How Does Smarter Machine Vision Technology Affect System Integration Companies?
| By: Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor
As smart sensors and cameras make it easier to solve industrial problems with machine vision technology, some might question the future of a professional integrator. But integrators say smarter technology makes their future look even brighter.
The machine vision industry is evolving rapidly. While industry insiders may look at sensor, smart camera, microprocessor, and network product roadmaps and wish for a new “killer app” that will exponentially drive the market forward, it’s easy to forget the “wow factor” that lies outside machine vision’s core.
Less than five years ago, bin picking was a 50/50 proposition. Visual servoing, or using machine vision systems to track and manipulate moving targets, was still a distant dream. Reach back a few more years, and no one would have believed that machine vision technology could be found in the pocket of most humans walking the Earth (in their cell phones) and in nearly every video game console. Today, these developments seem commonplace.
These macro-market changes hide the exponential gains in machine vision power, intelligence, and simplicity. Such gains are helping to reshape the relationship between customer, distributor, OEM, and integrator. But instead of posing a threat to system integrators — as USB and Ethernet posed to analog cameras, for example — integrators are embracing smarter machine vision technology, and how the technology is empowering customers and distributors alike to do what only integrators could do a few years ago: build successful machine vision solutions.
Smarter Tech Means More Business
“We have a group of a dozen vision engineers or so who do nothing but build machine vision solutions,” says Steve Wardell, director of imaging at ATS Automation (Cambridge, Ontario, Canada), an AIA Certified System Integrator company. Although ATS Solutions is a factory-wide automation solutions provider, Wardell’s group works exclusively on machine vision.
“We tend to work on applications where you can’t just throw a couple of tools together and say, ‘Go,’” he notes. “That said, the proliferation of tools out there like smart sensors and smart cameras means that you don’t have to have a vision engineering background to be able to field a successful machine vision system for lower-end applications with less complexity. In some cases, our other engineering and sales groups are able to use smart sensors to solve vision applications themselves. We have a huge controls group, and more and more often, they’re able to solve machine vision applications without using my vision engineers or an advanced-level Certified Vision Professional (CVP) with specialized knowledge.”
“Our industry is always evolving, and it actually helps the industry as a whole that distributors have their own expertise in-house to assist customers with simple applications,” says Nicholas Tebeau, manager, Vision Solutions Product Group for LEONI Engineering Products and Services Inc. (Lake Orion, Michigan), an AIA Certified System Integrator company. “These applications are typically not the kinds we would proactively go after anyway due to their simplicity. When distributors and OEMs that sell directly to end users come up against a tough application, they usually bring us in.
“The distributor’s efforts help spread successful machine vision applications through industry,” Tebeau continues. “And that’s good for everybody because as more companies get comfortable with machine vision, it reduces the fear they may have for bigger projects. We saw the same thing with robotics a few years ago, and look how the robotics industry has exploded recently.”
Brian Durand, owner of i4 Solutions, LLC (St. Paul, Minnesota), another AIA Certified System Integrator company, agrees that hardware and software vendors are smart to focus on solutions. “We’ve all been listening to the same consultants saying, ‘Customers want solutions, not widgets,’” Durand says. “Occasionally, you’ll come across a customer who thinks that thanks to smarter vision technology, every machine vision problem has a software solution. They incorrectly think that you can take a kid out of school, show them where to point and click in some vision software application, and they’ll solve the problem. But it doesn’t work like that. Yes, the younger generation is great at figuring out how to use technology, like cell phones. But if you ask them how the cell phone works, they have no idea. Today, anyone can write code. But it takes a lot of experience to learn about machine vision algorithms, optics, lighting, and all the other stuff that goes into a successful system.”
Training Discussions Offer Integrator Insights
Explaining the need for machine vision expertise can be easier than locating it, however. Labor shortages fueled by growing machine vision demand, rather than an aging workforce, give further proof of a healthy machine vision integrator market. And talking with integrators about how they acquire new talent says a lot about the company, their expertise, and technical depth.
“There’s a challenge transferring technical knowledge from older machine vision engineers who have it to the younger workers who want to make a new career,” says i4 Solutions’ Durand. “I’m looking for someone right now, and you’d love for that candidate to be at least a basic-level Certified Vision Professional, but you can’t find CVPs just anywhere. And if we do, we will still have to do a lot of training with that new person to bring them up to speed.”
Because i4 Solutions mainly performs machine vision retrofits on packaging equipment, “it goes a long way if you understand packaging equipment and how it works,” Durand notes.
LEONI’s Tebeau admits that finding qualified integration talent is tricky business. “That’s why it is so helpful that we’re a certified school of learning in the state of Michigan that focuses on automation training,” he says. “We take people who have desirable skill sets in controls, robots, or software, and we train them. I know OEMs that spend three months training their salespeople on their equipment before they will let them make the first sales call, and that’s just for selling equipment, not solutions. This is a big part of why LEONI is opening a second training facility in Nashville, Tennessee this summer.”
Corporate size helps ATS Automation keep a solid cadre of experienced vision engineers while using other departments and partners for lower-end applications. “Most of our vision specialists have been with us 15 or 20 years,” Wardell says. “The complexity and diversity of the applications help keep the best engineers interested. When we do need new people, AIA’s CVP program is great for setting a benchmark for comparing individuals.”
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