Clearly there are a range of issues with “smart cameras.” However, one may still be right for you – either today or even into the future. Yet, at this point you should be keenly aware of their various shortcomings - clear of advertising bias - to make an educated decision.
Contributed by | Boulder Imaging
When it comes to machine vision, “smart camera” use is widespread. There are a number of reasons for this. “Smart cameras” excel at addressing highly constrained, single-purpose manufacturing inspection. Instrumental in the proliferation of “smart cameras” is the idea that they address tasks that are generalized across industries, such as bar code reading, checking label alignment, etc. These kinds of single function tasks at reasonable production line speeds have proven a sound fit for “smart cameras.”
In addition, “smart camera” marketing presents an easily referenced and identified solution –they are easy to remember, simple, and convenient. However, as we all know, simplicity and ease of reference does not guarantee performance, intelligence, or achieving all of your inspection requirements.
What is clear is that most industries that can take advantage of simple inspection tasks utilizing “smart cameras” have already done so. And many companies that have implemented these solutions are experiencing serious limitations as they have outgrown their “smart camera” capabilities. “Smart camera” customers are realizing that the need for faster, more accurate, more intelligent inspection is sorely missing and is causing issues that affect their bottom-line.
So are “smart cameras” superior to all other methods of manufacturing inspection? Since they have a high profile they must be the best solution for pretty much every inspection need, right?
No, not at all.
“Smart cameras” have broad limitations. In order to determine if a “smart camera” is the best choice for you let’s take a look at some of their shortcomings and then you can decide for yourself.
1. What’s a “smart camera?”
“Smart cameras” lack a clear definition. There are no standards established around what a “smart camera” is. There’s no regulating body or association defining “smart camera” capabilities. The “smart camera” definition isn’t 100% clear to anyone and thus it has become a generic term. There are numerous vendors who work hard to proclaim their camera as smart due to its ability to do ‘something’ beyond visual data capture. But the notion of what a smart is certainly is not immediately identifiable.
Generally, we can conclude that “smart cameras” contain some kind of processing capability along with visual acquisition. What difference does this make? To figure out exactly what a particular “smart camera” is capable of delivering involves some serious investigating.
There are technical limitations to the functional and operational capabilities of “smart cameras.” One of the supposed benefits of “smart cameras” is their moderate per unit cost, but that comes with a tradeoff in capability. It is important to be aware of what you are losing by taking the “smart camera” route. You should carefully examine all features and functions including upgradability, performance, process and environmental variability, interoperability, scalability, and compatibility – to name a few (see numbered items below). Significant processing and flexibility are lost through consolidating features into a camera that aren’t inherently native to camera technology.
3. Flexible and Adaptable Systems
How difficult is it to adjust to new inspection requirements, capacities, features, integration, or any other changes? “Smart cameras” combine hardware and software into one single-purpose system, therefore a change to the environment typically has a significant negative impact. Given that manufacturing environments change, even minor adjustments can render a “smart camera” solution significantly less useful or totally obsolete. As referenced earlier, just the simple need to increase manufacturing production speed can be especially undermining to “smart camera” performance or basic usability.
Purchasing a solution that is static, and cannot scale, adjust, or adapt is not a long term or ‘smart’ solution.
4. Sales, Support, & Implementation
“Smart cameras” are typically sold through resellers/integrators. This has become a frequent reason for failed implementations. Since “smart cameras” normally make up only a portion of an integrator’s revenue, a specific implementation typically is not treated as core to their business. They may even drop one “smart camera” line for another, leaving you without a path for change down the road. Even with a large integrator base, re-establishing relationships is never easy.
Are questions surrounding inconsistency, unreliability, and commitment (to name a few) elements that you want in a quality control partner? Keep in mind that if you require customization – which is extremely common – these factors become even more critical as your relationship with the vendor intensifies.
5. Scalability & Distribution
When you need to examine multiple processes, inspect multiple items, have multiple lines, distribute inspection data (visual and/or statistical), integrate one system with others, and/or archive data, a “smart camera” system will not meet those requirements.
Passing data from system to system for complex decision making through a distributed implementation is not possible with “smart cameras.” Do you want to keep track of previous inspection data, origination data, or other metadata associated with inspection activity, and then take action based upon all the distributed information? This is definitely not a job for “smart cameras.”
6. Process Control
“Smart cameras” often do not provide feedback to machinery, handling, notification to operators (via messaging or alerting), or actual machine regulation (line control), without integrating their output into a more robust processing system. Their ability typically lies in the realm of pass-fail capability.
“Smart cameras” cannot keep pace with the processing and throughput requirements of many high speed manufacturing lines.
8. Complex Problems & Analytics
Although “smart cameras” continue to advance technically, they cannot deal with highly complex inspection challenges. Examining alignment or color or other straight forward inspection items is viable. However, when challenges require multi-faceted inspection, “smart cameras” cease to be smart.
If complex decisions are required, “smart cameras” are not a viable path to pursue. The ability to embed intensive analytical capability on board a camera (features such as categorization, learning/training, and multiple types of inspection) is not possible. If you need thorough inspection that is truly robust and if you consider combining that with high speed, there is no way for a “smart camera” to execute successfully. Intensive analytics require raw processing power which isn’t possible in camera form factors.
9. Strategic, Tactical & Operational Intelligence
A “smart camera” is unable to inform enterprise wide decision making. Data that they acquire is not able to educate management regarding corporate wide macro (financial) health. The ability to store, aggregate, and report upon data is not possible with a “smart camera.” In terms of real time knowledge and awareness, an organization obtains no insight into materials consumption, trends, output, capacity, costs, etc. “Smart cameras” do not provide feedback regarding process control and systemic improvements. They do not provide data which advances knowledge and informs behavior to improve processes, decision making, and future projects.
“Smart cameras” – work on manufacturing lines at the level of a specific, typically single-purpose function. If you want to truly leverage your quality inspection system, you will find “smart cameras” fall significantly short of providing multi-layered organizational benefits.
Since “smart cameras” are singular, non-modular devices, upgrading a component in order to keep pace with technological advances isn’t simple. This factor alone seriously diminishes the useful life and the notion of ‘smart’ – especially with respect to their design. Even with minor upgrades, the ability to rework camera technology is not trivial. This non-modular, environmentally unfriendly (throw-away) approach is neither sustainable nor fiscally prudent.
11. Tightly Integrated
Various companies make claims that they have integration capabilities with their “smart cameras.” These claims center on the ability of the camera to work with items such as lighting. This is extremely deceptive, as an inability for any camera to work with light triggers would mean that they are not conforming to simple industry requirements. Thus, the mention of the term “integrated” leads to a greater question about what integration really means to your manufacturing environment.
12. Solution Versus Camera
“Smart camera” vendors approach challenges from the perspective that smart cameras will solve any inspection requirement. This prejudice biases them with respect to developing a solution that best fits your needs. Vendors are looking to determine how the problem can be solved with a “smart camera” and a few other components that they piece together. In sharp contrast, a true analysis examines the entire challenge to determine an appropriate technological solution to address your specific business problems now and into the future. Shoehorning a solution does little to create real value.
In some cases, it is very simple to add value by adding a “smart camera” to your environment. However, by taking a few more steps beyond “smart camera” capability, real value is created through implementing a truly comprehensive and integrated solution.
13. Aggregated Operational Awareness
Integrating highly detailed information regarding all aspects of your operation is critical for decision making and, most importantly, process improvements. It is this kind of data that allows you to approach your suppliers with factual information about sourcing adjustments, materials quality, etc. You can also provide information to those responsible for operations to obtain consensus on adjustments to process, design, or other improvements. That’s a power you cannot find in any “smart camera” solution.
This makes clear the reasons companies who are serious about reliable automated inspection have steered away from “smart cameras.” “Smart cameras” are generic and limited inspection devices. They are less-than-robust when it comes to performance, resulting in slower line speed and unnecessary and frequent false positives.
Ultimately there’s no need for your quality control and production to be held hostage to the limitations inherent in “smart cameras.” We are in a rapidly changing business environment with production demands in a very fluid state. Your inspection system must be able to adjust to different requirements with ease. Adaptability to meet growth requirements is critical. When you need highly accurate, high-speed solutions you must have components, such as cameras and lighting, that are designed specifically for that purpose along with analytic and processing capabilities that are built on platforms capable of dealing with diverse inspection needs, speed, and large volumes of data.
So, after detailing out the major limitations, what is the alternative? What choices exist for machine vision manufacturing inspection and quality control? The answer: Intelligent Machine Vision solutions.
Intelligent Machine Vision solutions offer a tremendous value. They are multifunctional, purpose built, technically mature, and are easily deployable. They are the platform of the future for metrology, quality control inspection, and defect detection. These solutions focus on open architecture design, scalability, flexibility, and best of breed hardware and software to maximize system optimization.
The scalable design of Intelligent Machine Vision solutions delivers a high degree of flexibility and ability to tightly match individual components to specific applications. Scalable design also provides for upgrading and repurposing, if needed, without overhauling an entire solution –making for product longevity and a high ROI. Finally, it is the use of a scalable, open-architecture design that achieves true interoperability among systems.
Obtaining actionable intelligence through integrative communication is another central element in defining a system as an Intelligent Machine Vision solution. As a world leader in Intelligent Machine Vision solutions, Boulder Imaging states, “in the context of vision systems, integration is the ability to communicate with diverse systems as well as to use information when appropriate for proper action, such as moving defects off the line, or slowing down or stopping machinery until appropriate action has been taken.” After all, when something is wrong, continuing production typically is not the best idea.
Intelligent Machine Vision solutions communicate, process, store, exchange, forward, and manipulate information, enabling real-time dynamic and complex manufacturing and process control decision making. While “smart cameras” concentrate on minimization, Intelligent Machine Vision solutions focus on maximization. Leveraging and maximizing value is core to Intelligent Machine Vision solutions. Optimized solutions like this provide seamless inline inspection and tight process workflow implementations. Intelligent Machine Vision solutions provide extensive data aside from inspection, providing you with a tool for production and process control. Combining statistical data with details and categorization of defects enables educated, proactive measures to be taken to improve overall processes.
Clearly there are a range of issues with “smart cameras.” However, one may still be right for you – either today or even into the future. Yet, at this point you should be keenly aware of their various shortcomings - clear of advertising bias - to make an educated decision. After all, when it comes to product quality that directly impacts your personal and company’s success, you want to make an intelligent decision – not just a “smart” one.
If you require intelligence in your machine vision solution, Boulder Imaging has the answers. Boulder Imaging has taken 100% automated inspection to a whole new level. Whether fully automated and integrated in-line or manual off-line inspection, metrology (measuring) or ultra high speed inspection, in any industry, Boulder Imaging delivers. Boulder Imaging utilizes their flexible products as platforms (building blocks) in providing you with fully optimized solutions, matching your requirements and environment. With data archival and reporting as key components you now have an essential tool for managerial process control and improvement. And Boulder Imaging is well known for successfully implementing difficult inspection challenges that others just can’t handle - frequently replacing “smart cameras.” Boulder Imaging’s Intelligent Machine Vision solutions combine optimized hardware and software to make your environment automated and ensure peace of mind with 100% inspection.
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The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of RoboticsTomorrow
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