Monday, June 23, 2008

Camera Smarts

A discussion with Brad Munster, Visionary Technologies

Brad Munster has a background in electrical engineering and engineering sales and is the owner and president of Visionary Technologies (Holland, MI, USA; He has been working with smart cameras for more than 11 years. Editor in chief Conard Holton spoke to him about trends in machine-vision systems and service.

VSD: Please describe your company and its services.
Munster: Visionary Technologies is a machine-vision integrator that specializes in the development and deployment of smart vision camera systems. The company provides customers with turnkey inspection machines, retrofits cameras to existing manufacturing lines, and services existing camera systems. I have been in the automation field and with manufacturing companies for 15 years— the first three with a distributor in Australia. We focused on products to serve the mining industry. I later worked as a sales engineer for a high-tech distributor for industrial automation in Michigan and then for a system integrator before starting Visionary Technologies about five years ago.

VSD: What technologies and components do you use for your applications?
Munster: Visionary Technologies uses smart cameras for 90% of its applications. This is something our customers are more familiar with and therefore not as hesitant to implement. The cameras we use come from manufacturers such as Cognex, DALSA IPD, Keyence, National Instruments, and PPT Vision. We continually evaluate all latest technologies to stay current and provide our customers with the best solution within their budgets. We try to choose the best system for the application and not focus on the name on the side of the camera. Each manufacturer has strengths and weaknesses with its products and algorithms. Also we see customers favoring one camera brand over another, and we provide them with a realistic assessment of which system would be best for their application.

VSD: How do you approach a new application? Do you work with OEMs or other system integrators?
Munster: Machine vision is often an oversold technology, or customers think it is a magic pill. Many customers believe that the camera can inspect anything within the field of view—and sometimes out of it—and that it should work flawlessly out of the box. From the first meeting we endeavor to walk them through the integration steps and reset them to a more realistic set of expectations. Some customers think that a camera is like other pieces of automation equipment—once it is programmed everything is done. We prepare them for a lot longer debug time. Instead of two to five days we try to have them expect two to five weeks, or longer, depending on the variables. During this time we often find manufacturing issues that the customer did not believe were relevant or possibly did not know about. Some of our largest customers are other system integrators. In today’s market very few companies have the resources to have a person solely dedicated to a specific task such as a machine vision programmer. This is a problem when you are trying to implement machine vision because you need to be working with this technology every day or you will lose or have to relearn skills and techniques. Some system integrators or machine builders may implement a camera system once every three to six months. We are working on six to eight different projects per week. This keeps skills sharp and also exposes us to many different types of applications and therefore increases our knowledge base and techniques.

VSD: Recent software developments in image processing include pattern recognition, tracking, and three-dimensional modeling. What algorithms and specific software developments do you see emerging in the next five years? Munster: The company has started to develop its own set of tools and algorithms in any given platform. The software or hardware manufacturer often gives you a great starting place for basic inspections and typical applications, but customers can run into problems when they can’t go beyond standard software tools (see photo). We have developed more advanced tools and techniques that let us ‘go under the hood’ by combining multiple tools to make the customer’s algorithms more robust and error proof. Some of the new software developments will probably be based around better OCR and Data Matrix tools. These are becoming more prevalent, with traceability and accountability.

VSD: How do you design your systems for OEM product obsolescence?
Munster: Customers should consider the camera system as an asset and therefore keep in mind potential redeployment options in the future. Redeployment and retooling are definitely new buzz words on the manufacturing floor. Many of the smart cameras can be upgraded to newer versions of software and firmware. Sometimes for upfront incremental cost, the customer can purchase a platform that is more versatile for future use rather than for the immediate application. We have redeployed obsolete camera systems for new applications due to customer budget constraints. Obviously we need to determine in advance if this hardware and software will meet the requirements and if it can be integrated efficiently. Sometimes, a current camera system will offer more advanced software tools that will reduce integration time and therefore lower overall cost of the project.

VSD: In which areas do you see the most growth? What are users demanding from you in the design of new systems?
Munster: Smart camera systems still seem to dominate most factory floors. These systems are becoming easier to use, and the hardware cost continue to go down. While PC-based systems seem to be entering the main stream as customers become more camera savvy, they are still more difficult to deploy and maintain. The bottom line is customers are always demanding the most cost-effective solution to solve their problems. I think they realize more today than they did five years ago that cost of ownership is much more important than up-front cost.

VSD: How will OEM components have to change to meet future needs?
Munster: I think future-proofing projects is something that will help the longevity of any product. Many of the components we use are very versatile. Vision applications change so much from design to implementation that we need components that can change with the application.

VSD: How do you think that the machine-vision market differs in different national or international regions?
Munster: Typically we stay with North America. From an integrator or machine-builder aspect we see regulations as about the only major difference. Several of the principles and technologies are common across the world. Differences from national and international regions have more to do with understanding regulations and certifications than key differences in technologies or their application. It is much like going from plant to plant—each customer has its own set of requirements and standard practices.

VSD: What new markets and technologies do you see for your company in the future?
Munster: The company is growing into more of a service-oriented company rather than a machine builder or system integrator. We have found that we can serve more markets and customers by providing them with “vision experts” as opposed to providing a single machine or camera installation. I see us growing to meet the demand for applications that use PC-based systems. We have geared up to service and supply this technology in the future. Our value to customers is being able to solve their machine-vision problems regardless of platform. If we can come in and work on any type of system they have, we will always add value.

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