Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Automating inspection in China

Over and over I’m told that “my” vision systems have to be justified with labor savings. I’ve always thought that a simplistic approach because, as we all know, the benefits of using machine vision for automated inspection are many and varied. But that’s how the money people view the world where I work, and that’s why I’m always being told there is no need for my skills in China: it’s cheaper to pay people to look at things.

According to “Machine vision boosts productivity on bottling line,” published March 6th, 2013 on MachineDesign.com, that’s also the case at beer bottling plants in China where, “Although manual inspection is labor intensive and can cause eyestrain and fatigue, most bottling lines running in Chinese plants operate this way.”

The article also mentions that, “95% of all beer bottles are returned for recycling,” in China. Remind me to stick to canned drinks next time I visit, because I don’t feel comfortable trusting my health to human inspectors. No matter how vigilant they may be, when the glass is flying past at 18,000 bottles per hour mistakes are going to be made.

Fortunately though, as described in the MachineDesign article, Chinese machine builder MingJia has developed automated bottle inspection systems. The article gives details of the system used, (it’s from Dalsa,) but there are no photos. So I turned to the web and found this page about the glass bottle inspector on the MingJia website.

We’re still left with the question of how the bottling plants justify this inspection equipment. I imagine there are two things going on. First, a system built in China is almost certainly cheaper than one from the US or Germany. And second, perhaps the more enlightened beer-bottlers realize that with human inspection the probability of filling and shipping a contaminated bottle is decidedly non-zero. I don’t know about consumer protection laws in China, but I’m pretty sure such a thing would be a big turn-off for customers.

So to wrap up this rambling post: automating inspection should be about more than saving labor costs. Protecting the customer, and thus the manufacturer, should be the priority. Now how about putting a box for that on my capital appropriation form?

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