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Warren Clark maps the history of NET, a distributor turned manufacturer and solutions provider

NET started life back in 1996 as a distributor, having been founded by Jean-Pierre Heinrichs (who still serves as CEO) and Peter Stoehr, who retired in 2004. Heinrichs is a physicist by profession, and immediately prior to starting NET had been working for a company that was developing video systems for endoscopy. Stoehr was already involved in distribution of cameras within a company that also dealt with many other markets, and felt that there was an opportunity to explore the vision market alone. Due to personal contact Stoehr had with the international sales director at Japanese company Teli (now Toshiba Teli), he set up NET to act as distributor for its range of cameras in Europe.

‘The first products were, of course, all analogue cameras with Camera Link interfaces,’ says Heinrichs. For much of the first year of operation, the main markets were in traditional industrial vision – but, by 1997, NET was able to bring Heinrichs’ experience to bear and move into the medical market.

‘Very soon after we started operating in the medical market,’ says Heinrichs, ‘we found ourselves customising our solutions more and more. Over the years, this has turned us into a manufacturer as well as a distributor. In fact, today, our business breaks down at around 70 per cent manufacture, 30 per cent distribution.’

Today, application markets for NET are split between industrial vision and medical. For industrial vision, the emphasis is less on supplying standard, off-the-shelf product lines, and more on customised solutions.

‘We compete with many other manufacturers on our standard product lines, where decisions are made on factors such as delivery times, product reliability and so on,’ says Heinrichs. ‘But where we really stand out is in close customer relationships and providing fully customised solutions. For example, unlike many of our competitors, we not only provide the cameras, but also the optics and lighting too. We often provide a solution with a range of options, so the customer can choose which is the best for them.’

Typical industrial vision customers are OEMs and, to a certain extent, large end users looking to integrate vision into their own processes. ‘But industrial vision is becoming more and more complicated,’ observes Heinrichs. The plethora of interfaces available, and the growing range of applications, makes every customer’s needs unique.

By contrast, NET’s work in the medical industry is stable by comparison, where the main areas of interest are endoscopy and dentistry. ‘We have a number of long-term, loyal customers, whose needs evolve over time, but remain more or less the same. We only supply the board cameras here. It goes into a product that belongs to our customer, so we don’t need to worry about marketing or branding etc.’

When NET first started, there were very few Western manufacturers of camera technology; now, the landscape has changed dramatically. But one of the biggest changes that Heinrichs has noticed coincided with the advent of digital cameras. ‘When digital cameras were first introduced,’ he says, ‘some manufacturers realised the importance of software, while others didn’t. We recognised that it was the software that could provide the flexibility and customisation that our customers required. It also accentuated the need for local support, as customers need direct access to the software engineers in their own territories.

‘This meant we also had to expand our recruitment policy. While hardware engineers knew the importance of software, and could understand the fundamentals, they weren’t really in a position to develop full software packages. As a result, we began to recruit software engineers as well.’

Today, NET is a global company. At its headquarters in Europe, it handles sales and marketing, product development, technical support and an assembly group. In the US, there is a small facility handling sales, technical support and some testing, while in Japan there is an office that handles sales and also purchasing of components. Finally – and perhaps most significantly – there is a manufacturing facility in Korea. The company now employs around 70 people worldwide.

NET also owns shares in a mechanical production facility, located close to its Munich base, which provides the company with any mechanical components it needs. All other elements of production are outsourced.

Heinrichs believes that NET has a number of qualities that set it apart from its competitors. ‘We are small enough to appreciate the need for variation among our OEM customers. We are able to compete with anyone when it comes to customisation, where we believe we always have a chance to win the business.

Jean-Pierre Heinrichs

‘In the medical markets, our long-term relationships with our customers ensure we keep close to the market. This helps us develop products to meet future needs, so that when our customers need them, we have them ready.’

NET escaped the economic fallout of the past 18 months relatively unscathed. ‘Business in Europe fell by around 20 per cent for us in 2009 – much the same as everyone else,’ says Heinrichs. ‘However, our US business grew significantly during the same period – which meant that, in the end, 2009 was only down by three per cent on 2008, our best year ever.

‘This year looks like beating 2008. Europe should recover to 2008 levels, while there is real growth again in our US business. Overall, we’re looking at 15 per cent growth over and above our 2008 figures.’

Looking forward, Heinrichs believes NET has scope for growth in both its major markets. ‘Within medical, we are looking to expand our range of products beyond those used in endoscopy and dentistry. In some cases, this means convincing customers that video technology has a place in areas of medicine where it’s not currently used.’

For the industrial market, Heinrichs talks of his desire to see a ‘universal camera’. ‘I think it will be possible to one day produce a 10 megapixel camera for the same price as a VGA camera,’ he says. ‘And we’ll start thinking of a camera as more of an intelligent sensor.’

In general, one aspect of the industry that Heinrichs would like to see explored in years to come is to communicate the vision ‘message’ to the younger generation. ‘You look at the Vision show in Stuttgart, for example,’ he says. ‘Most of the visitors are in the 40 to 60 age bracket. We need to encourage the younger generation to be interested in vision technology and the advantages it can bring to their area of business. We need to communicate better.’

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