News | June 16, 1999

Inspecting Trends in the Machine Vision Industry

Peter McHugh, Omron Corp.

Trends Driving the Machine Vision Industry
How Are Vision Manufacturers Addressing These User-Driven Trends?
What About Low-End Solutions?

Introduction (Back to Top)
If recent growth is any indication, the machine vision industry is shaking off the shroud of mystery that has traditionally surrounded it. According to The Machine Vision Market 1997 Results and Forecasts Through 2002, a report published by the Automated Imaging Association (Ann Arbor, MI), 1997 sales of vision products in North America increased by 18.7% over 1996 to $1234 million. General purpose machine vision (GPMV), comprised of systems that can be configured by the user to solve a wide range of applications, increased by 13.2% to $218 million. This market alone is expected to increase annually at a rate of 16%.

Why is machine vision finally becoming a strong presence in manufacturing?

Traditionally, vision has found success with OEM customers, whose dedicated technical staffs can learn and understand complex vision concepts, programming, setup, and maintenance. However, machine vision manufacturers are in general agreement that OEM customers are only the very tip of the iceberg of potential machine vision users, and that factory floor end customers remain a huge untapped market for machine vision systems. In the past, factory floor personnel have been hesitant to embrace, or even try, machine vision because of its perceived complexity and high price. And, in general, machine vision systems have in fact been both too complex and too expensive to be widely adopted for plant floor applications.

However, as quality requirements at every stage of the manufacturing process are increasing every day, the needs of plant floor personnel, and not just OEMs, are starting to drive machine vision trends. This, in turn, is causing manufacturers to address the ease of use, pricing, and other issues that have prevented many plant floor users from using machine vision.

This paper will address some of these trends and how manufacturers are responding to them in order to serve this expanding customer base.

Trends Driving the Machine Vision Industry (Back to Top)
Ease of use is the major force driving the development of machine vision solutions. Introduced to the manufacturing marketplace in the early 1980s, machine vision has for many years been perceived as a mysterious solution that promised to improve manufacturing quality—but one that often did not. Generally, the failure to deliver on this promise has not been due to poor technology; rather, it has been due to lack of user understanding of machine vision concepts, setup, and programming terms. Until quite recently, most vision systems were complex and required extensive training. In addition, many users failed to realize that machine vision is as much an art form as it is a technology, one that relies on unique solutions methodology combined with custom lighting and optics. Users who were expecting a "quick fix" cure-all were severely disappointed, and those who realized that extensive training and experimentation were required to set up a reliable vision system for their application often steered away from it as a result.

As employers are cutting back their work forces and everyone's time is becoming scarcer as a result, even the OEMs and end users with staffs dedicated to machine vision are demanding vision equipment that is easier to understand and use. They want systems that require little or no programming, no complicated lighting and optics setup, and that can be adjusted quickly and easily to accommodate changes in the manufacturing process. OEMs and manufacturers alike are demanding solutions that are easy to implement and that are readily understood by all users.

"Lower cost vision" has been perceived not only as a complex solution but also as a costly one. This perception has often been justified, with vision systems ranging from about $15,000–$100,000. Many users have been unwilling, and unable, to invest large amounts of money in a technology that they do not understand. These users felt that they could not justify their return on investment (ROI), not only in quantitative terms (money spent on the system itself and on the cost of training employees) but also in qualitative terms (time spent in programming and training personnel to use the vision systems). As a result, customers are demanding systems that are not only easier to use but also lower in price so that they can help justify both types of ROI:

Standard Communications: Reflecting the general trend in factory automation toward more "open" systems, users are demanding non-proprietary vision systems, ones that can communicate with automation products from other manufacturers for a complete, unified automation solution. In the past, vision systems have been proprietary, and, as a result, their ability to communicate with other automation products has been limited. Many of today's users require vision products that incorporate standard communications capabilities, such as Ethernet, to achieve this unified plant floor solution.

Trends Analysis for Feedback: Today's users want to implement vision solutions not only to detect product defects but also to improve their manufacturing processes. They want systems that can monitor dimensions and various other product statistics, and analyze trends to determine specific areas of potential weakness in the manufacturing process. Vision systems that offer these capabilities enhance not only manufacturing quality but also provide increased ROI for the vision system itself.

Flexible Automation: In their ongoing efforts to save money and to save space on the factory floor, more and more manufacturers are relying (or want to rely) on a single vision system to inspect multiple parts. These systems must incorporate the ability to handle part-to-part changes seamlessly and reliably, without causing any production downtime.

How Are Vision Manufacturers Addressing These User-Driven Trends? (Back to Top)
In evaluating these trends, it is readily evident that users want machine vision systems that are easier to use, lower in cost, and that incorporate greater functionality.

The machine vision market has changed dramatically during the past few years as vision manufacturers develop products to accommodate these user requirements. Most of these changes were made possible by the major advances in personal computer (PC) technology. The PC has emerged over the past few years as the platform of choice for vision systems. The same PC that is used for word processing and sending e-mail has become fast enough to solve vision applications. With the promise of continued rapid advances in PC technology, the vision industry is poised to ride the coattails of these advances by taking advantage of lower CPU prices and faster processing speeds. By using the PC as the platform of the vision system, users' requirements of "easier to use" and "lower price" than many previously available systems are both satisfied.

PC-based vision systems provide ease of use through their colorful, graphic user interfaces. In addition, the operator interface can be configured with only minimal information for a simple inspection, eliminating the need for operators to learn complex vision concepts and terminology (such as "pixels," "thresholds," "grayscale"). In a PC environment, colorful representations of the inspection in process can be displayed, such as:

  • red lights for a bad product and green lights for a good product

  • graphs that depict analysis trends over a given period of time

  • images of the inspected product with defects clearly highlighted.

To further enhance ease of use, some vision manufacturers have made it easier to program the operator interfaces described above, as well as to do the actual vision program development. In the past, each vision manufacturer used a proprietary programming language, making application development at the user level very difficult and time-consuming. Now, programs can be developed using common languages such as Visual Basic and Visual C++.

The PC has also enabled vision system manufacturers to reduce the price of their systems. In many cases, proprietary processing hardware is being replaced by the PC's CPU, leading to significant reductions in system price. In cases where dedicated hardware is still required, system prices are declining due to the lower price of the PC itself. And the time required to develop software has been reduced because common languages are used, contributing to an overall decrease in system price.

In addition to these advances, vision manufacturers are working to improve software that requires less programming effort—with the ultimate goal of providing vision systems that require no programming at all. Manufacturers are developing application-specific solutions that save users untold hours of programming time. Currently, these application-specific solutions are limited to common applications that address a wide range of users. However, just as more and more niche PC software becomes available every day, it is predicted that more and more of these application-specific solutions will become available during the next few years, as PC-based vision becomes more and more widely accepted and implemented. And, as vision systems continue to progress, software will advance to become auto-trainable, requiring less and less programming. This software will become "smarter," learning adaptively and "thinking" to process data, similar to the way the human brain works.

In terms of providing greater functionality, the PC has enabled simple connection of vision systems to standard communications like Ethernet. Dedicated SPC (statistical process control) programs, available from third-party manufacturers, easily communicate to vision software programs using standard methods such as Windows' DDE (dynamic data exchange) to provide enhanced processing capabilities. Many vision manufacturers incorporate rudimentary SPC and trends analysis functions directly into their software. And the demand for systems that enable seamless, reliable inspection when multiple parts or products are being inspected will be addressed more completely once fully auto-trainable systems (which are in development) are released.

What About Low-End Solutions? (Back to Top)
Many customers' requirements are being fulfilled by manufacturers offering high-end vision systems. These systems are typically based on a PC platform and provide a range of solutions, from simple to complex, from general to application-specific. Typical prices for these types of systems (excluding any integration fees) range from $13,000–$50,000.

However, despite these great advances, there is still a need for vision solutions that fill a different niche. These solutions do not require an elaborate interface, advanced communications and high flexibility. Many vision applications are very basic, offering to answer such questions as:

  • Is the label facing the correct way on the carton?

  • Are the instructions included in the bottle of medicine?

  • Are all of the lead frames on the chip? Is the part oriented properly?

Traditionally, photoelectric sensors have been the hardware of choice for these simple applications. Because of the attractive price of photoelectric sensors, many users resort to configuring several photoelectric sensors for applications requiring two-dimensional inspection. Unfortunately, users then have to sacrifice some reliability and invest significant time to configure the many sensors. This solution does not allow for simple product changeovers—and setting up banks of photoelectric sensors can become nearly as costly as setting up a machine vision system. These users need simple, low-end vision systems to reliably solve basic presence/absence applications. Alternatively, users purchase a vision system with functionality that far surpasses the requirements of their application.

Low-end vision systems also fulfill another need for users of vision systems—education. Many manufacturers and OEMs who might benefit from using vision systems will not even consider a vision solution due to perceived product complexity and cost. Justifying a purchase order of $15,000 or more for a product that will be used as a "learning tool" is difficult at best. And even if a potential vision user purchases a system at this price, the learning curve to understand and use the product can be so lengthy and difficult that users can become frustrated—and the vision system (with all of the money and time invested into it) is simply set aside.

Low-end vision systems with limited functionality —enough to solve a range of basic applications, limited only to basic functionality—provide a solution for this application niche that has not been addressed to this point. In addition to addressing basic vision applications, these low-end systems provide a service to the industry as a whole in terms of education. Customers who believe that vision could help improve their manufacturing processes, but who could not previously afford to "try it out," can more easily submit purchase orders for products priced at under $5,000 so that they can experiment with and quickly learn the basics of vision processing. Once they feel comfortable with the basic concepts of machine vision, they will be more likely and more eager to try the high-end systems, should their application require this level of sophistication.

Omron's F30 is one of a group of new products that are designed to fill this industry niche. The F30 is essentially a 2-dimensional sensor available for under $3,000. This system is a self-enclosed system measuring only 3" x 3" x 6," about the size of a typical CCD camera. The F30 requires no user programming; applications are easily configured via a hand-held console. Lighting, which is often the most difficult aspect of configuring a vision application, is built into the system, making setup much easier for inexperienced vision users.

Omron plans to introduce several other low-end vision systems (some with more functionality than the F30, some with less) during 1999. This family will provide users with a low-cost, easy-to-use products for simple applications while educating potential users on the rudiments and benefits of vision.

While high-end, "sexy" machine vision solutions have traditionally received the majority of the attention (by vision manufacturers, vision users, and the press), there are a substantial number of applications at the low end of the vision spectrum that can be solved quickly, easily, and inexpensively with basic systems like the F30. As manufacturers continue to respond to customer demands for higher-quality products, machine vision will play an increasingly important role in every level of manufacturing, from the most complex to the most basic inspection applications, to ensure that quality truly is built into every part of the production process.

For more information: Peter McHugh, Machine Vision Marketing Manager, Omron Electronics Inc., One East Commerce Dr., Schaumburg, IL 60173. Tel: 847-843-7900.