Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Then and now: 20 years of machine-vision system integration

David Dechow, aptúra Machine Vision Solutions, on the changing role of the machine-vision system integrator

Within the context of a machine-vision application, integration quite simply is where someone has to actually make things work. With that definition, the role of the machine-vision integrator has changed little from “ancient times,” when we interfaced vidicon cameras with plodding computers to check the presence of an object based on 32 levels of gray. With scant few exceptions, today’s machine-vision devices do not yet arrive from the manufacturer shrink-wrapped, fully configured, ready to plug in, turn on, and perform an inspection. Machine-vision technology is a combination of diverse components that must be correctly selected based upon the needs of the application, competently installed, programmed, or configured to provide a robust result, then tested to ensure reliability that will withstand a production environment. Bottom line: a machine-vision application still must be “integrated”; someone has to “make it work.”

What is new is that machine vision has become a technology that today is significantly more accessible to the plant engineer than it was even several years ago. Yet the need and demand for the machine-vision system integrator is as strong as ever. What has changed ever so slightly is the perceived ROI or value of the integration partner. At one time the machine-vision system integrator was absolutely required even to consider an inspection project. The prevailing perception now is that the inspection task could be successfully done “in-house”; but it is more efficient and effective to use an outside integration resource for machine vision. A parallel situation occurred in the maturation of the PLC integration market, where today it is very common for a company to hire contractors to develop and maintain machine logic rather than have a team of company experts.

Looking ahead, the machine-vision integrator likely will continue to be an engineering resource for end users, machine builders, and other integrators, providing services on a contract or time-and-materials basis. Integrators will be called upon to execute more complicated inspection systems and will need to maintain relatively higher levels of machine-vision expertise. The barriers to entry into the vision integrator marketplace remain low, but the name of the game is efficiency and profitability, and the machine vision integration entity will increasingly need to find economies of scale that will sustain the business model.

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