Look up the number

July 1, 2010
Caveat emptor is a good motto when comparing and purchasing machine-vision components of unclear origin
Caveat emptoris a good motto when comparing and purchasing
machine-vision components of unclear origin

byAndy Wilson, editor
[email protected]

Three months ago, I left the battery charger for my iPhone in a Florida hotel. Without wishing to reveal this to my boss, I duly attempted to obtain another at a low cost. Although there were many versions available from online sources, I took the easy option, deciding to visit my local Radio Shack to purchase the device.

Being an impatient chap (and realizing that the company would reimburse me), I forked out $39.99 for a charger made by Gigaware. Although the product performs its function well, it is not as well designed as the charger offered (at a surprisingly lower cost) by Apple. Indeed, when designing its products, Apple pays special attention to detail, characterizing every product meticulously so that there will be no doubt in their customers’ minds how their products will perform. These products are then branded with rather catchy names such as Macintosh, Lisa, iPhone, and iPad.

Unlike Apple, however, many companies in the machine-vision industry do not badge their products in such a fashion since trademark registering of individual product names based on animals, Greek gods, exotic flowers, tiny insects, or rare mammals may be prohibitively expensive. Instead, they decide to take the “easy way out”—naming their products alphanumerically.

These naming conventions are often used with optics, for example, to specify different lens characteristics such as the type of mounting, aperture settings, or focal length. In developing these conventions, many original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) use proprietary alphanumeric naming schemes with which to specify the products. Their customers, familiar with these conventions, know exactly which parts to order (or reorder, should the parts fail).

To increase the sales of their products, OEMs often contract with third-party catalog houses to rebrand their products. In doing so, the third-party sellers develop their own set of naming specifications and codes to disguise the potential purchaser from the original manufacturer of the product. While all of these conventions are a fair and honest way to bring products to developers faster, they can create confusion and competitive opportunities in the marketplace.

With similar items being named differently, system developers may begin to wonder which company originally manufactured the product. What’s worse, without standard naming conventions, potential customers may be fooled into thinking they are purchasing something they are not.

To elaborate, other less scrupulous companies can capitalize on this marketplace confusion. By adopting the same nondescript, nonstandardized naming convention in their products as their competitors, vendors may fool potential customers into thinking they are purchasing certain products or exact equivalent parts. Querying a specific alphanumeric combination online may then result in a host of companies that appear to produce the ABD-451-DXK product.

At The Vision Show in Boston, one company’s president complained to me that his competitor had adopted the naming conventions used in his company’s specific product line! The result, he said, was to propagate much perplexity. Despite numerous protests, it seems the company had little legal recourse since products numbered alphanumerically could not really be registered as trademarks.

There is a lesson to be learned from this phenomenon. If you are evaluating competitive products, whether from a distributor, catalog house, or OEM—indeed, even from Radio Shack—it is imperative to ask who originally manufactured the product, its price, and how well it fares against competitive products. Otherwise, you may spend more money for an inferior product, as I did with my iPhone charger.

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