Claudio Sager, managing director, Stemmer Imaging AG, Switzerland
How did you come to be part of imaging/machine vision industry?
I used to be a video enthusiast for many years. My first contact with machine vision was about seven years ago. The company I worked for at that time was a supplier of automation products, such as sensors, actuators, industrial PCs and visualisation components. Machine vision products were the next logical step to be added to this portfolio. We started with smart cameras. It was my task to sell and to integrate these cameras into customer sites. Three years later, during the foundation of the Stemmer Imaging Group, I had the great opportunity to become part of it. In particular, I became part of Stemmer Imaging AG in Switzerland.
How do you convince customers that they need machine vision?
We have to differentiate customers into three groups. Firstly, there are ‘burned’ customers; these are people who had there first contact with machine vision more than 20 years ago. At this time only a few computer experts were able to implement imaging-based results into a factory. Once they left, nobody was able to maintain these applications. A lot of money was lost there. These customers can be hard to convince. Today we have great vision software and hardware, and machine vision is an established working process.
Then there are ‘newcomer’ customers, who have heard about machine vision and sometimes even think machine vision is a magic wonder and that it can do everything. I don’t have to convince these customers, I have to show them the limitations of our technology.
Finally, there are ‘experienced’ customers, who contact us to place orders or ask for feasibility studies. There’s no need to convince them any more.
What role does Europe have in the development of machine vision?
Europe still maintains a leading position in the machine vision industry, but we must not lie back! The great infrastructure and the high level of our engineers is the base to keep this position. Since we have a lack of technically-interested young people, I see this pole position endangered. It is our obligation to inspire the youth to look for technical education to keep Europe at the leading edge of technology, not just in the machine vision industry.
What do you see as the major growth sectors?
From my point of view the vision sector covered so far is still a small fraction of a huge range of possibilities. Let me give you an example: The first coffee machine I can remember had only two buttons: Power on and Start. Today, even the smallest coffee machine contains a micro processor. You might ask what has this to do with machine vision. Well, whenever I visit our headquarters my coffee is not the way I like it. Either it is too strong, too weak, too big or too small. If there was a camera inside it would recognise me and my coffee would always be the same. What about your car? Modern cars already have camera assistant features like ‘night vision’ etc. built in. We are still far away from the autonomous driving car. Model aircraft enthusiasts install small cameras on their remotecontrolled airplanes and transmit the images to their video screens. That gives you the feeling of being up there. Cameras will guide any kind of robots; parallel cameras can achieve spacious views. Medical applications need very small cameras. Entry systems could be controlled by cameras. There is a never-ending list of applications where cameras could be used. However, a camera without your creativity is just a simple sensor!
What do you see as the most important technological challenges facing the industry?
The cameras have to get smaller, with higher resolution, higher dynamics and built-in processors. For many of the future applications we just want the result; there is no need to visualise the taken image. Another challenge is machine vision software. On one hand, there has to be more ease of use for entry-level customers to help them build their application quickly. On the other hand, there still have to be high-level software tools and packages for the experienced users that can solve more difficult applications.
What do you see as being the most significant commercial change in the industry during the years ahead?
Due to more and more camera manufacturers worldwide, the prices will drop dramatically. I personally see the camera business development equal to the ‘processor blacksmiths’: only a few will survive.