A Look into the Latest Applications in Vision and Imaging

With renewed emphasis in manufacturing on smart factories and Industry 4.0, and with expanding possibilities in commercial and end-user applications, vision and imaging technologies continue to thrive.

Vision and imaging technologies are found in a wide variety of markets as key enabling technologies for diverse automated processes. Industries like automobile manufacturing, food and beverage production/processing, and logistics — among others — continue to be primary users of these components. However, in recent years, vision and imaging technologies have emerged as drivers for many applications outside of industry. Notably, of course, vision technology is helping to automate assisted- and self-driving vehicles, but automated imaging also is found in agriculture, retail, consumer products, security, mobile robots, and many other areas.

New Applications Leverage Advanced Components and Software

It is perhaps obvious that new applications tend to arise from enhanced capabilities offered by evolving components and software. “New” implementations for vision and imaging technology are not sudden changes in the application base but are more the result of a steady progression of development as the technology becomes more reliable and mature.  

One of the best new uses for vision and imaging technology is in machine tending. Aided by 3D- machine vision systems, robots can grasp randomly oriented parts from bins and present them to automated machining or processing equipment.

This specific application is particularly well suited for the technology, as it typically involves processing only one part type at a time. And the materials and geometries of the parts requiring machining make it easier for robots to locate and grip them. In addition, many 3D imaging software solutions are targeted specifically for bin picking in machine tending, promoting ease of use and flexibility of the application.

While also not brand new, another often talked about technology—hyperspectral imaging—has generated a variety of new applications in wide-ranging markets, including industrial automation, food processing, and pharmaceutical production. For example, hyperspectral cameras can detect chemical content much like a laboratory spectrometer can, so they can successfully detect incorrect pills in a drug packaging operation. Similarly, such a system can be used in an automated process to remove spoiled or damaged food products. The technology has thrived outside of industrial automation in the drone-based field analysis of crops to detect drought and disease.

While there are many more examples of these maturing applications, some applications are truly cutting edge. They are not yet broadly realized but show promise for the future.

Cutting-Edge Applications of the Future

Again leveraging evolving vision and imaging technologies, applications in direct retail sales are slowly being developed and rolled out. A very visible effort is in Amazon Go stores, where cameras, other sensing devices, and complex AI software track selections and execute cashier-less purchases. This application is being propagated by other businesses and with different paradigms, such as coolers that automatically track outgoing product.

Also cutting edge but potentially ready for growth is the use of vision and imaging technology in automated robotic harvesting of food products in the field. Some small implementations are not yet completely robust but are showing promise. There even are entire “industrial agriculture” facilities, where robots plant, transplant, and harvest fruits and vegetables in controlled indoor environments.

Traditional Applications Remain Rock Solid

In parallel with this discussion of new and cutting-edge applications, it is important to remember that vision and imaging technologies deliver rock-solid performance in millions of cases globally and have been doing so for decades. A3 reports that the machine vision market in North America rebounded in Q4 2020 to achieve near record levels of component sales. Global market results were similar. The year 2021 started strong for vision and imaging as well. And most sales were for traditional applications in automation, such as inspection, defect detection, measurement, and guidance/location.

Bottom line: Do not overlook the ability of vision and imaging technology to immediately provide great value, improved production, and enhanced quality in many existing and proven applications, and watch for new and cutting-edge uses for these technologies.