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Lacking systems integrators, Japanese vision-equipment makers rely on a rapid stream of innovative new products.

Lacking systems integrators, Japanese vision-equipment makers rely on a rapid stream of innovative new products.

by Andy Wilson

Last month, it was time for my trusty Toyota Corolla CE to have its 40,000-mile service. After being "reminded" by the dealer that this important task was way past due, I decided to drive the automobile to the local shop where I purchased the car.

While waiting, I became impatient and decided to explore the showroom to see what nifty new models the Toyota Motor Corporation had managed to craft in the three years since my last purchase. I wasn't disappointed. Over in one corner was a mid-size 2004 Prius with Hybrid Synergy Drive that offered all the power of a conventional vehicle, an Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emission Vehicle rating, and an unheard-of estimated 55 combined-miles-per-gallon rating. At least that is what the sales-man said!

Most impressive was all the technology in the vehicle—Bluetooth wireless technology, autodimming mirrors, six-disk CD autochanger, GPS navigation, and, the most important feature, a removable ashtray. Well done, Toyota! How different this car was from the one I purchased. This company obviously listens to its customers and develops products based on their feedback.

OEM innovations

While driving back to the office, I began to wonder about the innovations being delivered by suppliers of OEM machine-vision equipment. I recalled a recent meeting with Kenji Yoshida, general manager of Aromat (New Providence, NJ, USA;, a division of the giant Matsushita Electric Works of Osaka, Japan. "The difference between the Japanese and US markets," Yoshida confided in me, "is that there are more systems integrators in the US." The upshot of this, he reasoned, is that vendors of lighting equipment, frame grabbers, software, and other imaging peripherals do not need to continually innovate new products on a six-month basis. Using off-the-shelf peripherals, he thought, systems integrators can tailor individual products to meet specific systems requirements.

Thus, although a need exists for such companies to innovate, the pace of innovation need not be as fast. Rather, such companies can introduce products over a one-to-two-year period. There has been no need to rapidly develop products with extra bells and whistles while driving costs continually lower. In Japan, Yoshida confessed, the lack of systems-integration expertise forces manufacturers to innovate more rapidly, developing products that can be used by "end users" or those unfamiliar with edge detection, color, or geometric pattern-matching.

It was a very interesting conversation. Especially as the company has recently introduced a range of very-low-cost machine-vision sensors that already have been incorporated into several systems from large machinery manufacturers (see p. 15).

Differing philosophies

I am a proponent of open systems, but it must be pointed out that such sensors have their limitations. However, as Yoshida knows, for many applications, they can be successfully integrated into industrial automation equipment.

As our story indicates, should a large-volume OEM require specific functionality to be added, Japanese companies such as Aromat are only too willing to fulfill their wishes. In the next models, expect these features to be incorporated as standard features.

While US vendors ponder whether smart cameras will replace frame grabber/PC combinations, the real argument may be which manufacturing philosophy will survive. The OEM/systems-integration model will always prove useful to builders of specialized, sophisticated imaging systems, but, in the future, a large majority may be better served by approaching large-volume machine-vision vendors to provide cost-effective end-user solutions.

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