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Just Picture It

WEBEXCLUSIVE In more ways than one, imaging may soon become more important in the factory.


In the near future, the old cliché, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” may be proving itself anew in the world of industrial automation.

One example came recently from Hasso Plattner, co-founder and chairman of the supervisory board at SAP AG, the German-based enterprise software vendor. When asked about the future of technology during a presentation at the SAP Sapphire customers conference, June 16-18 in Orlando, Fla., Plattner said he expects to see continuing breakthroughs that will greatly enhance business efficiency.

He mentioned a recent newspaper item describing cellular telephones that can capture and transmit 1.3 megapixel still photos. “Do we really need this? Do you really want to shoot photos of flowers with your cellular phone?” Plattner asked. “That was, unfortunately, the marketing image portrayed.”

But if that same cellular phone is put into the hands of a mechanical engineer who has a broken piece of machinery, Plattner noted, it might then become quite utilitarian. By taking pictures of the broken equipment and transmitting them to a remote service engineer–who could coach the user on the exact angle for shooting the images–the user could show the service engineer exactly what is broken. Once replacement parts are received, service personnel in another part of the world could also be on their cellular phones with the factory user, viewing images, and helping during the repair process.

“The service business is a huge business that we can improve, and everybody is working on that,” Plattner said. “Devices like this will help tremendously.”

Object of desire

Images are also becoming more important–and an object of desire–for upper management in some factory settings, points out Mark Sippel, vision product marketing manager at industrial automation vendor Omron Electronics LLC, Schaumburg, Ill.

As machine vision becomes more distributed, with multiple, low-priced vision sensors capturing images on production lines, the ability to communicate trends and information in real-time from the data collected is something that many vision users are asking for, Sippel says. Omron’s vision products are increasingly equipped to communicate this data–such as when a process is moving out of tolerance–via factory networks such as Ethernet, says Sippel. In many cases, he notes, especially in the automotive industry, this data is being transferred along with data from other kinds of sensors up to enterprise level systems for viewing by management. “There are people at the top level who want to know today what is happening on that manufacturing line.”

Compared to other kinds of factory sensors, of course, one unique thing about vision sensors is that they are literally producing pictures. And as Sippel puts it, “Everybody wants to see the picture.” Most users are not interested in seeing “good” images, when a factory process has been done correctly. But customers are increasingly asking whether the “bad” images, showing something gone wrong, can be transmitted over the network for viewing by top management or others, says Sippel.

Show me

Many users feel that if they can see an image of the bad product or the offending manufacturing line, then they may be able to spot the source of the problem, Sippel explains. “Plus, there’s always that deep-rooted emotional response that we have as humans,” he adds, “that you’d rather see it, and then you’ll believe it.”

But sending the images up the manufacturing chain can be easier said than done, Sippel relates. “It’s real easy to throw the imagery on the Ethernet. But the problem is that when every frame of that image may be several megabytes in size, it takes time, so you’re pulling time away from the system,” he says. “So that’s one of the issues that’s coming up in the industry now. How are we going to deal with that?”

While a couple of solutions have been proposed, notes Sippel, he sees the need for additional development work. “I don’t think there’s anything out there right now that will become the solution,” he says. “I think we will probably end up seeing a hybrid of some of the things out there now, or possibly even some kind of new compression algorithm, or something that no one has even invented yet.”

Stay tuned.



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