Vision Outlook Blurred by Economy

Though some see potential for economic recovery, Dan Holste sees one huge impediment for the vision industry.

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“We’re losing manufacturing in the United States at an alarming rate. There’s no doubt our market place is shifting from domestic to global,” says Holste, director of machine-vision products for Banner Engineering Corp. (www.bannerengineering.com), Plymouth, Minn.

“A lot of customers are reluctant consumers,” buying only necessities, he observes. Those “very cautious” customers are concerned about a double-dip recession. They’re also worried about “where [the federal] government is going to lead us.”

But while the customer base shrinks, Holste notes that it “is trying to use automation to be more competitive.” That increases productivity, he remarks, but global competition means “fewer sales from the OEM [original equipment manufacturer] standpoint.” And that “will have very substantial impacts on economic recovery.”

Ben Dawson sees potential growth arising from the bad economy. “The traces of it are going away slowly, but they are going away—though this may be the ‘jobless recovery.’ That may lead to more vision-guided robots,” observes Dawson, director of strategic development for Billerica, Mass.-based Dalsa IPD (www.dalsa.com/ipd), a manufacturer of machine-vision products. “I think the potential use of more vision-guided robots is pretty hot. It’s being driven by quality and cost.” There’s a workforce consequence, though: fewer workers. “But if you can replace a person with a robot, it will consistently do a higher quality job.”

Going small

Whether robot- or human-created, quality defines successful products. And within past months, both Dalsa and Banner have presented products to enhance quality. Gaining traction is Dalsa’s BOA, a smart camera with a small form factor—it’s a 44-millmeter cube—and on-board processing, and that’s now available in a color sensing edition as well as monochrome. “It’ll find use where work would be traditionally done by a personal computer, frame-grabber and camera,” Dawson explains.

Dalsa also released—in May at the Automated Imaging Association’s (AIA’s) Vision Show in Boston—some new Falcon series devices. “We added a bigger, faster color camera,” Dawson states. “We’re talking about a huge data rate, 100 to 200 megabits per second.” Area cameras such as the Falcons “take a picture of the area all at once,” he says. Dawson adds that the market is “very hot, especially in Asia.”
 
Holste says that another hot item in vision is the universal faster-better-cheaper concept for products whose use is driven by quality assurance or process-verification needs. That objective fits with smart-camera systems that Banner, Dalsa and others make. Emphasizing “ease-of-use is king” for all technologies, he explains: “In a smart-camera environment, you have to operate in real time because processes are getting faster and faster—and users want to do more inspections in the cycle.”

If smart faster-better-cheaper systems don’t bring excitement to the factory floor, though, then perhaps liquid-lens technology will. “One of the big issues in machine vision is focal length, because objects move. In the past, some people have used motor-driven lenses [to manage that],” explains Holste. But with liquid-lens technology, electromechanical devices, which are the weakest reliability point, can be eliminated, he remarks. “Liquid lens technology allows you to vary focal length of the lens by the applied voltage. That I find very exciting,” he declares, adding that this technology “is just beginning to blossom.”
 
Yet more excitement may be on the horizon through AIA work on GigE, or Gigabit Ethernet, vision. Dawson says that a new camera-interface concept is being discussed that will guarantee delivery times through the Camera Link Interface, or CAMlink, and will make GigE easier to use. But, he forecasts, “based on experience, it will be another year or two” before that’s available. Will that be before the economy recovers, though?

C. Kenna Amos, ckamosjr@earthlink.net, is an Automation World Contributing Editor.

Banner Engineering Corp.
www.bannerengineering.com

Dalsa IPD
www.dalsa.com/ipd
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