From East to West
Ximea has sites in the USA, Germany and Slovakia
Warren Clark charts the history of Ximea, an imaging company with roots in Slovakia
Though the name Ximea has only been around since the formation of the company in June 2010, the platform on which it has been built dates back around 20 years. In 1992, Max Larin and three fellow engineers left their native Moscow to head for Slovakia, largely because they felt that the instability in the Soviet Union caused by Perestroika was not conducive to building companies and careers in their field of expertise. They chose Slovakia because it was relatively close to home, meaning they could continue to work as a team, and also because no visas were required.
The four of them started Softhard Technology, which specialised in frame grabbers and software for crystallographic image processing, but the first couple of years were very tough. ‘We shrunk to just two people – myself and Vjaceslav Klimkovic,’ recalls Larin, ‘and we had to take on other jobs such as repairing monitors and so on, just to survive.’
Their fortunes turned a corner in 1994 when Softhard demonstrated a product aimed at the research community while at a scientific conference in Zurich. Among the visitors was Dr Vasant Desai, one of the founders of Soft Imaging Systems, a Munster-based software house specialising in solutions for electron microscopy.
‘We did the deal right there in Zurich to supply them with frame grabbers,’ says Larin. ‘And right from the beginning, it was a dynamic cooperation. The team at Soft Imaging had a lot of ideas as to what we could do to deliver in order to compete in our market, and in return, we were supplying the IP for our specialised real-time Fourier transform software that they were able to integrate into their main product.’
A major leap forward occurred in 1995 when CCD sensors began to become commercially available on the market via Philips Advanced Imaging (later acquired by Teledyne Dalsa). ‘We decided to buy a few of those sensors, which were very expensive at the time, in order to try building our own cameras. We showed our prototype – which was actually built in a shoebox – to Vasant, who was very impressed with the idea of creating our own camera product.’
Within a year, the prototype moved to a product that was ready to launch – a CCD camera using a Peltier element to cool the sensor, aimed at the microscopy market. Even at that time Softhard comprised just three people, but the launch of the camera marked a period of fast growth for the company. Its customer base grew to a point where it became an OEM supplier to major companies, such as Siemens. This business model ensured that Softhard enjoyed a successful 10-year period.
It was brought to a slowdown by a decline in the desire for innovation from large customers, and it was innovation that Softhard had become expert at selling. ‘We had to make an assessment: do we continue with just OEM business, or do we change?’ says Larin.
In the meantime, Soft Imaging Systems was acquired by Olympus, and many of the existing team left the company (though Ximea continues to supply it), including Vasant Desai. Having enjoyed many years of working together, Larin, Klimkovic and Desai began discussing ways in which they could collaborate on a venture that would make the best use of all their skills. Desai had expertise in sales and marketing, and also experience beyond the scientific market in industrial applications. By coupling this with the technology that Larin and Klimkovic had developed, Ximea was born.
Max Larin, one of the original founders of the company
‘Rather than change the structure of Softhard, which had strict ongoing contracts in place (and still does), we decided that the best move was to create a new company,’ says Larin, adding that those Softhard contracts will continue to run their course until their end, at which point the company will either close or be acquired by Ximea.
Ximea now comprises 26 employees across three companies: Ximea GmbH, based in Munster, Germany; Ximea Sro, based in Bratislava, Slovakia; and Ximea Corp, based in Colorado, USA.
At present, Ximea is a horizontal component supplier to a range of vertical industries in the component market, which currently breaks down the portfolio into two distinct product types – high-end cameras for scientific microscopy (driven by Klimkovic), and standard off-the-shelf products, which include Ximea’s USB 3.0 models and cameras with an embedded PC. A minor branding refocus will soon see OEM products separated out from these standard lines.
‘We are continuously updating our technology base via our R&D department,’ says Larin. ‘All of our standard products have emerged as a result of developments we have made for the OEM market. We are always on the leading edge of technology, whether that be sensors, interfaces or anything else. We have never been a "me too" company.’
As well as the aforementioned scientific market, Ximea’s products can be found in classic machine vision applications such as industrial automation, and beyond that in the security field. ‘Through our Currera model, our products are serving hundreds of diverse applications,’ says Larin, ‘such as sport, steel inspection, and web inspection.’
Visitors to Vision in Stuttgart may have noticed the prime booth position that Ximea has occupied for the past few years – right at the front corner of the first hall. But rather than being the result of some clever and expensive marketing plan, Ximea’s booth location was achieved purely by chance. ‘The first year we had that position, we had actually forgotten to book our booth because we had been so busy,’ recalls Larin. ‘I called very late in the day, not really expecting there to be any space left. As it happened, somebody else pulled out at the very last minute, so I ended up picking up that perfect position at a very good deal!’
Ximea’s differentiation comes from not trying to compete in overpopulated areas. ‘There is no point in competing just on price where margins are so low,’ says Larin. ‘Instead, we ensure that our products always deliver all possible and feasible technical advantages plus something more on top. This approach comes from our history in the scientific market, where they always fight for the best possible performance. We want to make the level of performance enjoyed by the scientific market available to the machine vision market.
‘From day one, we have worked with integrators and end users to develop a full understanding of the application in question. It’s not just about the technology, but also support and understanding of the application. Because we develop our own software, we can build all the parameters of the hardware into the software, meaning also that we can offer a high level of remote support – we see this as another major differentiator.’
Ximea’s customers can have confidence in the stability of the company – it owns all its buildings and equipment, and has no outstanding loans. Everything has been financed from the company or via private investment from the owners.
Klimkovic summarises: ‘We bring technology developed for OEMs directly to the mass production industry. This isn’t the easiest path we can take, but we know it’s the right thing to do, and we have always responded to the need for change throughout our careers.’
‘Our mission is to bring confidence to users of machine vision,’ concludes Larin. ‘We can deliver that confidence through performance and power, compatibility and support.’