Lessons from prison

Some pointed lessons can be had when confined within trade-show walls.

Th 0605vsd Andywilson

Some pointed lessons can be had when confined within trade-show walls.

It’s good to have friends in prison-not actually in prison, but friends that work in prisons. Sometimes they can inspire you in unimagined ways. In many prisons, peepholes are used by guards to monitor prisoners. Being rather nasty people, some prisoners fabricate homemade weapons from scrap steel to attack the guards. In some very nasty situations, these weapons have been used to force the peephole from its housing as the guard attempts to view the prisoner’s activity. As you can imagine, this can result in a badly bruised eye.

Luckily, I have never been in prison. But being a member of the press, I do get to visit numerous towns and cities worldwide and stay in luxurious hotels, most of which use the same technology as prisons to ensure your room is secure. But please don’t be jealous. Most of the time, I never actually see the places I visit. The reason is, of course, that I must visit trade shows and report on new technologies, products, and applications.

You may not need to travel as much, but you should know that, while Web sites can be ideal to peruse certain products, only a really good trade show can provide you with all the information you need to inspire your next big idea. And so it was over the past few months when I visited both Photonics West in San Jose, CA, USA, and Imaging Photonics and Optical Technology (IPOT) held at the NEC complex in Birmingham, UK.

At Photonics West, I was lucky enough to meet with Dmitry Gelfand, chief operating officer of Japanese subsidiary Optrans Universal Corporation (Cohoes, NY, USA; www.optransuniversal.com). At its booth, the company was showing some precision-engineered products built for OEM customers. Perhaps the product that impressed me the most was a CCD imager-less than 1 mm in diameter-that the company had surrounded with an array of equally tiny LEDs.

After speaking with the president of the company about this specialty device, it appeared that it had been developed for an endoscope manufacturer. I was so impressed that I asked to take a photograph with my trusty Japanese camera. Politely, I was refused. The product was all developed under a nondisclosure agreement and the customer, I was informed, would not be too pleased if its supplier was revealed to our global audience of 60,000 people!

Flying over to IPOT, I could not forget the tiny camera and illumination system and what a wonderful feat of engineering it was. After I landed, I took out my cell phone and made my usual postflight calls. Then it was off to IPOT to visit a number of machine-vision companies.

But it wasn’t at IPOT that I thought of my next million dollar idea but at Displays Technology, a show held concurrently with IPOT, where vendors of OEM displays go to show their wares. Andrew Pockson, a field applications engineer manned the booth of Anglia (Wisbech, UK; www.angliac.com). I took out my cellphone and asked him how much it would cost to purchase such a display in very large volumes. The answer was surprising.

For less than $20 it would be possible to develop a “digital peephole” based on Optrans’ tiny illuminated imager and couple it to a solar cell and a tiny OLED display. All I needed was someone to build a prototype. I went back to the Vision Systems Design booth at IPOT. Just by chance, the managing director of an optics company was perusing our publications. I asked him about the idea. “I’m off to China next week,” he said, “I’ll see what I can do.”

Upon returning to the USA, I furiously “Googled” every keyword I could think of to see if someone had already developed the product. But after scanning through 500 Web sites, I could not find a single one.

Many people learn their lessons in prison. Others learn lessons from prisons. But wherever lessons and ideas emanate, they certainly are not apparent from a company’s Web site. Only seeing OEM products firsthand and making person-to-person contact at good trade shows can properly inspire and educate designers and manufacturers. That’s why, despite the predictions of their demise, such trade shows will be around for a long time to come.

Th 0605vsd Andywilson
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Andy Wilson

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