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Colin Pearce, CEO, Active Silicon

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How did you come to be part of the imaging/machine vision industry?

By accident really – it was not a conscious decision, which is probably the case for many people in niche industries like machine vision. My first position as a graduate was as an electronics engineer designing prototype hardware to demonstrate new types of digital video standards for broadcast. Following some further experience in a smaller organisation, I then founded Active Silicon with the aim to develop imaging-related products based on my digital video experience. Our early products found a diversity of applications, but the two key areas were image inspection in the printing industry and video surveillance. As the business grew, we identified niches in a variety of imaging markets – in particular through supporting the more specialist operating systems as well as mainstream Windows, plus expanding our product range to support harsh environments.

How do you convince customers they need machine vision?

Our customers tend to be OEMs and integrators that are familiar with imaging and machine vision. Also, many customers are outside the traditional machine vision industry – more than half our revenue is from non-industrial vision applications, such as life sciences, medical imaging, security and defence. Our customers generally approach us for key component parts but also complete vision solutions from time to time. But there has been the odd occasion when we have pointed out to potential customers: ‘You do realise that you could use a camera and computer to do this?’

What role does Europe have in the development of machine vision?

I would say Europe plays a leading role in the development of machine vision, partly driven by the high-tech manufacturing industry in Germany as well as a wide range of high-tech companies in specialist niches in various European countries. It comes as no surprise that there are a significant number of German machine vision manufacturers and integrators. Of course recently, there has been the development of the CoaXPress interface by a European consortium, plus Europe has some leading players in CMOS imaging.

What are the major growth factors?

The use of machine vision outside traditional factory automation is growing rapidly, and these markets are very large. Take security for example – real-time analysis of surveillance video for applications ranging from basic ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) to more complex behavioural analysis has spawned relatively new phrases such as ‘video analytics’ and is attracting considerable investment. Similarly, there is a migration of traditionally high-end military imaging technologies such as thermal imaging, to more industrial and surveillance applications as the cost of sensors declines.

What are the most important technological challenges for the industry?

It’s the requirement to provide products at the high end that allow machine vision manufacturers to maintain good margins. Once a technology becomes established, lower-cost solutions soon come onto the market. ANPR is a good example – once the domain of high margins, it is now possible to buy very low-cost ANPR cameras from the Far East. Keeping a close watch on technology trends is important too and then being able to capitalise on that. A good example is the GPU (graphics processor unit) developed for the consumer games market, this technology is now being adopted by imaging and machine vision companies. A few years back, the industry generally predicted the demise of the frame grabber with GigE Vision and USB2 coming along. In fact our frame grabber sales continue to grow – the whole market is getting larger and frame grabbers became more powerful and continued to occupy the high end with Camera Link. We see the same thing happening now with 10GigE and USB3 coming along, yet frame grabbers are poised to leap well ahead again with CoaXPress.

What is the most significant commercial change facing the industry?

I would say one significant commercial change – happening already – is the way companies communicate and interact with customers internationally as a result of the continued growth of the internet in terms of bandwidth and applications. The ability to perform sales, product supply and support via web-based services thousands of miles from a main office allows smaller organisations to compete very efficiently in a worldwide market. This will have the effect of driving down costs, generally resulting in further propagation of imaging and machine vision products. Some of our OEMs are the other side of the world to us, yet we maintain an excellent business relationship. This would have been unheard of not so long ago.

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