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Keeping it lean

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The success of Vision Components is down to innovation and clever use of outsourcing, as Warren Clark discovers

The past 12 months has been tough for the vision industry, with companies disappearing, being taken over or simply reigning in spending at every corner. Vision Components is one company that looks likely to emerge largely unscathed from the downturn, mainly thanks to its policy of only maintaining a small core team, and outsourcing several aspects of its business to third parties.

Vision Components was founded in 1996 by Michael Engel, who remains its only shareholder. Engel’s association with the vision industry began much earlier, having studied as a physicist in Mainz. His first job was in a university research fellowship in the field of machine vision, during which time he met Hans Stiefvater. With an investment equivalent to around 500 euros, the two formed Engel und Stiefvater in 1983, which became one of the very first companies to specialise in image processing – in particular, working on developing hardware and specific algorithms. As a pioneer in the market, the business enjoyed a very successful period, before being sold to Rheinmetall. The acquisition did not work out for the new owners, and eventually what was once Engel und Stiefvater was sold to what is now Isra Vision.

The sale of the company saw Engel and Stiefvater go their separate ways, with the latter still being involved in the vision industry among a portfolio of broader interests. Engel decided to use his personal wealth from the sale to set up his new company, Vision Components, this time with a 500k euro investment.

‘In my previous company, we had everything in-house – from hardware development to software and turnkey solutions,’ says Engel. ‘Just about every job we had was specific to one application, so there was never any volume involved.’

‘I felt it was a new age that required a new specialised approach. At that time, a lot of companies were focusing on a very specific area, such as software, processing or cameras. My idea was to focus on smart cameras, something that I would not have been able to do with the bespoke approach that Engel und Stiefvater had.’

Engel also wanted to approach the way the company was run in a different way, most notably in his decision to outsource a large proportion of the company’s operations. ‘We wanted to be very lean in the core company,’ says Engel. ‘For example, outsourcing our production means we have no fixed capital costs, but we still have the flexibility to adjust volumes according to demands. Given the financial crisis of the past year, this has been an approach that has worked very well for us.’

Engel’s first product in 1996 was the VC11, a volume-produced industrial smart camera. It is a testament to the durability of that initial design that, some 13 years later, that model is still in production (which is a great help for legacy systems built using these cameras, as replacements are still available). Based on an Analog Devices DSP, the camera featured an interlaced sensor (before the progressive scan CCD sensor became available in later versions), video output, and fast processing capabilities (then 320MIPS, now 8,000MIPS). The product broke new ground at the time, and was an instant hit, garnering plenty of press coverage and subsequent orders. The company also offered product seminars and tutorials to educate potential users on the benefits of the product, and these were soon oversubscribed.

One of the reasons for the success was the compact design, which remains the same size even now. Back in 1996, customers were impressed with the levels of processing power that could be achieved in a product with such a small footprint.

The camera range expanded with the VC21, which featured a video output for TFT displays, followed by the VC38, which featured the company’s first progressive scan sensors. In 2000, Vision Components switched over to Texas Instruments’ digital signal processors, largely because the digital alternative now offered sufficiently low power consumption.

Michael Engel, founder of Vision Components.

Now, there are more than 25 products available, offering a range of processor speeds, sensors and resolutions, as well as sensor light cameras and supporting software libraries. Indeed, the availability of userfriendly software has become more important. ‘A lot of customers can be a little bit scared when they first take on a vision system,’ says Engel, ‘because they fear the complexity of programming. Our development environment is provided in such a way that we remove this fear. We believe our software packages are more powerful and easier to use than many others on the market. We also support open-source software platforms, allowing the customer further flexibility. If fears still remain, we have a network of third-party software developers that can customise anything to the precise needs of the customer at a low cost.’

Engel is keen to point out that his company is not just a camera supplier. ‘What we produce may look like a camera,’ he says, ‘but we are actually selling complete machine vision systems that look like cameras. Also, for distributors, because our cameras are so advanced, it makes them much more difficult to swap out for another model at the last minute. Some distributors can work hard on a design-in with a customer, only for the customer to change to a different camera model at the last minute to save themselves a very small amount of money. With our cameras, it’s not so easy for a customer to do that, so our distributors can be satisfied that, for the most part, they will not lose a job at such a late stage.’

Vision Components is based in Ettlingen, near Karlsruhe, which is a technology area boasting a reputable university. The company has 12 employees, and yet managed a turnover in excess of 5m euros last year. Products are sold via a distribution network of 25 companies throughout the world, and there is also a US subsidiary in New Hampshire. More than 50 per cent of Vision Components’ turnover comes from outside Germany, and there are moves to build business in the Far East with an office in Japan.

Looking ahead, Engel’s aims are to develop his existing range still further. ‘We are always trying to pack more power into smaller cameras,’ he says. ‘We are also looking to extend our range of line scan cameras, as we believe they can provide a real benefit, particularly in surface inspection. There are also plenty of other market opportunities, from golf simulation systems to traffic and security surveillance and beyond – all of which we want to exploit.’

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