For process manufacturers, one of the most reliable ways of catching issues in the factory before they become failures is to detect when a piece of equipment is operating outside of its normal parameters—that is, if it starts to run too hot or too cold. Catching these warning signs early means maintenance teams are able to repair rather than replace this equipment—typically a cheaper option. 

This predictive maintenance approach not only reduces maintenance costs, it also extends the overall asset lifespan and helps to avoid the kind of catastrophic failure that causes unplanned downtime. As a result, regular thermal inspections are a key component of many maintenance programs.

Understanding the Role of Thermal Rounds

Typically thermal inspections are part of a larger condition monitoring program. Anything with electrical current or moving parts—motors, electrical panels, belts, drives, and more—may be a good candidate for monitoring. Many of these critical components have long life cycles, and their performance degrades very slowly over time. It’s not economical to embed sensors in every component, so this equipment needs to be periodically monitored manually by trained and certified thermal inspectors. 

Trained thermographers equipped with infrared cameras conduct routine rounds to check equipment, taking thermal readings and noting any equipment that is out of the acceptable temperature range. This information can then be entered into an Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) system or reported manually. Any anomalies should trigger follow up inspections to assess what is causing the issue and determine an appropriate maintenance response.

How Often Should You Conduct Thermal Inspections?

The exact frequency of inspections will likely depend on the equipment and its role in your operations. In a perfect world, for an asset that’s mission critical or a component that could cause catastrophic failure, you’d likely want to check it daily. For other assets with less risk associated, weekly or even monthly thermal inspections may be sufficient.

Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world and many facilities struggle to maintain a regular inspection routine when faced with competing priorities that may be more pressing in the moment. Recent staff shortages have exacerbated this challenge—leaving months or more between inspections. This decrease in the regularity of inspections can lead to a few challenges. First, lengthening the interval between inspections can result in missing warning signs that would have prevented unplanned shutdown if caught earlier. Additionally, if you’re using an AI-based analytics tool to help flag anomalies, you need consistent data at frequent intervals to produce reliable results; long gaps between data capture prevents meaningful trend analysis.

Creating More Reliable Results with Automation

How can you achieve the required frequency? As with many digitization and modernization efforts, automation is key to success. Automation helps capture higher volumes of data, more consistently, and in a format that is more centralized and easier to use throughout the organization without operational silos.

Automated thermal inspections use agile mobile robots to navigate a facility and gather the relevant thermal scans. These inspections can take place as often as needed, following either a set schedule or being deployed on an ad hoc basis depending on evolving operational needs. The collected thermal images can be processed at the edge, or automatically uploaded to an EAM platform and analyzed with AI algorithms. Finally, predefined stakeholders receive personalized reports with needed insights.

While manual thermal inspections provide detailed inspection reports, automated thermal inspections offer several distinct advantages.

  • Increased Frequency: As mentioned, automating inspections can increase the frequency of inspections without putting additional strain on maintenance teams, allowing experts to devote their time and attention to the most pressing problems.
  • More Consistent Outputs: Even highly trained inspectors may not collect data from the same location or angle each time. These small differences add up over time, resulting in data variability and historical data that does not have the consistency required to provide meaningful insights over time.
  • Better Predictive Analysis: The combination of increased frequency and consistent data capture is key for predictive maintenance. Small anomalies can be better contextualized over time to trigger an alert when something is actually an issue versus noise in the data.

By integrating more efficient, automated inspection solutions into routine operations, facilities can significantly reduce inspection intervals, capture more meaningful data, minimize downtime, ensure employee safety, and improve operational reliability.

To learn how you can get started with automated thermal inspections, download our latest whitepaper.