For the past few years the economy of India has been developing at an increasingly rapid pace. From 2002 to 2006, it grew at 7.5% a year, positioning the country as the fourth largest economy in the world, just behind Japan. The model for its growth has differed from the classic Asian strategy of exporting labor-intensive, low-priced manufactured goods to the West. Instead, India has relied for growth on its domestic markets more than exports, and high-technology more than low-skilled manufacturing. Implementation of machine-vision technology is just beginning, but as with so many other advances in this country, it is being fostered within India by component suppliers and system integrators.
The machine-vision industry is centered at the high-technology core of India, Bangalore, capital of the southern state of Karnataka. Many global companies have large research and sales centers for products they have developed in India, including Siemens, which, for example, has helped develop a vision system to check the thickness of cigarette paper, is optimizing camera systems for traffic monitoring, and is embedding more intelligence in security cameras.
Vision-system integrators around India are also seeing the advantage of local opportunities. For example, Apna Technologies & Solutions (Chennai) built a workstation for final testing of cell phones during production. The multifunction system includes visual inspection of the display, and checking backlight, speaker, clock battery, and magnet so that a cell-phone manufacturer could automate what was once a labor-intensive task. On the other hand, one-time system integrator Soliton Technologies decided to remake itself into a component manufacturer to supply cameras to a network of system integrators.
Ganesh Deveraj, managing director and CEO of Soliton Technologies (Bangalore), worked as a project scientist at a test engineering company in the U.S. before returning to India to start Soliton. He says that, because of the history of low demand for vision systems in the Indian market, there has been very little growth of system integrators and no recognized OEM suppliers. Although demand is rising, there is generally poor understanding of what requirements can be effectively addressed at what costs using machine vision. It will take a few years for the industry’s understanding and expectations to mature and for a set of established system integrators to emerge.
Yet Soliton decided to become the first Indian OEM supplier of machine-vision components, offering board-level cameras as well as complete cameras preloaded with application-specific image-processing algorithms running on the onboard FPGA. The company initially started providing machine-vision system-integration services in the Indian market in 1998. In 2003, it incorporated a subsidiary company in Milwaukee, WI, and started providing system-integration services in the U.S. market, achieving success in the automotive industry.
In 2004, Deveraj decided to manufacture machine-vision cameras and smart cameras and to address the growing Indian market by creating a network of geographically distributed system-integration partners. He is convinced that the Indian market will benefit from and be receptive to a domestic manufacturer of cameras with lower costs, a better understanding of local industry needs, and quicker support for repair or replacement. Deveraj knows that opportunities for machine vision are now primarily in regulated industries such as pharmaceuticals, industries in which quality demands are very high such as automotive and food processing, and in situations in which many manual inspectors can be replaced with one automated system, such as high-volume pencil inspection in which one automated system can replace 30 manual inspectors.
While factories have become highly automated in the developed countries, in India manual labor is still the rule. But with the cost of the cameras coming down and computing capabilities going up, new opportunities are emerging. As with other machine-vision companies in India, if it stays engaged with its customers and keeps an eye on technological developments that impact machine vision, Soliton should be able to deliver innovative products and applications that make a significant difference.
CONARD HOLTON is editor in chief of Vision Systems Design; e-mail: [email protected].