The year ahead
It has been a busy year or two for the vision industry, with the ratification of standards such as GigE and Power Over Camera Link, as well as the boom in smart cameras and a move into non-industrial applications. Have we reached capacity or are there still some major developments to come?
Paul Kellett of the Automated Imaging Association (AIA) believes there is nothing significant in the immediate future: ‘From a technology point of view, we see a continuation of trends rather than paradigm changes. Those trends include miniaturisation of cameras, faster connections and faster processing times. Machine vision will also continue to reap the benefits of advances in computing and networking.’
Henning Staerk, director of sales and marketing at Allied Vision Technologies, agrees, with existing technologies taking hold: ‘It is no surprise that GigE will play an important role in the near future. There is an increasing choice among digital interfaces, which has lead some to call for just one single interface – but we don’t think this will ever happen. FireWire remains the most popular interface in terms of installed base, but GigE will grow and coexist with others. We believe that ultimately Camera Link could suffer.'
‘In more general terms, more than 50 per cent of the market is still using analogue cameras. This means that besides FireWire, GigE has a tremendous opportunity to tackle those seeking a digital upgrade, as it offers speed, bandwidth, transportation and an existing infrastructure.’
Staerk also believes there are changes ahead in the sensor market. ‘CMOS sensors are developing into suitable alternatives for machine vision – and at a lower cost. We are also seeing much more intelligence on the camera itself – more powerful FPGA architecture and more pre-processing.’
Mark Williamson, sales and marketing director at Firstsight Vision, part of the Stemmer Imaging Group, says: ‘I think next year GigE and GenICam products will see growth. The key advantage here is the GenICam interface, which will be ratified with full level functionality next year. My prediction is that GenICam will become more important in the coming months – it will allow plug and play setup, across many different interfaces such as Fire Wire, USB etc. Next year the volume of sales of GigE and GenICam products will take off across Europe.’
Continuing the theme, Dalsa’s Philip Colet says: ‘We see GigE vision achieving greater popularity, as you might expect, but also some developments on the new Camera Link standard, which is promising speeds of 1Gbyte/sec. Coupled with both these developments are advances in sensor technology, where faster operation times will be pushing the boundaries of data transfer protocols.’
Jan-Erik Schmidt, sales manager at Vision Components, says: ‘We are specialised in producing smart cameras now, so much of the debate about interfaces is not so relevant to us, as all of the processing is done on board the camera itself. As a technology, smart cameras are always developing, and as we have been doing this for 11 years, we are very experienced.
‘Along with smart cameras, a developing technology will be 3D applications. We have developed a stereo-type camera, which has two heads, and has applications in 3D measurement, robot guidance and so on. That is very much a growing area for us.’
Declan O’Dea, who runs the UK operation of Cognex, agrees that the 3D market has potential: ‘Being able to view an object in 3D space rather than 2D and carry out a complete inspection is a major step forward, and something that a lot of customers are asking for. We recently introduced a product called OmniVew, which can “unwrap” a 3D surface to inspect the entire curved surface of cylindrical containers without having to mechanically rotate the container. This greatly simplifies and reduces costs of 360-degree inspection applications in the food and beverage industry, for example.’
Machine vision technologies have been finding new markets outside of the traditional areas, and this trend is set to continue, according to the AIA’s Kellett: ‘The number of applications to which machine vision is being applied is growing in number all the time, largely due to systems (including smart cameras) becoming more powerful and their average costs coming down. Essentially, this means more power per dollar. Importantly, these applications are not only within the factory, but also beyond. One recent application we have investigated, for example, is the use of vision systems for recycling household waste. There are also more and more applications in traffic control and security.’
Allied Vision’s Staerk is also seeing growth in non-industrial areas: ‘The classic industrial application is still the largest market sector, but non-industrial applications are growing at a much faster rate. This includes surveillance, biometrics, traffic and transport, and leisure and entertainment (for example, there is potential for uses in applications with high commercial impact, such as golf simulators, amusement parks, medical analyses and lots more).’
Indeed, the non-industrial markets identified by Staerk were echoed by Cognex’s O’Dea, who sees those market sectors as a ‘key growth opportunity for us going forward’.
Firstsight’s Williamson says: ‘Germany’s biggest growth is still coming from the automotive and pharmaceutical industries – applications on the product line for automation and inspection. But in the UK and France, just 20 per cent of our business is from the core-value machine vision areas, and 80 per cent is from non-traditional applications. Maybe this is because the manufacturing base is weak in the UK, but we’re good at design and finding new applications for technology.’
Dalsa’s Colet identifies two major trends in applications: ‘At the top end of technology, applications such as the inspection of flat panels, wafers and PCBs – i.e. those that require high volume, high-quality images – are those that are pushing the boundaries. In such cases, a large amount of data needs to be collected, so the solution needs to be able to cope with this.
‘We also see significant expansion at the lower end of the market, with more power per dollar, meaning there are now vision solutions available where before they were not affordable. An example of this is in gasket inspection – a project in which we were involved recently – where vision was previously considered prohibitively expensive. The cost of implementing a system for this particular application has come down by a factor of 10. In the transport market, a similar price fall means that vision systems are even being employed by private car parks to monitor time spent and so on. Similarly, in healthcare, more accessible and lower cost imaging is reducing the cost of diagnostics – around 60 to 70 per cent of diagnoses now rely on imaging technology of some sort.’
For Vision Components, there is a growing market in the solar industry, according to Schmidt: ‘Imaging technology is being used to inspect the wafers used in the panels. The material is very costly, so any defects need to be detected early on in the process. Another area for us is in the security market, where smart cameras are particularly suitable. Using onboard digital signal processing, it is possible for a camera to send an image to a remote monitor, for example, only when an event occurs, meaning that the operator does not have to watch several screens at once.’
Dalsa’s Colet says: ‘We believe there is no reason to doubt the continuation of the 10 per cent year-on-year growth trend of recent times for the MV market.’
That confidence is shared among many in the market, which is buoyed by growth in certain geographical markets around the world. Allied Vision’s Staerk says: ‘Overall, we are lucky to be in a market that has more demand than we can collectively meet. With some geographical areas, such as China, India, Eastern Europe and Russia, all experiencing higher than average growth rates, we are positive that this situation still has potential to continue.’
The AIA’s Kellet identifies the reasons behind the growth in the Far East: ‘The manufacturing sector in India and China is burgeoning and with it the need for machine vision. Machine vision is becoming ever more important, as the emphasis moves away from low-cost to quality products.’
Colet is more cautious about the market in the US: ‘It’s difficult to tell how the market will develop. The general economic indicators are all fairly positive, but warning signs abound. Consumer confidence is waning and there are reports of a credit crisis, but it is difficult to tell how much of an impact this may have on our own industry.
The final word goes to Cognex’s O’Dea, who picks up on a key trend at a time when technology has reached a plateau. ‘We believe that a common demand across the entire vision industry will be improved ease-of-use. The challenge for all of us is to create systems that can be used by an unskilled operator, without the need for extensive training or any specialist knowledge. Ideally, this ease of use drive will automate as much of the set-up process as possible so that the operator can set up on a new product with minimal interaction with the system. The food industry is a prime example, characterised by a large product mix and short batch runs on the same production line. Unskilled operators need to be able to reconfigure the vision system quickly and reliably to inspect a new product type.’
This last point may be the most significant differentiating factor in the months ahead; with little to choose between suppliers in terms of technology, customers may well be looking to factors such as ease of use to determine where they spend their money.