A discussion with John Ellis of Optics for Hire
VSD: Who are your customers and how do you serve them?
Ellis: We are engineers. Organizations developing products or systems or conducting R&D hire us. Most often we’re brought in to complement or add to the expertise of our customers. The value we add is leveraging our long experience in optical/optical-electrical engineering to the specific problems our customers face. Depending on the program we might be designing and prototyping a complete product, or just modeling a subsystem.
Very often firms don’t have all the skills they need on staff. It’s quite common that companies working in machine vision don’t have any optical engineers, despite how central optics is to the industry. Other customers need our help on optoelectronics and signal processing. A company whose core expertise is software processing or system integration in specific vertical markets might not have electronics people they need to develop a new product, so we are brought in.
We don’t really have a typical customer profile. We’ve helped divisions of large corporations and entrepreneurs working from home. No one can be an expert in all applications, so we focus on what we do well, which is to understand fundamental issues such as light and imaging and image collecting. It turns out that these are essential to a lot of industries.
VSD: Why do you use people in the Ukraine?
Ellis: The group we have in the Ukraine is one I knew about from a previous firm I worked for. They were the engineering group designing a next-generation optical disk drive. That team had 18 people in total, with expertise in design and building optical, mechanical, and electronics systems. I was very fortunate to be able to bring them on-board about three years ago. It was a turnkey operation. Not only did they have people in place, but they have equipment and software. The big benefits for our customers are that it’s a truly exception team and the labor cost is about half of that in the USA. By packaging the Ukraine team with the engineers we have in the USA, we can deliver great designs, great prices, and exceptional service.
VSD: Specifically, what sort of machine-vision systems have you developed, and what other sort of systems do you design?
Ellis: One small project we worked on recently was to provide an auto ID equipment manufacturer/system integrator with illumination design. They wanted to replace an expensive Lumileds (San Jose, CA, USA; www.lumileds.com) LED they’d used in a lighting module for a few years with something more cost-efficient. We worked with them to identify a possible replacement from Cree (Durham, NC, USA; www.cree.com) that was one-third the price. Since each module used 10 LEDs, the total cost savings could be substantial.
However, they needed the change to be invisible to their customers, so the newer type of module could be swapped into systems with the older Lumileds-based systems. Since the LEDs had different specifications, including different directional diagrams, this meant we had to make changes to the optical system and emitter placement so the two modules would have the same performance. We provided modeling and testing to prove out the change. For that application the Cree LED was fine; the extra performance from the Lumiled was unnecessary.
We are designing and building a hand-held tool for optically inspecting very small defects in large precision-machined parts. We are now building a second generation of prototypes of these units, which include some cutting-edge measurement techniques.
In addition, we have designed and built a door-mounted system for an optical ID card that included all optics and electronics. Other kinds of systems we work on include lenses for consumer products such as underwater cameras, night-vision viewers, medical devices, imaging and laser systems, optical media readers and testers, spectrometers, RF systems, lighting for vertical markets, positioning systems, microscopes, and others.
VSD: What types of cameras, frame grabbers, CPUs, and network interfaces do you use in these machine-vision applications?
Ellis: If we could, we’d like to use USB 2.0 for everything. We’ve been frustrated that camera interfaces are not intuitive and need to improve. Also, if camera parameters were standardized it would make life easier. For example, now when we evaluate a camera we need different calculations for different vendors because of differences in scale of gain adjustment.
VSD: In which areas do you see the most growth? What are users demanding from you in the design of new systems?
Ellis: One area of activity is the incorporation of LEDs into new or existing vision systems-more wavelength options, higher brightness, and lower prices make them very attractive for many applications. A big part of our job is to deliver the best possible image. This could be by improving the imaging or illumination system performance or by working on signal-to-noise issues in the electronics. Hopefully we redefine what the customer thought possible.
VSD: Is your primary market in North America or Europe? Could you compare the requirements and markets in different regions that you serve?
Ellis: To date 85% of our business has been from US firms, with the rest in Europe and Asia. I can’t say I’ve noticed different requirements. We may be too removed from the end user to appreciate the differences.
A more-general observation is that non-US customers are sometimes less surprised about a team from the Ukraine; they are used to hearing many languages and accented English. After we’ve been hired I think our customers enjoy our uniqueness, our customers who are engineers appreciate elegant designs and know the hurdles our engineers faced to be able to work at their profession.
VSD: What new applications do you expect to emerge? In which areas do you expect to see the most growth?
Ellis: The ultimate optical system is an eagle’s eye. It’s very small; it can double focus and view wide fields and simultaneously focus down onto minute detail. As the optics and electronics improve we move closer to this perfect ideal. This trend will lead to development of new applications. One example is that traditional “contact” measurement and inspection technologies are transitioning to noncontact imaging technologies.
VSD: How will OEM components targeted toward machine-vision applications have to change to meet future needs?
Ellis: Usually our customers are more worried about whether a certain component or chip will become obsolete within the lifetime of their product than what future specifications might be. I don’t think those.OEM vendors need much encouragement in terms of more expansive specifications. They already are racing each other to be able to offer a competitive benefit on technical merits.
That kind of improvement is certainly of great benefit to the machine-vision industry but equally so is cost reduction, which opens up completely new markets and applications.