In the not too distant past, machines that could “see” were the stuff of science fiction. Today, machine vision is a “must have” technology in a growing number of motion systems, supporting high-level manufacturing goals such as overall equipment effectiveness and real-time performance management.

In just two decades, machine vision technology has gone mainstream, aided by advances in computing and optical materials. It's also moving beyond its traditional foothold in semiconductor and automotive manufacturing, gaining ground in all sorts of industrial automation processes. For those who have yet to embrace vision, the only question is, “What are you waiting for?”

Starting now, Motion System Design is bringing you a new series called “Lessons in Vision.” With an emphasis on applied sensing, we plan to provide you with an in-depth look at the various elements of a complete vision system, from optics and lenses to cables and connectors. The information you find here will help you select the right camera, best lighting source, most efficient network, and user-friendly software tools. It will also help you make perhaps the biggest decision of all, whether to use a smart camera or a PC-based system.

One area where machine vision is sure to become more vital is in consumer goods packaging. Here, the benefits of vision include improved product quality, less waste, and the ability to more easily meet regulatory requirements. In fact, industries ranging from medical to food and beverage are already beginning to reap the benefits of machine vision, especially safety and security.

Industries pressed to meet strict regulatory compliance for tracking, tracing, validation, and product identification are also turning to the technology. As regulatory requirements become increasingly demanding in the pharmaceutical, food, and automotive industries, machine vision technology, again, offers viable solutions. In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, machine vision applications include label identification, safety seal verification, date and lot code verification, tablet sorting, and color ID.

In addition to safety issues, direct parts marking — a.k.a. industrial ID — is required in a growing number of areas where serial numbers must survive for the life of each part. Some of the industries that regularly use direct parts marking include aerospace and defense, automotive, electronics, fabricated metal, healthcare, and semiconductor. Industrial ID used with production management tools can trace components and subcomponents back to supply chain partners, to help with critical issues such as product liability, warranty costs, regulatory issues, and costs savings in general.

As manufacturers increasingly adopt machine vision into their production process, significant investment is being poured into improving the technology on all fronts. The latest machine vision solutions are all you might expect and then some — better imaging technologies, more compact electronics, faster networks, and lower cost. Perhaps 2007 is the year to consider specing some machine vision into your next design challenge.

Technical content provided by Himanshu Shah of ARC Strategies, Boston. More information is available at www.arcweb.com.

Business initiative Potential role of machine vision
Overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) Improve yield and production rates
Product lifecycle management (PLM) Identify and track individual parts and critical components
Improve return on assets (ROA) Automate inspection to improve productivity and reduce waste by improving quality, detecting machinery problems, minimizing product overfill
Real-time performance management (RPM) Monitor degradation of production equipment
Lean manufacturing Provide information for process optimization for continuous improvement; reduce waste; reduce scrap rate; reduce process delay
Flexible manufacturing Parts identification to change production parameters with vision guided robotics or enable quick changeover
Safety Ensure integrity of package and contents; enable remote control operation in hazardous environments
Six sigma Measure products and feed data in real-time for analysis and process adjustments
Regulatory compliance Software tools to comply with FDA requirements for secure access, electronic record keeping and electronic signatures; database for audit trails and logs; digital fingerprint