Machine vision systems are more affordable as volumes rise and the semiconductors that perform complex algorithms move data faster while trimming costs. That's opening up new markets—companies that don't have vision experts can use vision hardware.
The Automated Imaging Association in Ann Arbor, MI, says the worldwide market is $6.6 billion, with the U.S. accounting for $1.6 billion. Average revenue will grow at 9 percent while unit shipment will rise at 10 percent, underscoring equipment price decrease.
Some of that growth is coming in new markets, where cost and complexity have been roadblocks. Edwards Life Sciences of Irvine, CA, is finalizing a robotic system that sews together a number of incompatible components used to make a heart valve for humans. Machine vision is critical for pinpointing positions of the various elements, allowing the company to slash assembly process to a few minutes—down from 8 hours of manual sewing.
That could herald a shift for medical manufacturing facilities, which remain largely manual operations. "Medical devices haven't lent themselves to advanced manufacturing because of the low volumes," says Roger Ekholm, senior director for global manufacturing at Edwards. Declining prices make it feasible to develop automated systems, he adds.
Ease of use is also a factor for a technology that has many complex tasks such as lighting and focusing. In the recent release of its Intellect downloadable software, DVT Corp. of Duluth, GA, stressed simplicity. "We want to make it easier for first- time users to set up their systems and get going," says Steve Gieseking, R&D director.
Lower costs also allow those who already use vision to place more systems on a production line, improving quality. General Electric Co. uses vision on a jet engine that has 80 subassemblies, each with four parts.
The company improved quality by examining at individual stations instead of looking at the completed assembly. "That gives us the ability to see things we couldn't see with a wider field of view," says Robert Tait, research manager for inspection and manufacturing technology at GE's Niskayuna, NY facility.
In fields like aeronautics and automotive, which have complex products with many components, vision systems are increasingly seeing use for parts identification. Venture Development Corp. of Natick, MA, predicts that shipments of this type of 2D image readers will grow at 20 percent over the next four years, roughly triple the 6.5 percent rate for conventional laser bar code readers.
Cognex Corp. of Natick, MA, is making bar code and direct part mark identification readers a new thrust in its marketing. These vision systems must read small marks etched onto reflective metals, a task often made more complicated when dirt and grease obscure the markings.
Auto Automation: Cognex is focusing on marking and image reading.
As is often the case with complex technology, companies with roots in other applications were leading in providing lower-priced systems. Omron has developed low-cost vision sensors, such as its F500 sensor for high-resolution inspection of small and fast-moving products on a packaging or assembly line. Likewise, Banner Engineering has a complete line of vision sensors, including its PresencePLUS series.
Low pricing also opens the door for vision companies entering new markets. DVT recently acquired a company that supplied vision algorithms to the semiconductor market.