Don’t let me down

Trade shows can help the inquisitive mind sort through some misleading vendor promises.

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Trade shows can help the inquisitive mind sort through some misleading vendor promises.

Trade shows are great. Those who exhibit are always enthusiastic about how their products can solve your problem-whether you want to inspect images at very-low-light levels, use fiber to distance camera and frame grabbers, or program a frame grabber to process thousands of images. You can see the latest equipment from vendors who will promise you that a solution is just weeks away.

Unfortunately, after the lights dim and the trade-show carpets are torn up, you are still faced with your problem. Because some of those who said they could solve it may just have wanted a lead. I should know. I’ve been to many trade shows and have often been placed in situations where I have listened to potential buyers being given misinformation.

At the last show I attended, one system developer approached a CMOS camera vendor. He obviously knew a little about the subject. Surely, CMOS imagers must be better than CCD devices for inspecting systems in a radiation-susceptible environment? The vendor he approached certainly had a lot of CMOS-based cameras on display. Unfortunately, none of them was really suitable for the kind of radiation-hardened environments the attendee had in mind. In fact, the company in question had no expertise whatsoever in radiation-hardened CMOS imagers.

Rather than refer the customer to companies such as Sira (Chislehurst, UK; www.sira.co.uk), Green Tweed (Kulpsville, PA, USA; www.gtweed.com), or Thermo Electron CIDTEC Cameras (Liverpool, NY, USA; www.thermo.com), the sales representative launched into a diatribe of how yes, CMOS imagers were better than CCDs and that his company could supply the necessary camera-based solution. This sort of misinformation can only lead to disaster. If the vendor’s camera were to be deployed, it would probably image the scene for only a few hours before color changes and intensity loss became apparent. Returning the product for a refund will not be possible since, apart from destroying the imager, the camera will also glow in the dark!

But it’s not just misinformed sales people who should be admonished for pushing products that cannot meet users’ needs. Many marketing departments seem to be geared up solely for this purpose. This is especially true when emerging standards threaten to offer increased benefits for system developers.

Recently, Gigabit Ethernet has been incorporated into a number of smart cameras offering the developer long-distance, networked, smart-sensor capability. Thanks to companies such as Intel (Santa Clara, CA, USA; www.intel.com), which offer single-IC solutions, it is relatively easy for designers to embed Gigabit Ethernet controllers into their smart cameras. But, it seems, a lot of companies have used the GigE moniker to imply some kind of “plug-and-play” capability. Because the camera is “Gigabit Ethernet compatible,” you just plug it in, and like your network on the job the product simply works like magic!

Unfortunately, it takes more than a CCD, a microcontroller, and an interface device to make an application. Software, usually in the form of a DLL, must be incorporated into the machine-vision application to intercept incoming data packets and reorder imaging data. At present, this ordering of imaging data, the control of Gigabit Ethernet cameras, and how applications control such devices are vendor-dependent. In the future, thanks to the efforts of the Automated Imaging Association, this will soon be standardized for machine-vision applications (see p. 53).

The tendency of OEM vision suppliers to tout the benefits of their products without offering broader technology perspectives will never end. Luckily, with all their competitors in the same trade-show hall, the potential purchaser has the upper hand. Next time you are at a show, behave like a journalist. Ask questions. Take the answers from one vendor to its competitors and compare results. You will be astounded at how many different answers there are to one simple technical question.

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Andy Wilson, Editor
andyw@pennwell.com

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