AIA Executive Roundtable Talks Changing Markets, New Opportunities Amid COVID-19

During a panel discussion of how COVID-19 is impacting the machine vision industry, luminaries including Smart Vision Lights (SVL) CEO Dave Spaulding discussed growing opportunities for e-commerce, packaging inspection, and automated disinfection systems, as well as winning strategies in vision end markets.

These and other insights emerged from an Executive Roundtable hosted by AIA during its online Vision Week conference last week. In addition to SVL’s Spaulding, the panel included Steve Wardell, Director of Imaging at ATS Automation; Dietmar Ley, CEO of Basler; and Samuel Sadoulet, President and COO at Edmund Optics.

Sadoulet effectively spoke for all panelists when he noted early on, “We don’t talk about going back to work because we’ve been working all along.”

This has certainly been true at SVL, where the team has been responding to an uptick in demand for lighting solutions for logistics as homebound consumers rely more on e-commerce to deliver products to their door. As Spaulding noted during the roundtable, SVL is also seeing more inquiries about lighting solutions for the food and beverage industry, where vision systems are supplementing the temporary gap in human inspectors.

Another recent trend Spaulding highlighted during the panel was the growing number of inquiries SVL has received about the use of UV LEDs for germicidal lighting. Whether embedded in a handheld wand or integrated onto a mobile robot, high-intensity UV LEDs can potentially reduce or eliminate the virus from surfaces in retail, healthcare, aircraft, and other environments.

Trends, New and Familiar

As new or expanded opportunities to combat COVID-19 emerge, many other trends that predate the pandemic are still going strong. “The trends we were seeing coming into the pandemic are carrying forward,” said Wardell. For ATS, these include growing adoption of deep learning software and embedded vision solutions.

As SVL’s Spaulding pointed out, the lighting company is seeing a similar pattern of incumbent trends carrying through the pandemic and possibly gaining momentum from it. The surge in e-commerce, for example, has only added to the pressure on distribution centers to leverage high-speed imaging systems to process more packages more quickly. Meanwhile, rekindled consumer interest in packaged food and beverages has fueled greater demand for high-speed packaging inspection.

The long-standing/ongoing demand for high-speed imaging systems prompted the innovation of SVL’s NanoDrive. LED lights featuring the technology can achieve full intensity within 500 nanoseconds with comparable off time and deliver 100,000 strobes per second. It’s a timely innovation, so to speak, as goods traveling down distribution and production lines increase in volume and speed.

Vision for Beginners

Toward the end of the panel discussion, an audience member asked what guidance the panelists could give people who were just entering the machine vision industry.

Wardell advised listeners to seek industry experts for the right tool for the job rather than chasing the cool new toy. “We see a lot of people going down paths that they don’t need to go down that are going to be more costly and less efficient and less capable,” he said.

Sadoulet counseled new vision professionals to think more broadly about what challenges the technology can solve. “Most people think automation equates to being more cost-effective. That’s one way to apply automation. But think about it in our new world today. Think about how automation can give you greater flexibility. Think about de-risking. It’s a lot easier to [achieve] social distance in a more automated factory.”

Basler’s Ley said learning newer technologies, such as embedded technology or artificial intelligence, would provide a more competitive edge for new companies.

“There’s more room for differentiation because the PC world is pretty mature,” he noted, adding that the growing use of digital communications during the pandemic has offered a new way to cost-effectively meet with more customers to more actively learn about their challenges. “In Germany, many people are technologists. They push technology onto their customer. But when I listen to the customer and learn their problems, I can then see what I can do for them using [our] technology.”

Spaulding built further on Ley’s appeal to collaboration. “Be a solution provider,” he said. “Be collaborative with the right people who can build the equipment you need — the right cameras, the right lenses. Pick good partners that you can learn from, and don’t try to do it all alone because it’s a big task.”