Today’s cameras are cheaper, smaller, and more capable than ever before. Without breaking the budget, a company manager who needs products inspected can buy a camera, quickly code in commands to recognize an object, bracket the device above a production line, and begin capturing images.
Machine vision customers are also expecting ease of use in production-line vision products, as well as the installation process. Users want high performance without a high requirement for expertise.
To put it simply: Simplicity.
As part of Imaging Technology’s OEM Camera Directory & Guide, we look at three technology factors that are simplifying the imaging process for customers: System integrators, smart cameras, and software.
The whole package of camera and machine vision technologies is getting more compact and more powerful. What used to be a cumbersome camera that needed a lot of wires, software, and sensors now only requires a small footprint of a device. As customers seek simplicity and ease of use, analysts have seen a continuing growth in a consolidated, more intelligent product: the smart camera.
A traditional camera requires a processor — usually a computer. With a smart camera, however, all of the processing is done in the unit itself. A typical smart camera has a lens on the front, along with an Ethernet port on the back, which can go straight into a user’s network.
The appeal of the smart camera is that it is cheaper and easier to use; the technology is hosted in one unit. No cables are needed because everything is connected internally. Thanks to low-power multicore processors, the simplified cameras also have improved megapixel capability, higher speeds, as well as plugand- play functionality. Customers can simply run an Ethernet cord, FireWire, or USB from their computers housing the program software.
“There are units that can easily fit into your hand that are actually very clever, which, at one time, took one or two people to pick up,” said John Morse, senior market analyst at the Wellingborough, England-based IMS Research.
If a customer needs to inspect a given product, he or she can prop a smart camera on a bracket, point it at the object, and, in effect, self-teach the device. Pressing a “Teach” button on many cameras, for example, will allow the technology to store a product in its memory, and enable the device to recognize products coming down the line that do not meet the programmed specification.
Alexander Shikany, director of market analysis at the Ann Arbor, MI-based Association for Advancing Automation (A3) — the umbrella association over Robotic Industries Association (RIA), AIA (Advancing Vision & Imaging), and Motion Control Association (MCA), which represents over 650 automation organizations — said that the smart cameras today are more powerful and simpler to use.
The smart camera architecture has a more compact volume compared to a PC-based vision system, and a simple — in some cases, absent — user interface. The consolidated architecture has led customers to use them for less demanding applications, such as inspection, said Shikany.
“In the machine vision industry, a smart camera may be likened to an iPad in the PC world,” he said. “While they are often used for simpler applications, advancements in technology have kept their hardware competitive with other machine vision systems in today’s market.”
Developments in imaging software have enabled the “self-teaching” capabilities of the smart camera. Machinery from manufacturers like Cognex, Microscan, or National Instruments, for example, allows users to point a camera at an object, press a button, and set parameters so that the machine can accept or reject it based on its characteristics. “Almost, kids can program it,” said Morse.
Slick software writers have come up with the software that allows users to generate 3D images, and check them against a standard shape, in order to determine a go or no-go product in an assembly line.