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Vision Vendors Gear for Sunnier Days

Sales of machine vision products nosedived in some segments last year, but vendors are preparing for an upturn.

Like most parts of the automation industry, the machine vision segment was battered by the weak economy and a stagnant capital spending environment last year. According to a recently released market study by the Automated Imaging Association (AIA), an industry trade group, the North American machine vision market declined by 15% in 2002 to $1.5 billion.

The biggest hits came in shipments to the semiconductor and electronics industries, which saw unit sales decline by 42 percent and 29 percent respectively. Declines in industries including automotive, plastics, fabricated metals and wood were slight by comparison, the AIA says, while vision systems sold to industries including food, container and pharmaceutical/medical devices actually increased.

The AIA sees sunnier days ahead; the study projects machine vision market growth of nearly 12 percent per year over the next five years as the worldwide economy recovers.

Machine vision vendors at this year’s International Robots & Vision Show, and at the Sensors Expo–two events which ran concurrently last month in Rosemont, Ill.–are no doubt banking on that prospect. Several suppliers unveiled new vision products and marketing agreements at the two events.

Psssst…look at this

National Instruments, Austin, Tex., example, gave editors attending Sensors Expo a sneak preview of its new embedded compact vision system. The CVS-1454, which officially launched on June 24, is a real-time, FireWire-based system for image acquisition, analysis and storage. NI Product Marketing Manager Jason Mulliner says the system addresses three technology trends in machine vision. It employs consolidated hardware and integrated input/output (I/O) ports; configuration is through easier to use software, called Vision Builder; and it adopts the IEEE 1394 digital imaging bus for fast, easy cabling. The dramatic price drop in FireWire cameras, cited as 50 percent in the last two years, enables more cost-effective application.

The CVS-1454 is targeted to embedded markets such as packaging, robotics, semiconductors, security and machine builders. In a simple inspection installation, users can configure the system in Vision Builder to initialize, acquire and clean up data. More sophisticated users can bridge to NI’s LabView 7 Express software for programming tools and to generate a graphical user interface.

Three FireWire ports on the CVS-1454 allow connection to three cameras per system. Fifteen digital inputs and 14 digital outputs control triggers, cameras, lighting and programmable controllers. The system also includes Ethernet and RS-232 ports and interfaces to NI’s Compact FieldPoint modules for analog I/O, digital I/O and motion control. The CVS-1454 controller is priced at $2,995; the Vision Builder software is $1,495.

What drugs?

Other vendors are taking aim at the growth expected for machine vision sales in the pharmaceuticals industry. Cognex Corp., Natick, Mass., and Renton, Wash.-based Microscan, for example, both announced new capabilities at the Robots & Vision Show to make it easier for users to comply with new Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations regarding product identification.

Cognex says its In-Sight vision systems now have the ability to read Composite Symbology (CS) and Reduced Space Symbology (RSS) codes–a capability added in response to recently proposed FDA regulations that will require bar coding on all unit doses, as well as increased reporting of safety problems involving medicines. RSS linear bar codes can contain National Drug Code product identification in a space-efficient format for marking individual medicine doses and blister-packed tablets that are too small to be marked with UPC or standard codes. CS, another confined-space coding methodology, can be used in combination with RSS to provide additional machine-readable information.

The enhanced code-reading capability makes the Cognex In-Sight line “ready for the next generation of pharmaceutical packaging equipment and robotic drug distribution systems, as well as medication dispensing cabinets and automated storage and retrieval systems,” says Justin Testa, Cognex senior vice president of marketing.

Microscan is taking a similar tack with its Quadrus EZ camera, which reads RSS, CS and an additional format, Data Matrix, in addition to linear bar codes. The combined capability will allow manufacturers to read multiple code types on a variety of products on the same line with the same bar code reader, the company says. The Quadrus EZ is capable of reading 60 codes per second for high speed applications, the company adds.

Look, move your arm

Also at the Robots & Vision Show, Duluth, Ga.-based DVT Corp., another machine vision vendor, provided details of two recent private label agreements signed with well-known automation equipment vendors.

Under terms of one deal, signed with Yamaha Robotics, Edgemont, Pa., DVT will provide private-label versions of its Legend family of vision products for integration with Yamaha’s industrial robots. The private-labeled vision systems will be marketed under the trade name YamaVision, and will be sold through Yamaha Robotics’ North American distributor network. The systems will work with Yamaha’s full range of controllers and robot arms for vision-guided robotic applications.

The agreement is “geared specifically to robot motion control,” says Doug Dalgleish, Yamaha Robotics vice president and general manager. “We’re looking at conveyor tracking, which some our competitors have. We do not have that currently, so that’s an area that we see ourselves getting into very quickly.”

The other DVT agreement involves the Siemens AG Automation and Drives Group, based in Nuremberg, Germany. DVT announced a letter of intent signed with Siemens last December, and “we have since commenced shipping products to Siemens,” says Bob Settle, DVT director of marketing.

Under terms of the global agreement, DVT will provide brand-labeled versions of its Legend family of SmartImage Sensors and FrameWork software to Siemens, and DVT may offer a brand-labeled version of the Siemens VS100 series of vision systems. The DVT units to be provided cover a range of CMOS and CCD-based systems, including gray scale, color, high resolution and high-speed units. They will be marketed under Siemen’s Simatic name. Siemens VS100 family is especially designed for image processing tasks for specific applications such as optical form inspection of small parts.

The private label deal with Siemens took about a year to negotiate, says DVT’s Settle. “One of our major objectives was that we did not want to lose any control of the company,” he notes. DVT is a privately held company founded in 1991.

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