in establishing a thermography program. Experts agree that considerable education and training should come first. Only after the appropriate personnel have become knowledgeable and are able to define the program needs should equipment be considered. Other steps advised prior to equipment purchase include:
- Select personnel for the program who will have the time and inclination to understand thermography and how it can be used.
- Define the initial objectives, realizing that the program must be revised and expanded as knowledge and experience grow.
- Establish documentation procedures that will provide for comparisons and trending.
- Meet with potential service and equipment suppliers to evaluate their experience. Obtain their input on your planned program.
- Investigate safety considerations.
- Identify equipment failures in which thermography could have prevented the failure or reduced the consequences. Show how costs could have been reduced or avoided and define dollar amounts.
- Document potential problems in which timely action prevented unexpected failures. Calculate what costs would have resulted if the equipment had failed unexpectedly.
- Inform superiors of the estimated program cost and expected return on investment.
Sustaining the program
As with all other aspects of preventive/ predictive maintenance, a thermography program itself requires maintenance. Experts emphasize that these programs must evolve as knowledge and experience are gained.
Scanning schedules need to be adhered to and then revised as the program evolves. Often, the frequency of scans on specific equipment can be reduced as experience and confidence increase.
New applications should be developed continually. Nearly any facility can identify benefits outside the traditional uses of IR technology. Imaginative applications only can be identified and developed through dedicated efforts to improve and expand the existing program.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, documentation of the program’s benefits and communication of them to higher management should be a high priority. Consistently compile and present cost/benefit analysis reports for management. The goal is to continually demonstrate the value that the program contributes to the company.