Standards drive marketability

There's an old saying in the computer industry: the only constant is change. Every year, Moore's law drives processors and communications devices faster and memory devices denser and smaller.

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It appears that only when companies fear they will be left out of the "next big wave" are they willing to invest in a new technology.

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There's an old saying in the computer industry: the only constant is change. Every year, Moore's law drives processors and communications devices faster and memory devices denser and smaller. At the same time, smaller inventive startup companies introduce new standards for communication, networking, and bus interfacing, driving board-level manufacturers into six-month-or-less design cycles.

After attending the two recent vision-industry trade shows (one in Stuttgart, Germany, and one in Boston, MA), however, it appears that the so-called established image-processing and machine-vision vendors have been reticent to adopt new standards, interfacing protocols, or high-speed computer interfaces. For example, at the shows only three companies demonstrated 64-bit, 66-MHz frame grabbers, despite the technology being available to do so for more than 18 months.

And, in the quest for more information regarding image communications over fiber for this month's Product Focus (p. 38), even fewer companies were found demonstrating the technology. In contrast, several semiconductor companies have made this technology available for more than two years to the telecommunications industry.

A number of vendors at the Boston Vision Show East reasoned that since none of their customers had asked for this technology they would wait until they could see a demand before building such products. On the other hand, at the VISION show in Stuttgart, Germany, numerous exhibitors demonstrated innovative products such as fast-frame-rate CMOS cameras; 64-bit, 66-MHz PCI bus-based products; and camera-to-fiber interfaces.

In the United States, said one German vendor, OEMs build a product for a specific market and sell to a number of different customers. The aim of American vendors, it seems, is to sell a lot of products with as little systems-integration effort as needed. In Germany, though, the close interaction between customers, associations, and OEMs has meant that new products using novel technologies are emerging faster.

This turnabout of events is visionary. Years ago, the United States was the breeding ground for startup companies that developed new products to address unique imaging markets—no longer, it seems. Indeed, there were more new-product and system designs shown at the Stuttgart VISION show than ever before. For US companies, this means that systems integrators building next-generation machine-vision and image-processing systems might have to buy OEM products from foreign vendors to meet their customers' requirements.

It appears that only when companies fear they will be left out of the "next big wave" are they willing to invest in a new technology. But the lesson to be learned for US vendors is that the machine-vision and image-processing market is now a global one, and competition will be coming from Europe, the Far East, and Australasia. And, systems integrators building today's systems are not prepared to wait six months for OEMs to produce me-too products.

The largest technological innovation in the camera/frame-grabber business in the USA and Europe is the introduction of the Camera Link standard. Nearly everyone I approached at both shows said that they had some intention of implementing the standard in their next generation of products. Interestingly, this innovation was not driven by a single company developing a product for a single customer, but by a consortium of vendors led by US camera- manufacturer Pulnix America.

Fortunately, the Automated Imaging Association is actively promoting the Camera Link standard and holding meetings with its interested members for presenting and promoting a widely acceptable version. As seen at both industry shows, standard bus structures, networking standards, optical protocols, and software can be developed that truly make machine-vision and image-processing products plug-and-play. With the present worldwide economic slowdown, the vision/imaging market needs such a standard to boost sales and applications.

by Andy Wilson
EDITOR
andyw@pennwell.com

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