Vision 98 reflecs German upswing in image processing

STUTTGART, GERMANY--Late last September, more than 117 exhibitors, a 26% increase over 1998, from 14 countries presented their latest systems and components for industrial and nonindustrial image-processing and automatic-identification applications to more than 4000 attendees at the Vision `98 trade fair. German image-processing suppliers obviously dominated the fair by showcasing a variety of technologies, products, systems, and applications. Seeking to compete globally, they are offering image

Vision `98 reflecs German upswing in image processing

GEORGE KOTELLY

GEORGE@PENNWELL.COM

STUTTGART, GERMANY--Late last September, more than 117 exhibitors, a 26% increase over 1998, from 14 countries presented their latest systems and components for industrial and nonindustrial image-processing and automatic-identification applications to more than 4000 attendees at the Vision `98 trade fair. German image-processing suppliers obviously dominated the fair by showcasing a variety of technologies, products, systems, and applications. Seeking to compete globally, they are offering image-processing products with specifications that match or exceed those of US- and European-made products. Moreover, in Germany, 80% of the buyers of image-processing products prefer system solutions that integrate optics, cameras, lighting, hardware, and software.

Says Walter Gehring, managing director of Messe Stuttgart International, the fair organizer, "The trends in [German] industrial image processing are moving in two directions. First, system standardization and miniaturization are continuing to be integrated into production lines more easily and cost-effectively. Second, image-processing systems are being directly installed in machines to obtain zero-defect production through direct measurements of process parameters."

He also stated that in Europe, Germany is the market leader in industrial image processing with more than 200 related companies, compared to only 20 companies each in France and the United Kingdom. Moreover, more than half of the German manufacturers of image-processing systems and components are located in southern Germany. This is because the major users of image-processing systems--the automobile, mechanical engineering, metalworking, and electronics industries--are mostly situated in this section of the country.

A market survey, carried out by the Technical Department for Industrial Image Processing/Machine Vision in the VDMA (Association of German Machinery Manufacturers), expects industry sales in Germany of about DM600 million (US$374 million) in 1998, an increase of about 16% over 1997 sales. The survey also estimates continuous growth rates of 20% or higher through 2002.

Alfred Vogel, member of the executive committee of the Technical Department for Industrial Image Processing/Machine Vision in the VDMA, described some of the close relationships between the German image-processing companies and end-product manufacturers. The painting of cars by robots, inspecting of bottles, and machine cutting of fabrics were cited by Vogel as examples of how industries are creating new jobs, shortening product-delivery times, and improving product quality.

Discussions with Vision `98 exhibitors, attendees, and analysts disclosed that the German image-processing industry is marketing its products in focused strategies for global competition. For one strategy, this industry is targeting high-performance, high-quality, sophisticated, and expensive components and systems. It is deliberately aiming at the high end of the market for a higher return on investment, just as Mercedes-Benz cars represent higher quality, performance, and price in the automotive market. In addition, German image-processing systems and components are easy to install, operate, use, and maintain. Because most of the German image-processing companies are small in size, capabilities, and resources, they have decided they cannot compete globally and cost-effectively at the mid- and low-end product ranges.

For another strategy, the German image-processing companies function mainly as system integrators, sell to just a few major industries, and maintain close and long-lasting relationships with their customers. For many applications, German suppliers provide turnkey image-processing systems for customer-specific solutions. These systems are built, installed, and proved-in according to tight national, European, and international electronic, imaging, and environmental standards. They are consequently robust, reliable, and durable in harsh production and factory facilities.

Yet another strategy centers on customer service. The multitude of offered services includes: project planning and consulting; feasibility, analysis, and process studies; custom operational software; hardware positioning, handling and orientation; systems integration and calibration; production startup; personnel training; and on-going enhancements and upgrades. In sum, German image-processing suppliers establish a close support partnership with their customers. Some suppliers even provide 24-hour hotlines and fast troubleshooting reaction times.

The German image-processing suppliers have positioned themselves as all-purpose systems integrators that will do everything needed to satisfy the customer. American and European suppliers would do well to replicate these strategies for competing in the global marketplace.

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