Darkened Economy Requires Better Machine Vision

Ben Dawson has observed a downturn in  business from end-users of vision tools—particularly in automotive and its linked industries such as electronics—since October 2008.

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But October’s slide took until 2009’s first two months to show its real impact, remarks Dawson, director of strategic development for Billerica, Mass.-based machine vision supplier Dalsa IPD (www.goipd.com).

Dwight Carlson agrees that the automotive sector is experiencing a downturn, but only in the United States.  “Definitely, Asia is where growth is,” says Carlson, chief executive officer of Coherix (www.coherix.com), another vision vendor based in Ann Arbor, Mich. He also notes that the semiconductor industry is now experiencing a slump. “It’s going through one of the worst, if not the worst, economic depressions they’ve been in—for four quarters, at least.”

As gloomy as dark economic clouds might be, though, perhaps they’re not without silver linings. “One is people still need vision tools. A second is that, in some cases, they need them more because companies have reduced the workforce,” Dawson states. A third good sign is that, as of early June, “we’ve already started to see the first signs of the recovery, at least in terms of orders. It (the downturn) looks like it’s bottomed for us and we’re seeing an increase in orders,” he says.

And a fourth good sign is expansion into more industrial sectors. “We’re seeing a lot of new business in fields other than automotive and electronics,” Dawson comments. Those new areas include “a lot of activity in foods, more so than ever, and in pharmaceuticals, though not necessarily in the front end but in the packaging. We’re also seeing a lot of medical instruments,” he notes. “And we’re trying to capture solar.”

Like Dalsa, Coherix has expanded its market reach into solar as well food processing, where up to 36 chicken eggs per second must be inspected on production lines, Carlson explains. He also says new expansion targets include pharmaceuticals, for tablet packaging.

But besides keeping the bottom line afloat through growth into other areas, there’s something else exciting, Dawson suggests. “A lot of these applications are high-precision—high-resolution cameras, for very detailed inspections.” One example of such technology is three-dimensional (3D) machine vision. “Things that make up a 3D machine vision [system]—laser, cameras, optics, the computers—are all better, faster and cheaper. Smaller too,” Carlson remarks. “Machine vision technology is expanding across every industry. It’s hard to think of an industry that isn’t using some form of it,” he adds.

Changing Focus

Economic slowdown in automotive as well as other areas means that vendors such as Coherix and Dalsa have the time and motivation to focus on not just other market segments, but also on research and development (R&D). “We’re focusing on R&D in the semiconductor and automotive markets, as well as others,” Carlson reveals. Overall, the prospects for machine vision are “quite bright,” he believes. “But in short term, it will be difficult for everyone.”

In R&D, Carlson notes his company’s collaboration with the University of Michigan’s advanced-optics research program exploring the super-continuum laser. “This is a new invention that provides additional unique capability. It puts out multiple frequencies.” Now in the prototype stage, its commercial launch may occur “in a couple of years.” Who’ll find use for these? Biomedical, he says.

As Dawson notes, these higher-precision, higher-resolution vision tools represent “a whole new age of applications.” That includes aircraft and other very demanding ones, he says. That also involves “double or triple the resolution we would use in standard cameras.”

He adds that this shift to non-traditional end-user customers puts vendors “in the same situation as we were in 15 years ago, when we had to educate the end-users on machine vision.”  They won’t need schooling, however, about what recovery means.

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

Dalsa IPD
www.goipd.com

Coherix
www.coherix.com

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