Smart cameras and software validation impact vision-system deployment

An interview with David Wyatt.

VSD: What applications or industries does Midwest serve and with what technologies?

Wyatt: Midwest serves the pharmaceutical, munitions, electronics, and lower-tier automotive-parts manufacturing industries. We focus on software validation.

I started in vision at Delco Electronics, then a division of General Motors, in 1982. We had a 16-gray-level system with 8K of memory. It was driven by a Naked Mini 2 Computer Automation CPU, which we programmed in Structured Fortran (Sortran) on a DEC PDP 11 mainframe. Today we offer Microsoft XP Pro-driven 3.6-Gbyte Pentium processors running custom Visual Suite.net applications on touch screens. These systems sport frame grabbers and networked smart cameras to provide our customers the best of both smart-camera and frame-grabber worlds.

As we have always done, we work nationwide, providing refundable feasibility quotes and a 100% money-back guarantee for those customers who elect the feasibility option and follow the terms of our proposal. We have installed hundreds of systems. It’s been a great ride over the last 22 years, and it’s not over yet.

VSD: What market changes are driving the new technologies that you use?

Wyatt: The 800-pound gorilla in the vision industry today is the smart camera. This has absolutely changed everything. We used to get $60K to implement a vision project using a frame grabber and a computer. Many customers now expect to pay only $6K for a complete, installed solution. Hundreds of smart cameras are installed in Indiana alone every year. Nationally the numbers are in the tens of thousands.

The smart-camera sales people have done a wonderful job showing the benefits and ease of use of their systems. Under competitive pressure, these same sales people, in their enthusiasm, sometimes underestimate the effort required to deploy a smart-camera-based system.

I have said, since 1988, when Midwest was started, that it’s all about the lighting. Almost any vision system can do a great job if the lighting and part-variability issues are tamed first. Therefore, the new technologies in lighting are also driving this market. Great LED lights from leaders such as CCS, RVSI/NER, and Advanced Illumination are making everyone’s life easier.

Boiling to the surface are FireWire and USB cameras and the expected departure of the frame grabber in systems that are too complex for single smart cameras. It will be interesting to see who wins the battle of the distributed smart cameras that interface results to a PC and the less-capable cameras that transfer images to ever-faster central PCs.

Where is Camera Link in all of this? Probably in high-end systems. Does anyone remember MAPS? This was a network that the automotive industry championed before Ethernet. In a similar fashion, FireWire or Gigabit Ethernet will eat into Camera Link usage and may overtake it in all but a few high-end systems.

VSD: Where are you seeing the most growth, and what are users demanding from you in designing new systems?

Wyatt: The most growth, by far, is in the area of distributed smart cameras. Furthermore, I would say that smart cameras doing 2-D symbology in lower-tier automotive companies is the fastest-growing segment. These systems lend themselves to traditional networking and information technology companies.

The Acuity Hawkeye series and the Cognex 5100, for instance, are great 2-D symbology readers. The Acuity system I saw is programmed with a paper clip. Very few machine-vision integration opportunities exist in multicamera symbology jobs, unless you’re a large-information technology company selling JIT [just-in-time] platforms or simply like making camera mounts.

Users are demanding lower prices to reflect the lower prices from the Banner PresencePLUS P4, for instance. At less than $1000, some vision systems are now almost disposable.

VSD: What technologies and components does Midwest use?

Wyatt: We recommend Pentium-based PCs to provide the HMIs [human-machine interfaces] that our customers demand. Sometimes we offer custom code; sometimes we can simply point to or customize a smart camera’s interface such as DVT Intellect, Cognex In-Site Explorer, or RVSI/Acuity Visionscape. For networks, it’s usually Ethernet on a fast local switch. You have to stay away from corporate networks, as they are usually bogged down.

VSD: How do you approach a new application?

Wyatt: The first thing to do with a new application is to discover the customer’s verbally expressed wants as well as the unknown needs and underlying fears. Almost every company has had a less-than-positive experience with a vision system in the past. So it is very important to clearly define what the new system will do and what the part constraints must be, and to develop a test plan to determine when the vision system is functional.

Second, you must get a representative sample of parts and discover the lighting that will give the desired measurements as much contrast as possible. Finally, you must have a way to measure contrast and calibration loss so that the system can alarm the customer before light degradation causes false “rejects” or false “accepts.”

In terms of selecting hardware, if we can find it off-the-shelf at a price and lead time that we are quoted, we buy it. Otherwise, we build it. It is only to the customer’s advantage to have custom-designed components when they are not readily available.

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

Wyatt: OEM components need to be easier to enclose and mount. There are few things worse than putting a camera and lens in the open air over a conveyor. They need to be enclosed to get consistent results. Also, all vision systems need to have optical feedback to detect lighting and calibration changes before they cause a problem.

VSD: How do you interact with other manufacturers or integrators in the machine-vision community?

Wyatt: As an integration house, we work with all reputable vision providers. Typically, a national vision company such as Cognex or DVT brings us an opportunity that customers prefer not to integrate themselves. For these vision companies we provide 100% lead loyalty and buy as much of the system from them as possible. We then support that brand with the customer.

We also work with machine builders, distributors, and other integrators. In these cases we get called in to quote a system or give T&M [time and materials] services. We do not see ourselves as a competitor with these entities. To us the important thing is to make sure that the vision system is a success.

We work the hardest with the lighting providers. We do this because almost all systems can do the job given the right lighting. We make some custom LED lighting, but only after our request for quotations to the lighting leaders are refused.

In terms of working with the machine-vision community, we are a member of the Automated Imaging Association [AIA; www.machinevisiononline.org], where we participated in the recent Pharmaceuticals Workshop in Princeton, NJ. We are also active in the Society of Manufacturing Engineers [SME] Machine Vision Tech Group of the Automated Manufacturing and Assembly Community [www.sme.org]. In addition, Midwest is very active in the upcoming SME Automation Summit in St. Louis, MO [April 18-20].

I believe there is an excellent opportunity for the AIA to work closer with the SME, and I call on them to do so. To date, the interaction has been less than I had hoped.

VSD: How do you envision the future of imaging in the industries you serve?

Wyatt: The future of imaging is very much related to software validation. As corporations compete and become ISO-certified, they find that they must develop quality systems. These quality systems typically state that all developed software affecting the form and fitness of their products must be validated. So companies now find themselves in the position of validating all new installations and revalidating existing vision equipment whenever they make a change.

In pharmaceuticals and munitions, software validation is a must. When dealing with drugs and bombs, lives are at stake, and there is no room for a mistake. For all of our industries, we see a need to assure customers that the smart cameras that they purchased are doing the job they purchased them for.

To this end, we launched Smart Service, in which a company calls us and schedules an appointment. We come within 14 days, usually within three days. We analyze the requirements in one hour and watch the system function for up to three hours. We spend up to four hours fixing what we can through software or our lighting-and-optics case and recommend further changes. After implementing our changes, the customer will get the results they expected. We do all of this for a fixed fee of $1999 plus the hardware we leave on the line. Travel is free within 300 miles of our headquarters.

DAVID WYATT is president of Midwest Integration (Mishawaka, IN, USA; www.midvision.com), which he founded in 1988. He has a B.S. in electrical engineering from the University of Missouri at Rolla. At General Motors, he served as chair of the Machine Intelligence Users Group and as a machine-vision liaison between GM and Hughes Aircraft. Editor in chief Conard Holton talked to him about smart cameras and trends in vision.

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