by Andy Wilson, editor
One of the perks of being a journalist in the trade press is that, once in a while, I am able to enjoy an excellent dinner at a first-class restaurant. During the March Automate 2011 show in Chicago, I was lucky enough to be seated at such a dinner next to one Randall Hinton, a solutions engineer from Edmund Optics, who, like myself, had earned a degree in physics. After discussing famous physicists of the past such as Einstein, Schrödinger, and Planck, Hinton brought up the subject of one of his favorite television programs: “Dr. Who.”
For those of you who have been in prison for the past 50 years, “Dr. Who” is the longest-running science fiction television series in the world. I should know; I was there in England when the first episode was broadcast on 23 November, 1963!
Traveling through time and space in a blue 1950s English Police Box known as the TARDIS, the main character, “Dr. Who,” encounters many adversaries including tank-like mutants known as Daleks.
Like Hinton, I am also a big fan of the show and so, during dinner, I decided to quiz Hinton on his knowledge, asking him what the acronym TARDIS stood for. I was amazed. I had found the first American in America who could answer the question.
For a joke, I posed the same question to my erstwhile colleague Judy Leger. Not to my surprise, she had neither heard of the word TARDIS nor even the show itself! As everyone (except Leger) knows, the concept of relative dimensions in time and space are used in the show to allow the inside of the Police Box to appear larger than on the outside.
Unfortunately, the reverse seems to be true of the machine-vision business. After my dinner conversation, the following day of the Automate trade show seemed a lot different to me than the previous day. Although more than 150 companies exhibited numerous cameras, lighting products, frame grabbers, software, robots, and systems during the exhibition, the vision industry is—from an insider’s perspective—smaller on the inside than it appears on the outside.
Several circumstances support this warped dimensional perspective. For example, up until now relatively few camera manufacturers have chosen to use imagers from less well-known CMOS image-sensor houses, resulting in a number of camera products from multiple vendors that are difficult to differentiate. Although this is slowly changing (see “Camera vendors employ custom sensors to differentiate products,” Vision Systems Design, June 2011), it is perhaps not the most important reason why the machine-vision industry is smaller than it appears.
It seems every large manufacturer is fully aware of the business of other, smaller manufacturers, often enlisting these companies to co-develop products that are then marketed by the larger manufacturer. Furthermore, many companies that appear to manufacture products actually rebrand products from other companies, providing the perception of a much larger choice of products.
This is not just true of hardware vendors. At Automate, for instance, many system integrators showed machine-vision systems that they had developed using third-party software packages, building sophisticated user frontends to make it easier for their customers to use their systems.
When asked whether I could publish much of this information, most companies were very reluctant to cooperate, citing nondisclosure and licensing agreements that they felt gave them a competitive edge.
Needless to say, this secrecy makes it very difficult for a system integrator to properly evaluate a product, since—as I found on one booth at Automate—even the salespeople sometimes cannot tell you the specifications of the products they are selling!
Perhaps if the industry were more open, it would help those attempting to sell products in addition to those who are willing to purchase them.
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