India, Asia Turn to Machine Vision
| By: Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor
During the last 10 to 15 years, developed markets in the U.S. and Europe have increasingly outsourced manufacturing and packaging business to China, South Korea, Taiwan, and India to benefit from lower labor costs and less government regulations. But as these regions have become the manufacturing hub for the world, increased demand and quality concerns are prompting these countries to look at new automation technologies to keep up with customer requirements. As a result, machine vision usage is growing across many industries from textiles to pharmaceuticals.
MV Applications in China, India
“For the past 10 years, our company has served the Chinese automation market,” explains Jin Pan, Deputy General Manager, Chief Engineer at China Daheng Group Inc. (Beijing, China). “We…focus on five fields: printing quality in product packages and official documents such as currency, which have different requirements so we define them as separate markets; beverage and bottling; pharmaceuticals; and textiles. China is a large potential market for machine vision, and its adoption has increased rapidly in recent years. There are several reasons - requirements on quality are higher than before and human costs are increasing day after day.”
Machine vision bellwether supplier, Cognex Corporation (Natick, Massachusetts), adds that China was the best performing region around the world for its products. “From a geographic perspective…Asia, including China, was our best performer. In the first quarter of 2011, factory automation revenue from Asia increased by 55% year on year, compared to 33% year on year growth in Europe and 24% in the Americas,” says Didier Lacroix, Cognex Senior Vice President, Worldwide Sales & Marketing. “…The rate and the level of adoption really differ depending on the industry landscape in each country. For example, adoption of machine vision in the electronic products industry is very low in India compared to South Korea. Yet in India, adoption levels are increasing in automotive, consumer products, and pharmaceuticals.”
While machine vision experts say that India is farther behind the machine vision adoption curve than China, and much farther behind compared to South Korea and Japan, Anish Soneja, CEO of MENZEL Vision & Robotics Pvt Ltd (Mumbai, India) says that early adoption is happening and growing. “Presence/absence vision applications followed by quality inspections are the mainstay of the applications we’ve seen during the past 15 years. However, with India getting more integrated as a Global Manufacturing Hub since 2008, attracting more manufacturers from the West and also the East, the increased production levels prompted by an increased domestic consumption and combined with growing labor costs are resulting in more advanced systems, including robots, being deployed in India. Guidance applications seem to be on the rise.”
“There's a growing demand for 3D vision for the automotive and engineering industries, continues Soneja. “We have also witnessed a fresh interest on surface inspection for metal sheets and rolls, and for collapsible tubes used for medical ointments, toothpaste and personal care products. [During] the last decade, India has made remarkable progress in printing and packaging, serving markets in the Middle East and South East Asia, which has generated demand for print inspection solutions. Finally, in the pharmaceutical industry there is increased focus on inspection systems for blister packing more so than vial filling. Track and trace solutions to control counterfeit medical drugs will open up a whole new world of good business for the players in the automation industry.”
Despite the growth of manufacturing in India in recent years, luring manufacturing interests to its shores could be more difficult in the future if the government doesn’t make more effort to improve the countries infrastructure, says Dave Coleman, Director of Sales, Asia for PPT Vision (Bloomington, Minnesota). “While some vision companies have had offices in India for years, it’s still really a new market that’s growing. But the government is going to have to step up the infrastructures and power improvements, just like China started 10 years ago.”
Vision Sensors, PC’s Dominate
As one might expect, emerging markets are most interested in low-cost, low-complexity machine vision systems. As such, so-called ‘vision sensors,’ offering a limited number of functions and capability, are the most common machine vision system installed in India. “The level of automation in China is lower than Europe/US/Japan, so the technology used is quite ‘simple’ compared to [developed markets],” explains Philip Fan, Sales and Marketing Manager for Distributed Products, Beijing Microview Science and Technology Col, Ltd. (Beijing, China). “So customers pay more attention to performance and price ratio, and prefer to choose acceptable, proper, and cheap products.”
According to MENZEL Vision’s Soneja, “In China we see more smart cameras being shipped with most of the plant and machinery that include a vision system -- probably for easier maintenance in overseas markets. In India smart cameras are yet considered expensive so have an approximately 30% market share as compared to PC based vision solutions. Also, with a great software programming talent pool in India, it makes more commercial sense to try sell more solutions that are PC based instead of those that are smart camera based.”
Cost continues to be a challenge and driving factor when it comes to choosing a vision system platform. “In Asia and India, the low-end vision sensor market is really taking off because of the low price,” adds PPT Vision’s Coleman. “We see more packaged machine vision systems based on PCs because you can buy the components cheaper in India and China than you can buy a smart camera from the U.S. or Europe. Companies can buy ‘white box’ PCs very cheaply in the region compared to smart camera platforms. Plus, many customers have little regard for software licenses. Not all, but in some cases, if a company can crack a vision software’s license code, they’ll use that software across their company and install it on PCs.”
Machine Vision’s Eastern Future
In low-cost labor markets, the overriding challenge for machine vision remains proving the benefits compared to the cost of the system.
“The greatest challenges we face are how to tell the users the function and value of vision systems. Most of our customers anticipate higher quality for vision inspection and hope it can replace all manual inspection, and at the same time, they want low cost,” explains China Daheng Group’s Pan.
Today, Indian and Chinese manufacturers prefer to avoid machine vision unless the vision systems requirements are forced on them by the end customer, according to MENZEL Vision’s Soneja. “When work can be done manually, why invest in automation? In addition to the higher cost, India applies a 26% duty on imported automation equipment, which can be made worse by currency valuation changes between India and China and supplier countries. There is some amount of lack in vision about need for speed, reliability and quality and its direct linkage to good automation. Multinational companies demand the solutions that are working in their other overseas plants. We also have situations where German companies demand German vision systems and Japanese companies ask for Japanese systems regardless of whether these systems have after-sales support infrastructure available in India.”
According to PPT Vision’s Coleman, the lower cost of domestic optics, cameras, and PCs means that many manufacturing equipment prototypes are reengineered in China, for example, to user lower cost components. Unfortunately, this can lead to support and efficiency problems, which can lead Chinese manufacturers to install the systems at the end users request, but then bypass the systems for production.
While demand is growing for machine vision in India, China and other parts of Asia, vision suppliers must deal with sticker-shock, possible IP threats, and the difficulties of supporting vision systems half a world away. Luckily, the digital age of web meetings and online support are helping to bridge the gap and as Asia’s manufacturing sector grows, it will inevitably feel the productivity challenges brought on by growing labor costs, and increasing global customer demand for quality products.