Gaining a competitive edge by product differentiation

Oct. 1, 2002
Successful companies are leveraging technologies, standards, and highly integrated ICs toaddress machine-vision and image-processing applications.

by Andy Wilson
[email protected]

Successful companies are leveraging technologies, standards, and highly integrated ICs toaddress machine-vision and image-processing applications.

During the past few years, a number of technologies have emerged to help vendors of machine-vision and image-processing products design new products. Rather than emerging from the research-and-development labs of universities and large corporations, many of these product developments have been directly related to high-volume consumer technologies being "redeployed" into machine-vision products.

Typical examples of these developments include the emergence of CMOS image sensors; highly integrated FireWire, USB, and PCMCIA-based cameras and frame grabbers; LED illumination devices; and inexpensive PCI-based video frame grabbers. Migrating away from digital-signal processors and custom and standard logic in their designs, most manufacturers are now embracing Pentium and PowerPC processors, off-the-shelf bus interface ICs, and high-count gate arrays in their designs.

While this migration has resulted in lower-cost applications, it has left manufacturers with a product-differentiation problem. At present, for example, several frame-grabber boards, available for less than $500, digitize RS-170, NTSC, PAL, and S-Video sources. Many boards feature camera-triggering and digital I/O features that allow integration into niche machine-vision applications. Similarly, the proliferation of VGA-like CMOS sensors has instilled camera vendors with similar problems: low-cost items with similar functionality.

Unfortunately, in a highly competitive market, OEM suppliers must offer different platforms to remain competitive. For example, many smart frame-grabber vendors offer analog, digital, and FireWire- or USB-based boards to address as large a customer base as possible. However, with the number of available standards, ways, and means to produce new products growing at seemingly a daily basis, systems integrators often can no longer look to the larger more-established companies to solve all of their application problems.

During the last few months, several companies have introduced products that can solve more and more application-specific machine-vision problems. For example, Logical Solutions (Madison, CT; and Arvoo (Montfoort, The Netherlands; both produce modules that allow Camera Link-based cameras and frame grabbers to be interfaced at 500 m or longer distances. Other specialized products from ImperX (Boca Raton, FL; and HaSoTec (Rostoc, Germany; offer PCMCIA-based cards for portable image-processing applications. Founded just a year ago, ImperX reports sales of more than 3000 of its $300 PCMCIA cards in 18 countries. Future products, says Anders Juul, director of sales and marketing will include a Camera Link version of the PCMCIA card.

To optimize sales for such strategic products, these vendors are signing third-party distributors and resellers and forming strategic alliances with larger companies that offer product-related offerings. In this way, these smaller companies can leverage the technical sales departments of larger companies to gain sales advantages.

While such distribution means are essential for successful sales, the key to these companies' success is product differentiation. They offer products that less than a handful of companies can manufacture. And, while sales may not be overwhelming, they are enough to allow such companies to continue introducing innovative products. Today, these successful companies are leveraging technologies, standards, and highly integrated ICs to address machine-vision and image-processing applications.

If history repeats itself, larger companies will recognize this success and purchase these technologies and products. If the integration of consumer, computer, and communications technology paradigm proves correct, other companies will emerge to offer machine-vision products that leverage wireless, networking, embedded processors, and intellectual property in the form of VHDL code.

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