It all depends...

Over the past twenty years I have been approached by many manufacturers who ask whether it is possible to automate the inspection of their products.

Andy Wilson

Over the past twenty years I have been approached by many manufacturers who ask whether it is possible to automate the inspection of their products. The companies that manufacture such products are looking to vendors to supply them with systems that can be installed rapidly and at low-cost to replace the laborious, time consuming and unreliable tasks performed by human operators.

Often, these companies simply describe the component or product that needs to be inspected. Unfortunately, as these end-users soon realize, due to the diversity of the products they produce, no companies exist that provide simple, low-cost, plug-and-play "vision systems" that can be tailored to multiple applications. To the person tasked with purchasing such a system, this can be very frustrating.

Indeed, as a recent market report by VDC notes, those deploying machine vision systems must actively seek vendors and integrators with both technical knowledge to build applications for a variety of markets or those companies with vertical market domain expertise.

While companies that develop systems to address vertical markets (such as semiconductor wafer inspection) are easy to find, systems integrators that offer their services to meet the needs of multiple markets do not actively promote their products and services. What makes the task more difficult for those looking for such systems integrators is that once such companies have been hired to build a vision system to perform a specific task, they are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) by their customers. This has resulted in many systems integrators describing their talents in an abstract manner.

Lists of the most commonly sought after phrases, such as "automotive inspection," "consumer product inspection," and worse "custom-built vision systems" often appear on these websites, providing the reader with little insight into what such systems integrators are capable of achieving. End-users looking for a fast way to solve a specific problem will then spend hours searching for companies that may - or may not - be able to fulfill their needs.

Equally as frustrating from the systems integrator's perspective are those unprepared folk that enquire about building automated inspection systems. Often, the question is simply "can you build a system that inspects my widget?" And of course, the answer is always "it depends."

In such scenarios, the systems integrator is expected to be a mind reader who miraculously can fathom the size of the part, its composition, the defects that are to be detected, what it is made of, what sort of throughput is required and what volume and cost is involved. Being unprepared, the end-user calling on such systems integrators will become even more frustrated. Instead, end-users should be prepared with detailed documentation and photographs of their parts that will allow systems integrators to more easily evaluate the proposed inspection task.

Andy WilsonAndy Wilson, Editor in Chief
andyw@pennwell.com
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