Thursday, March 26, 2015

Observations from the Automate Show

It looked like a successful show. The aisles were crowded, many times I had to wait in line to speak to a salesperson (and once I ended up chasing one around a stand. So why did people I spoke with seem despondent?

Here are a few thoughts.

This used to be a Vision show. The AIA still runs a ‘conference’, (though now it’s mostly just CVP training classes,) but it’s become very much an automation hardware show. That means lots of robots, grippers, guarding and so on and less machine vision, at least as a percentage of the stands filling the hall.

Most of the machine vision lighting guys were there, as were a good few camera makers.  AVT, JAI, and Baumer all caught my eye. Optics was covered by Edmunds and Opto-Engineering, and it was good to see a Midwest Optical Filters presence, (filters are still so under-appreciated!).

Keyence had a big stand with attractive ladies eager to scan every badge, (I assume they’re just trying to grow their list of people to pester,) and SICK had a good-sized display. National Instruments showed up but I missed Matrox entirely. I did however stumble across the MVTec guys and Kithara (a somewhat new name in vision software.) Cognex were absent of course – it seems it’s beneath them to attend these shows - and I have a feeling Microscan were lurking somewhere, maybe close to Matrox.

So what really caught my eye?

Well there were lots of robots, lot’s and lots of ‘em, mostly Fanucs. And many had Fanuc’s 3D vision incorporated, a light-stripe projector with two cameras. It seemed to work pretty well, although there was one bin-picking application that I saw struggling.

In fact it was about the only bin-picking application, a notable difference from two years ago when everyone wanted to show it off.

3D though was everywhere, mostly for robot guidance, although it was good to see Canadian company Hermary with their log scanning technology.

But back to my opening comment; why so many long faces?

My belief is:

a)     The big players, notably Keyence, are now so dominant they just suck in all the attendees. I’d bet that many of the people attending didn’t have a clue who MVTec are.

b)    Likewise, Edmunds can afford a big, sexy display so they get lots of traffic. CCS and Opto-Engineering don’t have such deep pockets and again, they get overlooked.

c)     Robots are just so dammed cool, with all those arms waving about, that boring little cameras don’t get much of a look-in.

d)    The AIA, under it’s ‘A3Automate’ guise, is following the money. I’m just guessing, but I imagine it’s much more profitable to draw in a few companies with big marketing budgets than many small fish who can’t really afford the rental on the card scanning equipment.

Bottom line? If you’re exhibiting at this show, you’ve gotta go big or go home.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Hello World!

As anyone engaged in innovation knows, being creative takes effort. That’s why, after five years of blogging three to five times a week, (which is roughly 1,000 posts and 200,000 words,) I needed some time off.

Well a year has passed and I’m starting to feel it’s time to rejoin the fray. I’m doing this by spending some time at the Automate show in Chicago next week, ( after which I shall be ready to resume regular, or perhaps intermittent, posting.

Check back in a few days; I’m hoping we can resume our relationship!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Computer vision videos and signing-off

Leaving aside the “machine vision” or “computer vision” debate, I want to point you to some interesting and educational videos. These are from the 2013 British Machine Vision Conference, and they're very interesting (if rather academic.)

Second, regular readers will notice I've been away nearly two months. Here's why: I've been writing this blog for about five years, and while it's a labor of love, it also gets to be hard work at times. I've really enjoyed all the comments and feedback I've received, and I love the technical questions that get thrown my way, but I think it's time to take a break.

If I get the urge, or need a job, I'll be back, but for now I'm signing off.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Digesting 2013 results from Cognex

On Feb 13th Cognex released some impressive full-year results, so why did the stock price dive 9% on the 14th?

I have a theory, but explaining it requires a quick look at the reported numbers:

For the full year, revenue grew 9%, to $354m, and income increased 8% to $73m.

Good numbers to be sure, but those of you who grasp the difference between fixed and variable costs might wonder why income grew less than revenue. Shouldn’t it have been the reverse?

The answer, in my humble opinion lies in the RD&E and SG&A percentages.

Taking RD&E (Research, Development and Engineering,) first, spend jumped 17% from Q4 ’12 to the same period in ’13. If you follow the job listings on LinkedIn this will not have been a surprise: it’s clear that Cognex has been growing their engineering strength for some months. This is clearly A Good Thing and hopefully will lead to some new products in 2014.

The 18% increase in SG&A (Sales, general and Administration,) I find a little harder to swallow. Apparently some of this resulted in higher commissions. Really? Aren’t commissions just a straight percentage of selling price? Why should they rise faster than revenue? And let’s not forget that Cognex sells mostly through distributors rather than having their own sales force, like say Keyence. Leaving aside the fact that this strategy is killing them in the Vision, as opposed to ID reader, market, why should costs rise with revenue?

Okay, so that point has me baffled, but why should the stock price drop?

Well here’s my theory: stock prices are driven by expectations of future growth. These are reflected in the price to earnings ratio, which at 46 is still sky-high, so it’s not like people are giving up on the company. Clearly though, more investors decided to sell than to buy.

There were some patches of bad news in the results. Surface inspection, Japan, and semiconductors are all struggling even though there’s lots of growth coming from ID readers. More interesting though was Dr. Shillman’s comment during the investor conference call. (You can find a transcript at

Dr. Bob said Cognex was going to stop talking about future product activities because they were giving away too much information to competitors.

Isn’t that interesting? R&D spend up, concern about competitors. This suggests the winds of change are blowing through Natick. Competitors are bringing some heat and Cognex have decided it’s time to up their game.

Good for them. I’m looking forward to learning about some great new products!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

New reading material

It’s important to stay current with advances in machine vision, which is presumably why you read this blog, but I’d like to suggest another source of info.

Industrial Photonics magazine launched at the start of the year, and Issue 1 looks pretty good. I was particularly impressed with “3-D Profiling Advances Automation”, which is a pretty meaty piece by Pierantonio Boriero of Matrox.

One swallow does not a summer make, but if the writers and editors can maintain their early standard this will be one of those rare magazines worth reading rather than “filing”.

The others, in my humble opinion, are Photonics Spectra, and of course Vision Systems Design, though the latter seems woefully thin these days.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Cognex staying above the fray?

Check out the list of Exhibitors at this year’s “The Vision Show”. All the big names are there, except one.

Know which one I’m talking about? Yes that’s right, yet again old “Big Yella” has decided to stay away.

I’m not sure this is a wise move. I get that trade shows are expensive and that the ROI is hard to pin down, but out of sight is most definitely out of mind.

Keyence will be there, and I expect they’ll have a big stand full of sales people eager to explain how their vision systems will solve all your problems. And with no Cognex on hand, who’s going to present a counter argument?

This attitude of “staying out of it” seems to extend to the factory floor too. The Engineers I talk to are being blitzed by Keyence sales people who won’t take “No” for an answer. Eventually they let the guy through the front door and next thing there’s Keyence vision system out in the plant.

If you’re selling machine vision the best sales tool you can have is a working system on a plant floor. Keyence are getting those installed, and I don’t see Cognex offering any resistance.

Maybe the problem is that they’re selling through distributors. Distributors have other things to sell, so why invest time and effort in complicated vision systems when you can make a faster buck from something else, like a code reader?

Staying away from trade shows is one thing, but staying out of the fight for customers is something else. I fear Cognex are losing sales and handing the industrial market to Keyence.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Knowing when it’s a bin job

In Britain, when they say something’s a “bin job” they mean it’s fit only for the bin, or trash, to use the American word. Thus “binning” means you’re throwing something in the trash.

In machine vision “binning” has an entirely different meaning. “Binning” in this context means adding together the charges from adjacent pixels. Thus a 2x2 bin means adding pixels pairs both horizontally and vertically. In the case of a 640 x 480 image, it becomes 320 x 240.

Now since we usually want more pixels rather than fewer, you might wonder why anyone would want to bin. Well, writing on the Adimec blog, Gretchen Alper has an explanation for you.

It all gets a bit technical, so I’m going to jump over the details and skip to the part where I say, “check out the Adimec blog. It’s really good.”