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The Nuts and Bolts of Choosing an Integrator

POSTED 06/04/2008  | By: Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor

Search the Automated Imaging Association’s archive for articles on ‘‘choosing an integrator’‘ and you’ll pull up several very useful articles that look at why paying for a consultant is a good return on investment, with arguments supported by discussions of the many disciplines involved in a successful machine vision system. This year, we’re going deeper, exploring specific points that can help companies with little or no machine vision expertise to find the right guide for their journey.

The one common theme that all integrator selection stories must have is the starting point: the application itself. Every machine vision solution begins with a close look at the application, and defining the parameters that will lead to success.

Application First
‘‘It should all start with a functional specification, and if you’re smart, you’ll do it yourself rather than letting the integrator do it,’‘ explains Nello Zuech, principle machine vision consultant at Vision Systems International (Yardley, Pennsylvania) and noted vision author.

Zuech’s company offers a free questionnaire that defines the functional specification by asking an exhaustive list of questions that probe the physical measurements and parameters relevant to the application, product, process and constituent components. When the engineer completes the questionnaire, the functional specification has essentially been completed. ‘‘If you don’t feel you the have expertise to fill out the questionnaire, that’s when a consultant can help,’‘ says Zuech. ‘‘Many system integrators will produce an equipment list in response to an RFP without a functional specification, and the equipment list is often based on the components that the integrator uses the most, rather than the components that are best to solve your application. If you approve an equipment list, you can end up spending a lot of money for a system that cannot solve your application.’‘

After you have completed the functional specification, do a few quick Google searches on the type of application and see how many machine vision vendors the search produces. This step isn’t to find your integrator, but to determine how common your application is.

‘‘If you’re dealing with an application that’s been replicated numerous times, such as looking at labels or bottle caps, then you can find a ‘point and shoot’ integrator,’‘ adds Zuech. ‘‘But if your product or how you produce your product is unique, then you need a more skilled integrator, someone that has the multidisciplinary talents in optics, lighting, programming, interfacing and system design under one roof. Zuech, who has followed the machine vision market for years, keeps a database of 700 U.S.-based machine vision integrators. Out of the 700, he estimates that only 40 have the full range of talents to handle a ‘‘unique’‘ machine vision application.

The Test Drive
Once the application is well defined, and you’ve determined whether Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) vision systems can solve the problem or a more unique solution is required, start looking at the vision integrators bidding on your project.

Markus Tarin, President of machine vision integrator moviMED (Irvine, California), says to look at the company, including: the number of employees, number of existing projects under development and support, the company’s partnerships and professional affiliations. ‘‘There are a lot of single-men integrators out there, and problems can arise if they have multiple clients and you need support when they’re stretched thin.’‘ While moviMED does not define a full Service Level Agreement as is common to the telecom industry, for instance, his company does commit in writing to on-site support within 24 to 48 hours, depending on where the client is located. ‘‘We’ve made international calls within 48 hours,’‘ Tarin says.

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Zuech adds that an in-person meeting at the integrator’s facility is also a good idea. ‘‘See if they have an optical bench, a wide selection of components, cameras, lights and optics, as proof that they’re familiar with different vendors’ product lines, and not just using a single company’s solutions’‘ – the type of integrators that Zuech calls ‘‘point and shoot’‘ integrators because they use well-developed vision software and hardware to solve common vision tasks.

End-to-End Quality
Many machine vision hardware and software suppliers are known for having specific expertise, such as producing quality CMOS or Gigabit Ethernet cameras for fast applications, or line scan cameras for scanning and web applications, color cameras, LEDs, and so forth. Tarin suggests that you look at the equipment that the integrator suggests using and make sure that it is of good quality and readily available in your area in case you need a replacement. Again, trade publications via the Internet can be a great tool for finding out what experts and users think about specific product lines.

The integrator’s software selections, both the image processing software and the application development environment, become more important as the application grows in complexity. ‘‘If you’re running two separate software packages – one for the vision system, and the other for the GUI – software updates for one system can cause interface problems with the other, leading to a support nightmare,’‘ explains Tarin. The same is true of systems that have to interface with external systems, such as PLCs and robots.

‘‘Many integrators do not want to take responsibility for vision systems that interface with robots, for example, for liability and support reasons,’‘ Tarin says. ‘‘One of the reasons we like to use National Instrument’s LabVIEW is because it provides a single interface while including drivers for many peripherals from many different suppliers. So we can take ownership of systems – like robot guidance – that depend on tighter integration between components for a robust solution.’‘

Finally, don’t overlook training and support. While smart integrators will include error flags that technicians can understand, and provide easy to understand documentation for troubleshooting, this isn’t always the case.

‘‘Ask to see what their manuals and documentation look like,’‘ explains VSI’s Zuech. ‘‘Are they complete and comprehensive and reflect the unique nature of the application, or are they just the equipment vendors’ manuals?’‘

Quality training and support are benefits for both smart integrators as well as the customer. ‘‘We train the engineering department during installation so they understand how the system works and how it’s configured, and then we train the operators after the system is installed so they won’t mistake normal operation for an error,’‘ explains moviMED’s Tarin. ‘‘Providing good documentation, including wiring diagrams, maintenance tasks, and a spare part catalog makes the customer less dependent on us, and makes support easier because a better understanding of the system makes it easier for them to convey to us the source of any problem that might arise.’‘