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Flir discusses the use of infrared cameras in automated systems for food-quality assurance.

As the sophistication of IR cameras continues to increase, along with associated hardware and software, their use in automated systems is growing rapidly.

Thanks to their combined imaging and temperature-measurement capabilities, they can be very cost effective for those involved in automated food production.

Thermographic cameras and their associated software can recognise the size, shape and relative location of target objects.

The electronics in the latest IR cameras provide fast signal processing that allows high video-frame rates (60Hz or higher) to capture relatively fast-moving items on a production line.

The features of IR cameras that enable their use in vision applications are Gigabit Ethernet (GigE) connectivity, GigEVision compliance, a Genicam interface and a range of third-party software that supports these cameras.

Generally, ultra-high detector resolutions are not needed in the targeted applications, so a typical focal plane array would be 320 x 240 pixels.

Nevertheless, outputting a 16-bit image stream of 76,800 pixels at a 60Hz frame rate amounts to about 74Mb/sec.

While this is much slower than the capacity of a 1000-baseT Ethernet system, multiple cameras may be involved, as well as a lot of other traffic on the network between image transmissions.

To speed up image transfers, data analysis and decision making must take place outside the camera.

This is the reason why there is a good market for third-party thermographic software.

Another factor is that most machine-vision systems are custom designed for specific production processes.

IR camera manufacturers supply various types of software to support their products and facilitate applications in these systems.

The food-processing industry is one in which high-level analytics are used with IR cameras for automated machine-vision applications.

A field in which IR excels is the inspection of cooked food items coming out of a continuous conveyor oven.

The primary concern is that the food has been thoroughly cooked, which can be determined by the IR camera measuring the temperature.

This can be done by defining measurement spots or areas corresponding to the locations of the burgers as they exit the oven.

If the temperature of the burger is too low, the machine-vision programme logic not only provides an alarm, but also displays an image to the oven operator to show the specific burger that should be removed from the line.

As in other applications, minimum, maximum and average temperatures can be collected for specific burgers or the field of view as a whole.

This data can then be used for trending and summary of product characteristics (SPC) purposes.

In an example involving chicken fillets, temperature is again used to check for thorough cooking.

The pieces come out of the oven and drop onto another conveyor in more or less random locations.

The operator can use the thermographic image to locate undercooked items and then remove them from the conveyor.

In the production of frozen entrees, IR machine vision can use pattern-recognition software to check the efficient filling of food-tray compartments.

Similarly, it can be used for 100 per cent inspection of the heat-sealed cellophane cover over the finished dish.

An added function could be laser marking of a bad item so that it can be removed at the inspection station.

In summary, IR machine vision and temperature measurements can be applied to an infinite number of automated processes.

IR imagers such as the Flir A320 provide a stream of digitised IR images at fast frame rates for relatively high-speed processes, which can be transmitted over GigE networks to remote locations.

Compliance with GigE Vision and GenICam standards means that such cameras can be integrated with a variety of similarly compliant equipment and supported by a range of third-party software.

Trigger and synchronisation capabilities allow them to control, or be controlled by, a host of other types of equipment.

The availability of wireless and fibre-optic line adaptors allow these cameras to be used almost anywhere, including over long distances.

FLIR Systems specialises in technologies that enhance perception and awareness.  The company brings innovative sensing solutions into daily life through its thermal imaging and visible light imaging technology and systems for measurement, diagnosis, location and advanced threat detection.  Its products improve the way people interact with the world around them, enhance productivity, increase energy efficiency and make the workplace safer.

FLIR Systems has six operating segments – surveillance, instruments, OEM and emerging markets, maritime, security and finally, detection. Of these six, ‘instruments’ is of greatest interest to trade and industry and the second largest segment in the company’s portfolio. This division provides devices that image, measure and assess thermal energy, gases and other environmental elements for industrial, commercial and scientific applications.

These products are manufactured across five production sites, three in the USA and two in Europe; Sweden and Estonia.

A model to suit every application and budget
The options that FLIR Systems provides for measuring temperature and studying thermal performance have never been greater.  Not only does the company offer a huge range of models to suit all thermal application needs but the technology is also affordable and very easy to use.  Thermal cameras now come in various shapes, sizes and degrees of sophistication and FLIR continues to invest heavily in the development of new and complementary technologies to differentiate itself from competitors.

An important milestone in the development of thermal imaging has been the introduction of the FLIR Lepton® core, a micro longwave detector, the size of a mobile SIM.  This has allowed thermal imaging to be repackaged to meet the needs of an even wider audience and, in combination with another new technology called Infrared Guided Measurement – IGM™ – has led to the development of a range of test and measurement meters with imaging capability.

Another important growth area for FLIR thermal imaging is in continuous monitoring to assure quality and safety.  Through its introduction of discrete fixed mounted thermal cameras which are fully compliant industry standard plug-and-play protocols, FLIR Systems has provided industry with infrared machine vision which is instantly ready for quick and easy network installation.

Protecting assets and people from fire is an area for which thermal imaging is least known but, thanks to FLIR Systems’ development, it is now one of the most cost-effective methods available.  Its application flexibility and rapid return on investment present an attractive proposition for any site or safety manager.

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