Image-processing software merits its price

System integrators of machine-vision systems are always looking for ways to cut costs. As contributors to that effort, hardware vendors are continually lowering the prices of their products while adding more functionality. And, from what I gather, system integrators seem to accept this downward trend as a law of nature.

Sep 1st, 1997

Image-processing software merits its price

Andy Wilson Editor at Large

andyw@pennwell.com

System integrators of machine-vision systems are always looking for ways to cut costs. As contributors to that effort, hardware vendors are continually lowering the prices of their products while adding more functionality. And, from what I gather, system integrators seem to accept this downward trend as a law of nature.

But it takes more than hardware to build a machine-vision system. It also takes expert knowledge of operating systems and off-the-shelf image-processing software. Although there is plenty of free image-processing software in the public domain, much of it is unsupported, thereby making it unsuitable for all but researchers.

Price too high

Most of the commercially available image-processing software runs on Windows/Intel-based personal computers. But, because the personal computer is considered an inexpensive development platform, system integrators appear reluctant to pay for image-processing software. Instead, they often adapt free or shareware programs for their specific imaging applications. But the reason is not cost alone. Many commercial image-processing packages contain functions that may not be needed by most systems integrators. And, the level of programmability of such software might not be exactly what is needed. Therefore, to these system integrators, the software-package price is too high.

For example, I recently visited ImageTherm Engineering (Waltham, MA). There, I asked company president Dino Farina why he had chosen IMAQ Vision and LabView software from National Instruments (Austin, TX) to develop a user-friendly interface for his latest imaging system. Farina admitted that after six months of researching all the major image-processing packages, most of the available software packages could serve his purpose equally well.

"But the major problem was not with the functionality of the image-processing packages," he said. "It was that these packages did not provide library-level programmability. What`s more, many menu-driven packages could not be easily customized for OEM applications because of proprietary source code. And, then, some companies even wanted to charge a royalty fee for each system shipped and a fee for their software," commented Farina.

Bigger profits

To protect its investments, National Instruments leverages its software to sell a range of hardware products to OEMs. To gain sales, other image-processing software vendors have opted to impose royalties. Their motive is that if a frame-grabber board costs $4500, then the image-processing software should be comparably priced.

To remain competitive and to develop new products, both hardware and software vendors must obviously obtain adequate profits. However, in that regard, system integrators must realize that software design is just as difficult and expensive as hardware design. Their rationale that sophisticated image-processing software should be inexpensive or should be installed in OEM systems without a royalty fee is unreasonable, especially for software vendors whose sole product is an image-processing package.

However, software vendors should also understand that system integrators want more flexibility than is currently available in many image-processing programs. The resultant high-quality, multifunctional image- processing software will be worth the cost.

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