How do you think the new GigE standards will influence the machine vision industry?
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What are the key applications?
François Bertrand: The coming explosion is in digital signage. It's a huge driving force behind the lower cost of flat panels. The best way is with clever software and distributed hardware. They have no choice. They're spending advertising money to get people to the store and the showroom. Traditional media is suffering. The Tokyo subway has millions of riders each day—business people, students and shoppers. These people are interested in different things. There's a huge impetus in that alone.
Jeremy Chang: Identification technology is important in China. They are now following the United Kingdom model. The U.K. has cameras everywhere [built upon the threat of the Irish Republican Army years ago]. I just read a Beijing University research paper about the system at the airport where they can identify people. They launched it for the  Olympic Games. Identification for biometrics is another big trend for the future. For example, when you cross the border from Hong Kong to China, you [trigger] the fingerprint sensor with your right hand and swipe your ID card with your left. If you get a green light, you go through. If you get a red light, the police come. Cross-border checking biometrics is being implemented throughout Asia.
Ganesh Devaraj: We see widespread adoption of machine vision for automated inspection in the automotive and pharmaceutical industries. The electronics industry still imports fully finished machines with machine vision already incorporated and so not much activity happens in India. Food sorting and cotton contamination detection are two OEM applications that consume machine vision products.
Tjalling van Asbeck: All application sectors have shown a growth in the past years, but recently, the crisis in the semiconductor industry had a dramatic effect on the imaging market.
Frank Grube: Because of the strong electronics manufacturing base, electronic board, LED, flat panels or semiconductor inspection and pick-and-place machines are a big market in that region. Still, the classical machine vision inspection in production industries also plays a major role. Some countries also have a strong textile industry.
Are there specific projects/applications you can talk about?
Marc Damhaut: Most of the key applications revolve around the semiconductor and electronics industries. The flat panel display inspection market remains strong, specifically in South Korea and Taiwan where new applications such as solar cell inspection emerge.
Jeremy Chang: Some of our products in Asia are machine vision for flat-panel display—line scanners to inspect for flatness and defects. There are lots of biomed optics, such as DNA analyzers and virus analyzers [such as AIDS and other major viruses].
Ganesh Devaraj: Soliton is deploying its smart cameras for [mistake-proofing] tasks in the automotive and general manufacturing industries. Soliton also provides smart cameras based high-speed barcode readers for the pharmaceutical industry. Our FireWire cameras are used in robotic guidance applications besides a host of automated inspection systems.
Keith Reuben: Solar panels are just emerging. One solar technology is very similar to flat panels. Food inspection is becoming very important. From a technology perspective color inspection is gaining usage. At DALSA, we have other groups that address different markets. As an example, we have products and technologies that address the high-end photography market; In our semiconductor group we provide services for sourcing MEMS-based products and finally our medical products using our proprietary technology are a focus area for us.
Henry Chia: Line-scan applications for IC chip and PCB inspection, [along with] lead frame inspection and machine vision for electronics manufacturing.
Frank Grube: A good example of a successful migration from analog to digital interface with AVT cameras is supplied by an Indian company called Premier Evolvics. Premier is a key player in the textile industry, which is one of the major industries in India, and is specialized in quality inspection machines. For their cotton grading machines, they use machine vision to assess the quality of the raw material according to various criteria like color, trash particle rate and fiber length. We helped them migrate their system from an analog to a digital camera without increasing system cost. A critical point was that like most analog cameras, their legacy camera used an interlaced readout sensor, whereas digital cameras usually use progressive scan readouts.
Is business done any differently in Asia than in Europe or North America?
Marc Damhaut: Yes, there are clear cultural differences between countries and local presence and experience is the key to successful sales. Entertaining customers is still an important factor of the sales process in many countries. One should also pay attention to communication issues, and investing in the translation of marketing and product information may be required. Contacts, customer relationship and service are the keywords in Asia, where customers expect a high level of support and commitment from their suppliers. Due to the market at stake, the competition is now very keen.
Jeremy Chang: Business is different in ways other than culture. There's a currency issue. You have the U.S. dollar. The European Union has the Euro but in Asia every country has different currency. You have to be careful of that. Culture-wise, when you set up deals, be careful. We set up our first office in Shanghai in 1994. People promise everything, but when you sign the deal, it's different. When you negotiate, people don't want face-to-face confrontation. You need to handle it very delicately. A customer would never say no. They say they'll think about it or that they'll get back to you or just be very quiet. You have to listen for tone of voice, [or watch for] a sign or a gesture. When you're running global, you need to concentrate your business strategy in three areas: Asia, the U.S., and Europe—especially Asia in the next couple of years. Look at the latest numbers. Other countries are predicting no growth or negative growth. China is promising 8 percent growth. A lot of my friends in the U.K. and Europe who want to maintain business growth look to Asia to take advantage of this new market, especially in China. I would expect Asian trade shows to see a lot of overseas companies looking to establish themselves.
Ganesh Devaraj: The market in India is very price sensitive and the investment for quality assurance is still low compared to the advanced markets. Except for a few leading companies that set very high standards for their quality, most companies will not invest in machine vision unless it directly enables them to reduce their manpower cost and their payback in direct cost reduction is less than two years. Given that the cost of manual labor is low these companies tolerate the manual errors that happen in their inspection and unless pushed by their customers from abroad, they do not invest in machine vision. But as the cost of smart cameras gets lower steadily, the adoption is also increasing even if the camera is not reducing man-power costs but is providing better quality assurance.
Since the technology is new, the customers in India are very demanding that their integrator proves that the system works on their line before buying it. Only a few companies have their internal quality-control engineers trained in machine vision and smart camera deployment, and so they have to rely on external system integrators. Due to the demands that they place in terms of validation and support, this practice increases the overall cost of the deployment. Once the companies realize that smart cameras should be viewed as sophisticated sensors and they take up the deployment, the cost of deployments will reduce and the adoption will grow.
The competition is still not very high at this time. If the customer is very informed they may negotiate with multiple distributors, but at the system integrator level, the competition is not high.
Keith Reuben: We came out here to be closer to our customers. Relationships and personal contact are most important in Asian culture. A handshake is more important than a contract. Asian customers are more demanding of customer service—very demanding. They require total support, 24/7. On the other hand, you can create relationships on a high level that last for years. It's very different from doing business in the West. You have to be flexible and leave your previous perceptions back home.
Henry Chia: Asia is a very price-sensitive market. System integrators in Southeast Asia export their machines mainly to the global market, so they compete fiercely in terms of price and support. Hence, this keen competition also applies to how they source for their vision components.
Tjalling van Asbeck: The dynamics of doing business in the Asia-Pacific region are unique. In general, projects in Asia move forward much faster and the pace of working is faster than in Europe or the United States. The result is that the demand from the market on response and support is very high. Those responsible for projects do not accept having to wait days or up to a week for feedback on requests for support, so in many cases a slow response from companies in Europe or the U.S. creates irritation. When a Western company installs a local office with a local business attitude it is generally highly appreciated by the Asian partner and creates a high level of confidence and loyalty.
Frank Grube: The cultural differences are bigger between Western and Asian cultures than between the American and European way of doing business. As a European, if you are not familiar with local habits and traditions, you may hurt the feelings of your counterparts without even noticing it. You also will find considerable differences from one country to the other: for example, doing business in India is not the same as doing business in China. This is why it is very important to rely on local partners who know their local environment, the industry and the culture. With a Western attitude, we sometimes are confused by the dynamic way of doing business: decisions are made faster, but the volatility of the whole business is also bigger. In this vibrant world, the competition is fierce, but you have to take into account that the machine vision market grows stronger than in other regions of the world.
Bob Grietens: There is no big difference in the way of doing business, but you have to observe different ways of negotiating. I think Europeans even have an advantage there, because they are a bit more formal and more open to long-term relationships. Americans shoot for short-term success.