Developing technologies

Published:  07 August, 2014

Over the years, specific technological developments have allowed thermal imaging to move from being a specialist detection tool to one that has been optimised for mainstream use. Indeed these advances have resulted in the technology becoming the primary method for electro-mechanical condition monitoring and inspection as manufacturing economies have fuelled its commercialisation. PWE takes a look at a new technology from FLIR Systems, which claims to be an important milestone in IR technology.

Undoubtedly the most crucial breakthrough was the development of the uncooled detector. Historically, a Sterling cooler was an essential element in the design of all thermal imaging cameras, which not only added to their cost and complexity but also required the instruments to have a cool-down period before they could be used.

Another important introduction was the availability of high-resolution detectors for maintenance applications. And pixel count matters because it means the camera is able to provide clear visual evidence of small thermal differences making the problem easier to diagnose. A model with a 320 x 240 pixel array, for example, provides 76,800 temperature measurement points in the image and a top of the range 640 x 480 pushes that number up to 307,200.

Along the way, numerous other hardware and software advances have also contributed to the growing popularity of this versatile technology. A new development from FLIR Systems appears to be another important advance. It’s called MSX and it is now a standard feature on all but the company’s basic entry-level models.

Richer detail

The ability to share thermal images with others involved in the maintenance process is one of the big benefits of the technology. However, a thermal image alone is not always sufficient to help all parties to understand what they are seeing. A visual image is therefore often taken to put the thermal image into context and for this purpose many models now have digital camera capability too.

FLIR Systems says it has taken this concept one stage further and introduced its patented multi-spectral imaging technology, MSX. Its roots are in the high-end application of thermal imaging in science and R&D but FLIR Systems has now taken this knowledge and applied it to the industrial field.

MSX instantaneously generates a definitive, all-in-one thermal picture that provides as much detail as possible to make a quick diagnosis of the problem, whether the image appears on the camera’s touch screen, on a pc, a mobile device, a smartphone or in a written report. With the FLIR format, the thermal, visual and MSX are saved simultaneously with a single click of a button.

No need for visual

Key details apparent to the naked eye such as numbers, labels, signage and structural features can easily get lost in a regular thermal image which only displays heat signatures. Areas displaying small temperature differences are often hazy as a result as the colour contrast is minimal. To overcome this limitation, a corresponding visual has provided the detail but with MSX this need is negated.

MSX captures visual data from the built-in digital camera and radiometric data from the thermal camera. Internal software then analyses the image and superimposes key elements from the visual image as a high-contrast ‘skeleton’ on the thermal output. This all happens in real time and without compromising temperature measurement accuracy or minimising its visibility. The result is an image showing unprecedented detail.

Comparative performance

Previous generations of the thermal imaging cameras have featured ways to blend, overlay or fuse a portion of a thermal image into a visible light picture. These modes have only provided a partial solution however. They also took longer to apply and interpret and had a tendency to limit or obscure the thermal view of the scene.

MSX is a completely different technology. It embosses digital camera detail onto the video and stills, providing much better visible results without diluting the thermal image. Orientation of the target is easy, reports are clutter-free and all these elements contribute to faster and more efficient inspection. And in turn this has real impact on overall plant efficiency and the costs of operation.

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