National Instruments (NI, www.ni.com) is extending its reach into machine vision, coming out with a low-cost system to bring vision to applications where it's been too expensive or difficult to implement.
Though vision has been largely an industry dominated by focused companies, it's seen by NI as an extension of its widely-used instrumentation technology. "This type of inspection is another measurement," says Jason Mulliner, machine vision marketing manager.
The company is entering a market that's currently struggling, seeing a 15% market decline during 2002, according to the Automated Imaging Association (AIA, www.machinevisiononline.org). However, the AIA predicts that the industry will grow at about 12% per year over the next five years, climbing from $1.5 billion last year.
NI hopes that low cost and simplicity will gain it market share as the market grows. A key aspect of NI's Compact Vision System is that it's easy to use. Simplicity is a big issue in vision systems, because there are usually many different components that have to work together to complete system. To help eliminate problems that can arise with components that aren't compatible, NI is sticking with PC-based standards.
The system's Vision Builder for Automated Inspection software addresses basic setups, letting users quickly get the system up and running. It also offers decision making capability for tasks such as pass-fail, as well as data logging, so engineers can store images, and data inspection when certain characteristics occur.
If engineers want to create more complex control software, they can do so using NI's LabVIEW 7 Express, a graphical development package that's designed to simplify programming. Using LabVIEW 7 lets design engineers build a customized user interface and integrate functions such as motion control and data acquisition with machine vision.
That program, unveiled by NI in May, was used to program FPGAs that help the system quickly process data-intensive vision images. "We use an FPGA to control the digital I/O, and we used LabVIEW 7 to program it," Mulliner adds.
Another factor that should help bring machine vision to new applications is the $2,995 price tag. Also driving down cost is the use of 1394 FireWire cameras, which takes advantage of consumer market deveolopments to slash pricing. The hardware leverages existing plug-and-play technology. For example, there are three 3-Gbit/sec 1394b ports on the unit, so users can easily plug in cameras using an interface that was designed for consumer devices.
Besides simplicity, using 1394 lets design engineers pick from a number of commercially available cameras. "There are over forty 1394 cameras available, so users can pick the resolution, speed, and price they want," says John Hanks, director of measurements marketing. Aiding developers is an Industrial Camera Advisor selection guide on the NI website.
Additionally 1394 is gaining solid acceptance in harsh factory environments. "It is shielded for noise immunity, it goes long distances, and it has hot plug-and-play," Mulliner says. And because it's deterministic, users with real time applications can use it in conjunction with LabVIEW RT to meet time-critical requirements.
Other I/O permits control of serial lines and static digital I/O modules, as well as interfacing with devices such as strobes and PLCs. The module has 15 digital inputs and 14 digital outputs, as well as Ethernet and RS-232 ports.