System integrators in Japan see a new generation of machine-vision applications

A discussion with Naoyuki Kani of Japan F.A. Systems

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A discussion with Naoyuki Kani of Japan F.A. Systems

VSD: What is the mission of JFAS, and which industries do you serve?

Kani: We are building a number of different systems to address various markets. These include systems for the semiconductor market, where submicron precision is required, and high-speed linescan inspection systems for flat-panel-display inspection. Each of these requires knowledge of off-the-shelf components and how these can be applied in such applications.

In applications such as these, we cannot readily purchase systems to perform these tasks. Instead, systems have to be developed in-house. In flat-panel-display inspection, for example, no off-the-shelf vision equipment is available that will determine the number of good active pixels in one array. We are also developing specialized systems for inspecting the inside walls of aluminum cans, which have different settings for each customer.

To develop machine-vision systems, we work directly with the customer to create a proposal, then refine it and further develop a specification and a proposal.

VSD: Please describe the general business environment for system integrators in Japan.

Kani: One of the biggest markets for high-end vision systems is the semiconductor-inspection industry. This includes the inspection of flat-panel displays, printer heads, and digital video disks. This kind of business also requires very precise technology, and many companies are competing for this business in Japan. Many of these products must be tailored for Japanese standards and markets, and system integrators in Japan are making their own vision equipment to serve these markets.

For mid- and lower-end vision requirements for general-purpose markets, many end users are integrating systems in their own factories. In these kinds of markets, we have to develop systems that work in conjunction with the customers’ existing product lines, whether it be for automating the inspection of automotive production or bottling beverages.

Some specialized markets such as pharmaceuticals, medical, or biotechnology mandate the use of color image processing. Vision systems for these markets require special knowledge of both the medical or biological technologies that are used in the manufacturing process and how such color images can be properly analyzed.

VSD: What are end users demanding from JFAS in the design of new systems?

Kani: Customers require the highest accuracy at a reasonable price. Recently, customers have been ordering complete systems for their applications. They require us to manage the development of their systems from initial concept to development and deployment. As well, customers expect that these systems will be capable of analyzing, processing, and storing information about any potential product defects and presenting the information via a database system to corporate management on an easy-to-understand basis.

In addition, we are frequently required to develop custom optics. Many of our customers are checking parts that require the inspection of the inside or the simultaneous inspection of both sides of glass items. While in the past machine-vision inspection was used only to replace human visual inspection, newer applications will be combined with a laser scanning 3-D analysis system or spectrum analyzers to perform a more complete analysis of the part under test.

VSD: What technologies and components does JFAS use in these applications?

Kani: It is necessary to develop specialized systems to solve each problem. However, since there is a certain commonality in the tasks that need to be solved, it is possible to use the expertise developed in solving one application in other related applications.

Customers are now requiring much higher resolution, especially in the area of linescan-based systems such as web inspection. Because the speed of such systems is orders of magnitude higher than any other machine-vision-based applications, FPGA- and DSP-based cameras and systems are often required.

VSD: What could vision-equipment manufacturers do to make your job easier?

Kani: One of the most important tasks involved with the deployment of any vision system is the analysis of data obtained. To do this, we require vision systems that can easily be deployed with existing PLC-based factory-automation systems. Once deployed in this manner, data-management software packages can be incorporated into the system to log, analyze, and present specific pass/fail data to both the operator and management.

For example, many of today’s smart network cameras feature digital I/O and Ethernet capability. Using these features makes it easier to integrate a machine-vision system that can present high-level production performance data to operators and management alike.

VSD: In which industries do you see the most growth? In which geographic areas?

Kani: High precision systems are still the main focus for machine-vision systems in Japan, where semiconductor inspection, semiconductor manufacturing, and electronic-consumer-product manufacturing represents the largest market. As a result, we have begun to develop a nanometer inspection system for semiconductor mask inspection.

Video communications and security surveillance also represent large application areas. While a number of companies currently deploy cameras and monitors for surveillance, newer systems include motion-detection functions that can track automobiles and people.

Today, image-processing technology is mainly limited to the industrial market. But in the very near future, traffic control and automotive safety navigation system applications may become the biggest markets for the vision industry.

VSD: What new applications for machine vision do you expect to emerge? What new software, components, and subsystems will be needed?

Kani: We are focusing on real-time motion detection. Newer systems using multiple processors such as FPGAs, DSPs, and CPUs with high-speed data and memory access will be used in these applications. In the past, a typical machine-vision processor incorporated one CPU, and only a few systems required parallel processing with multiple processors.

In the video communications market, we are developing multiple-processor systems with FPGAs, DSPs, and CPUs. These systems can interface to management call centers because they incorporate both image-processing and telecommunications technology.

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Machine-vision system developed by JFAS conducts high-speed inspection of metal-can interiors. The system, linked to a production management system, contains seven stations, each with customized optics to inspect for defects or contamination.
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VSD: What is the goal of the Imaging Association of Japan and how do you hope to grow the association?

Kani: The membership of the IAJ is now about 30 companies, including manufacturers of vision equipment, distributors, consultants, and publishers. In the future, we hope to increase the number of vendors that offer both OEM products and the number of system integrators involved in this market, both in Japan and throughout Asia.

There are two very important vision trade shows held in Yokohama each year: Sensing Via Image Information [June] and the International Technical Exhibition on Image Technology & Equipment [December]. More than 300 companies participated in these vision shows, making them some of the largest vision shows in the world.

The typical company size in our industry is medium or small, and for such companies, it is difficult to find system integrators. The IAJ is helping these companies develop such relationships. At each trade show, the IAJ provides support and seminars held by member companies and others, as well as specialized sessions by IAJ members.

To promote the industry, we are developing a Web site to grow the market by letting visitors find products, technical information, and application information.

VSD: How would you compare the machine-vision markets in Japan, Europe, and North America?

Kani: I hesitate to compare machine-vision markets. Although Japan represents one of the world’s largest markets for DSP and consumer-related products, OEM machine-vision components per se have mainly been developed in the USA and Europe. To compete effectively, Japanese semiconductor-inspection-system vendors and others have used these components in a variety of machine-vision applications.

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NAOYUKI KANI is founder, president, and CEO of Japan F.A. Systems (Yokohama, Japan; and acts as general manager of the Imaging Association of Japan. He holds a B.Sc. in electronics from Chuo University. Editor in chief Conard Holton talked to him about the machine-vision industry in Japan.

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