The effect of zinc coating on the weld brazability of dissimilar Al–steel joint made by the cold metal transfer (CMT) process using the passive infrared (IR) thermography sensing technique was investigated using a numerical model. The numerical model was developed to understand the heat transfer phenomena during the CMT process. In the developed model, a thin thermally resistive layer (TTRL) was introduced at the interface of the two joining metals in order to manipulate the absence of zinc deposition on the steel sheet. The model could clearly identify the lack of weld deposition. The results were compared with experimental observations. Two cases are considered in this paper. The first study identifies the sensitivity of the IR thermography technique and the second one reveals the resolution in defect detection. The developed 3D model can be used as a tool to identify the defects caused during welding and can provide insights into the online monitoring of cold metal transfer joining process. © 2019, Springer-Verlag London Ltd., part of Springer Nature.