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Greek vision from the EMVA

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With the Greek economic crisis providing the backdrop, Greg Blackman reports from the European Machine Vision Association’s business conference in Athens

The Greek tragedy, as the economic crisis in Greece is sometimes referred to, provided the backdrop to this year’s European Machine Vision Association’s annual business conference. The event was held in Athens from 11 to 13 June, and, as Greek and Eurozone finance ministers struggle to reach an agreement on Greece’s debt repayments, there was a sense of being at the very heart of Europe’s financial problems.

Greece’s debt mountain currently stands at €320 billion, with a €1.5 billion repayment to the IMF due at the end of the month. If Greece defaults on its debts, the ramifications could be severe for the Eurozone. At the same time, Europe wants Greece to make €2 billion of spending cuts to receive further bailout funds.

In his keynote presentation at the conference, Liam Halligan, an economics columnist for The Sunday Telegraph and editor-at-large of news site Business New Europe, commented that ‘Greece’s economic predicament is now worse than in the US in the early 1930s [during the Great Depression]’.

The industrial market within Greece is small, according to Vassilis Spais, business development manager at Greek company Inos Hellas, with food, packaging and logistics being the main sectors using machine vision. However, he said that where Greece excels is in academic computer vision.

‘Greeks are education crazy,’ Spais said, adding that there is an abundance of graduates coming out of universities looking for work (youth unemployment in the country is currently more than 50 per cent). There is expertise from the Greek higher education system in cognitive robotics, gesture recognition, stereovision, among other disciplines in computer vision, with notable computer vision research centres at the Foundation for Research and Technology in Crete, the National Technical University of Athens, the University of Thessaly, and the University of Thrace.

The Greek debt crisis was only one aspect that Halligan pointed to as a source of instability in Europe. The other main area of tension was that between the EU and Russia, although he noted that even though EU-Russia trade fell from €325 billion to €285 billion during 2014, this was only a drop of 12 per cent, despite the sanctions in place. He said that sanctions with Russia had not hit EU-Russia trade that hard, except in agriculture.

Halligan also commented on the growing amount of trade between emerging countries. He said that now almost a third of all commerce in the world was between emerging markets, trade that has nothing to do with the West. Therefore, companies without a presence in the BRIC countries or other emerging markets are not only missing out on trade with advanced economies, but also on trade between emerging countries.

In terms of the European machine vision market, Gabriele Jansen of Vision Ventures and one of the re-elected EMVA board of directors, said that the first quarter of 2015 had seen 7 per cent growth in the European market, with an estimate of 10 per cent growth for 2015 as a whole. She also warned that developments in Greece and the Ukraine might influence sales.

The demise of CCDs?

The conference ran a special session on image sensor technology in response to the news that Sony will discontinue its line of CCD sensors. During a panel discussion on the topic, Axel Krepil, sales director at Framos, commented that CCDs are a legacy technology and that companies are not likely to make huge investments to fill the gap left by Sony. However, he added that the CCD is still alive, and that companies such as On Semiconductor are committed to CCD products.

Sony will support most CCD sensors until March 2026, although it plans to discontinue production in March 2017.

‘CMOS is coming closer to an ideal image sensor. As CMOS develops, there is no need to use CCDs,’ Krepil said, adding that most machine vision camera companies will be able to find CMOS replacements for CCDs.

Michael DeLuca at On Semiconductor reiterated during the panel discussion that CCD technology is not dead and that CCDs continue to be well suited to machine vision applications.

Dr Lou Hermans at Cmosis also spoke during the image sensor session, commenting that the volume of sensors produced for machine vision barely scratches the surface of those for the mobile phone market, where several thousand wafers are made per month – in 2014, Cmosis manufactured just 3,000 wafers. Therefore, the more advanced image sensor techniques like backside illumination are reserved for the mobile phone market where the volumes are higher. Cmosis is using advanced front side illumination techniques to improve performance.

Embedded vision

Dr Vassilis Tsagaris, CEO of Greek firm Irida Labs, commented on the growing trend of embedded vision, driven largely by the amount of processing power now readily available in the form of graphics cards and digital signal processors (DSPs). He said that there are now specific system-on-chips (SOCs) for embedded vision, and that the image processing algorithms won’t change as such – what will change is the processor and where that computation is carried out.

The newly appointed EMVA president and chief scientist at Adimec, Jochem Herrmann, commented during the conference that the Future Standards Forum was setting up a study group investigating whether current machine vision standards can meet the needs of embedded vision. He said that the Forum 'takes the embedded trend seriously and sees it as an opportunity', but that there needs to be greater understanding on whether current machine vision interface standards are a good fit for the technology.

Dr Kai-Udo Modrich, managing director of Carl Zeiss Automated Inspection, spoke about the merger of metrology tools and machine vision, especially on car production lines where multiple sensors are used for in-line measurements. Zeiss has recently acquired Steinbichler Optotechnik, a supplier of optical 3D digitisation systems used in automotive inspection.

During the conference, the EMVA also presented its Young Professional Award to Benjamin Busam, a researcher working for Framos on adaptable high-resolution real-time stereo tracking.

Next year’s EMVA business conference will take place from 9 to 11 June 2016 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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