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Grabbing the market

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After two decades at the top, Bitflow is still at the cutting edge of frame grabbers, as Warren Clark discovers

Biflow is celebrating 20 years in the imaging industry this year, and its roots can be found in three former employees of Imaging Technology. Among them was Reynold Dodson, now president of Biflow, who recalls: ‘Back in the late 80s and early 90s, myself and a couple of colleagues used to go mountain biking. We got talking about what we would do if we weren’t working for Imaging Technology, and over time we came up with a lot of ideas.

‘There were a lot of technology shifts back then, not least of which was the evolution of the PC. The buses within PCs were becoming fast enough to cope with real-time video.’

At the time, Imaging Technology was making complicated hardware, comprising subsystems with proprietary buses for capturing video and which often involved circuitry to drive displays – but Dodson and his colleagues saw the opportunities that the Vesa local bus presented.

‘We came up with a capture-only frame grabber that was among the first that no longer needed a display. It just captured the images and sent them directly to the host. It meant that processing could be done on the PC, and that customers could take control of the IP involved in that processing.’

So, with the idea in hand, a bulging book of contacts covering manufacturing, sales and distribution, and a fourth member on board to spearhead the sales effort, Dodson and his colleagues quit their jobs, pooled their resources (‘we lived on credit cards!’), and started Bitflow in summer 1993. Twenty years later, both Dodson and one other original founder, Avner Butnaru, remain at the helm of the company (the other two having left the business).

‘We weren’t competing directly with Imaging Technology,’ says Dodson. ‘We were operating in a different niche, but it certainly helped that we already knew a lot of people in the industry, especially at the camera companies.’

By the end of 1993 Bitflow had its first product ready to ship – and, for a short time, had a product that was genuinely ‘disruptive’. ‘Our competitors caught up pretty quickly,’ recalls Dodson, ‘but when we first launched, there was still very much a mindset that you needed a display and that the processing should take place on the frame grabber. We helped changed that mindset. And once the PCI bus arrived (replacing the Vesa local bus), it was clear that the PC was the obvious place to do the processing.’

With some amusement, Dodson remembers that their very first order came from Cognex. ‘We’re pretty sure they ordered one out of curiosity so they could pull it apart on their bench,’ he says. ‘But Cognex was very definitely our first ever customer!’

While never entering into any formal partnerships, the Bitflow team worked closely with its camera manufacturer contacts to solve acquisition problems for OEM customers. ‘In the early days, we worked on a lot of line scan projects, and postal applications were a big market too,’ says Dodson.

Reynold Dodson, Bitflow president 

For much of Bitflow’s two decades, the aim has been much the same. ‘We’ve always been focused on acquisition – getting images into the computer memory as fast as possible,’ says Dodson. ‘Of course, cameras have sped up considerably in that time – 10MB/s cameras are now 10GB/s cameras, for example.’

Some of the biggest changes in the industry have come in camera standards. ‘Camera Link came along, for example,’ says Dodson. ‘In the early days, every digital camera had a different connector and pin-out. Indeed, a single company might have 10 or 15 different output specifications. Our stockroom went from needing to hold 150 different types of proprietary cable to needing just one type.’

Some of the standards, like FireWire, for example, were considered a threat to the very existence of frame grabbers. ‘I remember when Sony first demonstrated a FireWire camera that didn’t need a frame grabber. People were saying that this was the end of the frame grabber market. But 15 years later, we’re still in business. The lower end of the frame grabber market disappeared, for sure, but we were always at the high end – and we still are. Newer standards, such as GigE and USB3, are working their way up – but our market has always been high-speed cameras, where the requirements are different from those provided by the mainstream standards.’

Bitflow’s business covers a lot more than just getting images into the frame grabber, though. ‘There are triggers, encoders, controlling strobe lights and so on,’ says Dodson. ‘We excel in realising that there is a bigger picture, so build in extra functionality accordingly. We provide an SDK that allows customers to set up the functions they need.’

Speed and data are increasing all the time; PCI-Express has replaced PCI bus, and even PCI-Express is going through further iterations. ‘If you talk to the sensor manufacturers, the current generation of sensors are positively slow compared to what they will be coming out with as soon as next year, even,’ says Dodson. ‘Cameras will continue to generate a ton of data, and there’s still going to be a need for some kind of interface into a PC for the foreseeable future.’

In terms of the markets Bitflow serves, it has never really pursued specific markets. ‘We’ve always been a jack of all trades,’ says Dodson. ‘But compared to our early days, I guess we’re doing more in the semiconductor industry and less in postal. Lately, there has been growth in the life sciences and biotech market, which brings with it massive changes. Previously, they would take a series of single images for analysis; now, they’re looking for real-time, high-resolution, high-sensitivity video acquisition moving at 100fps. Sensors are now available that can cope with this, but the amount of processing that is required to get the data out of those sensors is huge. The frame grabber helps deal with that high rate of data.’

Bitflow is based in Woburn, MA (just north of Boston), where the company carries out all its engineering development, sales and support. Manufacture is outsourced, and Bitflow has distributors in 30 countries around the world.

‘Customer service has always been important to us,’ says Dodson. ‘I started as an application engineer, so we know what good customer service means. We have always believed that customer service was something that should be at the heart of a small business, and it remains something we can do better than our larger competitors.’

Another factor that sets Bitflow apart from its competitors is its focus. ‘This is all we do,’ says Dodson. ‘We’re a frame grabber company. We’re not making processor boards or cameras as well. We focus on just our products. We know image capture. We know machine vision, and we have a lot of experience in this area.’

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