Software solutions enable flexible, demanding applications

A discussion with Martin Balog, Datalan

Apr 1st, 2007
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A discussion with Martin Balog, Datalan

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Martin Balog is a consultant and project manager responsible for machine-vision applications at Datalan. He was one of the founders of the Division of Vision Systems in Ability Development SK, which recently merged with Datalan. He earned a master’s degree in computer graphics, image processing, and parallel programming at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia. Editor in chief Conard Holton spoke to him about machine-vision trends in Slovakia.

VSD: You are based in Slovakia, now part of the European Union. What sort of systems or services does your company provide?

BALOG: In the field of vision systems, we primarily concentrate on the development of software applications, system integration, and turnkey solutions. This enables us to focus on the design of complex and sophisticated systems with high demands on performance parameters or overall functionality, user interface, and other added functions. With a successful 16-year history, Datalan ranks among the leading companies providing IT services on the Slovak market. Datalan acquired the Division of Vision Systems by merging with Ability Development SK, which had been active in this area for several years.

VSD: What technologies and components do you use in machine-vision-related applications?

BALOG: Our company chose the products of National Instruments (NI; Austin, TX, USA; www.ni.com) as the basis for design, development, and implementation of vision systems. This has opened up many technologies that we can use in our applications, thereby representing one of our main competitive advantages. We are not strictly bound to any specific type of camera or communication interface. However, we generally prefer cameras with a FireWire interface. Our team of developers has been using cameras from Allied Vision Technologies (AVT; Stadtroda, Germany; www.alliedvisiontec.com) for several years. Thanks to its portfolio of cameras, we are able to satisfy the requirements of the majority of our customers.

At the beginning of our partnership with National Instruments, we also started using its hardware components to a greater extent. Our favorite components include the PCI 8254R card, which integrates all the necessary functions for a typical machine-vision application. Its two FireWire ports, digital I/O channels, and a built-in FPGA provide solutions to complex process-control and real-time synchronization algorithms required by our applications. We often must implement track synchronization and control algorithms within a system, wherein each monitored product is grabbed by several cameras positioned at different locations. Thanks to the PCI-8254R there is no need to use a separate PLC for each task, thereby simplifying the system and making it more transparent and less expensive.

We almost exclusively design our software for PCs using Microsoft Windows operating system. As development tools, we use NI LabVIEW 8.20 and NI Vision Development Module. Some of the simpler solutions are designed using the Vision Builder for Automated Inspection.

Additionally, our team specializes in the development of its own complex algorithms and special optimized functions in C++ language, which we integrate with LabVIEW via DLL libraries. Many high-end machine-vision applications require highly optimized custom algorithms to achieve the desired features and functionality. Our main focus is always speed and reliability. This gives us a real advantage over integrators that use single-purpose camera systems whose boundaries considerably limit them.

VSD: In which areas do you see the most growth? What are users demanding from you in the design of new systems?

BALOG: The use of vision systems is still not very common in our region. Many companies would rather do visual inspection using human workers. However, this trend is slowly changing, and automated solutions are becoming more and more typical, in particular as a result of the growing pressure for high quality and low price. Therefore, I see a great potential for the overall machine-vision sphere.

There are two big groups of customers within our market. The first group is primarily interested in price and is willing to make compromises. Here it is mainly systems that are based on easily configurable smart cameras that succeed. However, a second group of customers is still growing. They are not satisfied with basic functions and require more demanding applications. This group mainly includes large companies with foreign capital that already have experience with the use of machine-vision systems from their parent production plants.

These customers require comprehensive systems to inspect quality and classify products, which call for complex but well-arranged setting of inspection parameters, graphic display of production parameters, inspection results and trends, statistical data processing, and reporting. These customers also focus on the question of security and access rights to various functions of the system. Our solutions are mainly aimed at this group of customers.

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VSD: How will OEM components targeted toward machine-vision applications have to change to meet future needs?

BALOG: We mainly consider the standardization of components and communication interfaces as very positive. They support the more advanced modularity of developed systems. A good example is the GenICam standard, developed by the European Machine Vision Association (Frankfurt am Main, Germany; www.emva.org), which considerably extends the universality of newly developed machine-vision solutions, as well as offering a simpler adaptability to the existing and future needs of customers.

Future applications will also require substantially better performance. Therefore, we expect that a bigger share of specialized equipment will contain DSPs or FPGAs. These devices equip integrators with greater programming flexibility and enable them to deliver higher performance.

Last, we anticipate major development in communication interfaces in terms of bandwidth, as well as a greater distance for data transfers. This trend is reflected in the existing use of optical cables and the possibilities provided by the GigE interface.

VSD: Could you compare the machine-vision markets in different industry segments in Slovakia?

BALOG: Historically, industries such as electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and glass forming have been strong in Slovakia. Lately, with the arrival of large-scale foreign investments in the automotive industry, the appearance of subcontractors for automotive-assembly plants has spread considerably. However, this segment is oriented toward simple solutions, fast implementation, and low price. These are the reasons that it is difficult to promote complex and sophisticated solutions to these customers.

We have witnessed strong interest in off-the-shelf systems from foreign suppliers and for solutions other than from the machine-vision sphere primarily for functional and electrical tests. We find a much higher market potential in areas such as the production of sanitary products, paper production and processing, and the glass industry. The requirements for inspection speed and quality in these areas are much more demanding and there is a need for a completely different approach to solutions.

VSD: Do you work outside of Slovakia and, if so, does that differ? How does the machine-vision market differ in Slovakia from that of North America or other parts of Europe?

BALOG: Our machine-vision activities first started with a focus on local markets. Nevertheless, since the beginning we have also worked on several international projects, for example, for customers in Germany. One of our efforts is to be successful in international markets, in particular within the European Union. Our strategy is to create sophisticated software machine-vision solutions that are nearly packaged products. In this way, we are able to target specific customers in a very effective way. Based on the reputation of our products, we have been able to succeed even with fierce competition from foreign system integrators and suppliers of machine-vision systems.

If we compared the markets in Slovakia and those outside of our region, we would probably see the most profound differences in the willingness to invest significant funds. The labor force in Central Europe is still relatively inexpensive and, therefore, the return on investment from machine-vision applications is considerably longer. The financial returns from several months in North America may be delayed several years for an investor in the Slovak Republic. Therefore, we principally focus on areas wherein the use of human labor is impossible, ineffective, or unreliable.

VSD: Are you developing your own OEM products?

BALOG: In the machine-vision sphere, Datalan mainly focuses on the development of software. Therefore, our efforts related to the development of products are oriented to software applications for specific industries and production segments. An example is our TIViS system, the main purpose of which is to inspect feminine sanitary products or children’s diapers. As the costs of developing complex software applications with added functions is very high, we focus on the sale of packaged solutions with a certain degree of customization for customers from similar sectors. This goes hand in hand with our strategy for penetrating markets in the European Union or the USA.

VSD: What kinds of new applications and industry trends do you expect to emerge in the future?

BALOG: We believe that it is the applications with integrated functionality from various areas that represent the trend for the future. As a software company with a broad range of technologies and solutions, we recognize the high demand for the integration of various systems for data acquisition from the manufacturing process, for centralized management and planning, and for statistical processing, evaluation, and reporting. This trend has also been confirmed by our clients.

This is one of the main reasons why we chose National Instruments products for developing machine-vision applications. The universality of the LabVIEW environment together with the wide scale of image-processing functions gives integrators a free hand when creating future solutions for their customers.

Datalan developed TIViS-a high-speed camera system based on AVT cameras and custom LED panels-for inspecting the production of feminine sanitary products. The system can be installed as an addition to an existing pro-duction line and connected to the main control system of the line. Inspection is performed at 1200 pieces per minute at a number of locations during the manufacturing process. Defective products are removed by an air jet. TIViS is a PC-based system implemented in NI LabVIEW 8.20. For control and synchronization, a NI PCI-8254R card is used.

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