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Feature Articles

Vision Struggles Against Automotive Headwinds

by Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor - AIA


The headlines tell a tale of woe, but (as usual) not the whole story.

“Can America’s Auto Makers Survive?” Wall Street Journal (8/7/08)
“Chrysler’s Future Cloudy After Year with Cerberus,” AP Online (8/05/08)
“Analysts Widen 2008 Loss Estimates for GM,” Reuters (8/04/08)

While the thought that the U.S. auto industry will somehow disappear is beyond ludicrous, interviews with machine vision suppliers to the Big 3 U.S. automakers indicate that changes are definitely afoot; and in the short term, these changes are likely to be more painful than pleasurable. 

During several recent interviews for this article, one well-known vision supplier related his company’s recent giddiness with being told he was to be the source for a large project for a Big 3 manufacturer, only to be informed a short time later that budget cuts dramatically reduced the order content. “On the good side, we were sourced,” he said.  Another vision supplier said the Big 3 U.S. automotive companies were less attractive as customers these days compared to Tier 1 and 2 suppliers to the automotive market because 90-net due payments were quickly turning into 6 months of waiting.

But of course, no cloud fails to hold at least one silver lining. Although the financial struggles of the “Big 3” have been unable to take export-related advantages from a weak U.S. dollar, their shift from large SUVs and trucks to small-to-medium size cars will inevitably bring about new production lines, complete with RFQ’s for vision quality checks. In the meantime, more non-U.S. automakers are moving plants to the U.S. to cut down on petroleum related logistic costs and align operations with a cheaper dollar.  These new plants are springing up in areas that are more conducive to non-union operations, which may actually benefit machine vision suppliers more in the long run than a new car line.

Where the Business Is
While credit concerns, gas prices, and environmental issues would seem to send the “perfect storm” directly into the heart of the U.S. automobile industry, modern vehicles are complex systems requiring complex quality checks. Enter machine vision.

Today, vision vendors and integrators are still finding opportunities in a down market.

“Vision systems continue to go into sections of the automotive production line that are dangerous or difficult for humans,” explains Kevin Taylor, Vice President of ISRA VISION SYSTEMS’ Automotive Business Unit (Lansing, Michigan). “Glass insertion can be both dangerous and require a high level of precision, so our systems continue to help with this step of production. Sealing operations are another area you don’t want to be near, but a new opportunity has come from cosmetic sealing. Cosmetic sealers are used to seal the seam of the inner and outer door sleeve, for instance.  It’s an area of the exterior that people can see, so laying down just the right amount in the right area is critical. Typically the operation is done after the door is already attached to the vehicle with the door barely open or closed. A small dispensing tip has to be inserted between the door and body, and our RGS sensor mounted on the end of a robotic arm has greatly improved this operation.”

As automakers continue to outsource as many non-core component and services to Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers, liability concerns caused by defective product increase. The result is a greater need for error proofing and traceability, similar to that seen in the pharmaceutical industry.

“SICK’s biggest interest in automotive manufacture is error proofing and traceability using our IVC-3D Smart Camera line,” explains Israel Alguindigue, SICK Inc.’s Automotive Industry Market Manager link to BG in new window (Minneapolis, Minnesota). “For us, error proofing means many things from checking the quality of welds, to checking deburring operations, to verifying the size and shape of a hole.”

“But one of the biggest changes has been the need for traceability at all levels,” continued Alguindigue. “The idea is not just to track different parts for different models moving down the same production line, but continuing to track the part and car after it leaves the plant. In the past, this was done with barcodes, but as tracking needs increase, data matrix has become the dominant traceability method, which requires a camera to capture an image and decode. When you can combine a 3D measurement with a tracing operation in a fraction of second, you see the value of the SICK IVC Camera solution.”

A good example, according to Alguindique, is brake pads. “You have a 3D camera looking for surface defects, depth of the pin, twist on the spring, verifying the depth of the brake pad, while reading the marking on the pad so that the values can be stored and recorded should they be need in the future – all while helping to build a higher quality product.”

Service with a Smile
Machine vision engineering services may be another emerging business opportunity within the automotive industry, requiring reorganizations similar to what one of the largest computer makers recently underwent.

“10 years ago, many of the Big 3 and top-tier supplies had knowledgeable vision people on staff to do engineering and vendor selection, assist with technology evaluations, start ups, etc.,” notes Gary Kocken, Director of Sales for the Americas at PPT Vision Inc. (Eden Prairie, Minnesota). “But there has been a clear trend to shed this engineering talent to save money. This can make it harder to sell technology to unsophisticated buyers, while placing more of the system design and evaluation requirements on the integrators and suppliers.”

SICK “At the same time, the prices of smart cameras have dropped significantly,” Kocken continues. “When PCs became commodities in the 1990s, IBM got out of the hardware business and decided there was more money in computing services. Regardless of how many smart cameras are out there, you still need someone that knows optics, lighting and programming to make the vision system work. We’ve seen that one of the fastest growing segments of our business is the request for engineering services. After all, who can set up a vision system faster than the company who manufactured it?”

As engineers leave Detroit for greener pastures, vision integrators are finding themselves interacting more with unsophisticated users and maintenance organizations. When it comes to the Big 3, this can be a problem; for non-U.S. companies, a benefit.

“In a Big 3 auto manufacturing plant, maintenance personnel can resist learning new technology because their jobs are protected by unions, or they know they’ll be moved from body to painting in 6 months, so why bother to learn a new skill?” asks ISRA’s Taylor. “With the new plants coming into the Carolinas and other areas, people believe they have a good opportunity to make a good wage, and see a new skill as a way to job security. These European and Asian car makers are more receptive to technology, but often they will favor integrators and suppliers from their home countries over U.S. operations.”

As the automotive industry of 2008 illustrates, the more things change, the more they stay the same. U.S. automakers are struggling today, but new market participants are setting up domestic production. Often these companies are more receptive to technology, including machine vision, than their U.S. counterparts. At the same time, while U.S. automakers may be purchasing fewer vision components and systems in the short term as a result of a weak economy and restructuring, they’re more dependent on outside engineering talent than ever before. Opportunities are there for companies with the right vision.





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