Industry companies must serve OEMs and end users

Over the past several months, Vision Systems Design has reported on product trends for frame grabbers, solid-state cameras, and machine-vision systems. Not surprisingly, there are now more than 100 manufacturers of solid-state cameras and frame grabbers in the United States. In contrast, the number of OEM machine-vision-system manufacturers, not including systems integrators, totals fewer than 20.

Industry companies must serve OEMs and end users

Andy Wilson

Editor at Large

Over the past several months, Vision Systems Design has reported on product trends for frame grabbers, solid-state cameras, and machine-vision systems. Not surprisingly, there are now more than 100 manufacturers of solid-state cameras and frame grabbers in the United States. In contrast, the number of OEM machine-vision-system manufacturers, not including systems integrators, totals fewer than 20.

While the reason for this discrepancy may not at first seem obvious, a closer look at the complex technologies and manufacturing barriers to designing cameras, frame grabbers, and machine-vision systems illuminates the situation. The costs of building and marketing frame grabbers and cameras are relatively modest. But, developing a machine-vision system to inspect semiconductor ball-grid arrays, for example, demands a huge hardware/software investment. And, although off-the-shelf frame grabbers and cameras can meet the demands of numerous applications, manufacturers of machine-vision systems must pay careful attention to individual customer demands.

During the past decade, frame-grabber and camera manufacturers have introduced a variety of new products to the market. In turn, these products have spurred innovative designs in high-speed camera interfaces, run-length encoding, and high-speed input/output signal delivery, among others. Despite all these innovations, though, OEM companies involved in the image-processing business rarely surpass $20 million/year sales.

Whereas some frame-grabber companies have found the OEM machine-vision systems market a lucrative way of increasing their business, few have really succeeded in penetrating end-user markets. Alternatively, some machine-vision-system companies have focused entirely on customers` applications and built simple front ends to complex image-processing systems. This approach has allowed their customers to rapidly integrate machine vision into automated systems. The engineering time and talent needed to develop specialized image-processing systems have, in the past, meant that vision-systems companies addressed only specific market areas and limited the sales potential of their systems.

Drastic changes

With today`s customers demanding low-cost, ruggedized, fast-time-to-market systems, these manufacturers have been stretched to develop easy-to-use customer-friendly front ends to their vision systems. Things are about to change drastically, however. Already, many frame-grabber, camera, and image-processing vendors are embracing standard interfaces and standard graphical-user-interface based programming tools with which systems integrators can develop machine-vision systems.

Despite these advances, few companies are developing solutions with these tools specifically for pharmaceutical or semiconductor-inspection systems. However, because graphical development tools present an easy way to build solutions on top of already user-friendly interfaces, machine-vision companies are now setting about to tackle specific customer problems with more end-user-like front ends (see p. 7).

By paying careful attention to the software-development needs of both systems integrators and end users, machine-vision-system companies will be able to readily address more application areas. And, because these systems will incorporate standards, they will allow both end users and systems integrators alike to develop flexible, low-cost, machine-vision systems. When this happens, camera, frame-grabber, and machine-vision companies will all benefit.

andyw@pennwell.com

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