Monday, April 28, 2008

Working for other people

Designers of embedded-vision systems practice an often unrecognized and valuable art--and one they should capitalize on

In Vision Systems Design, we present articles describing how system integrators have developed products using off-the-shelf components. While a variety of lenses, frame grabbers, embedded processors, and machine-vision software are available to build these systems, many applications in medical, military, and industrial applications require the use of custom, embedded designs. Like consumer-based CCD cameras, these imaging systems are designed so that specific tasks can be easily performed by an end user.

While trade shows such as The Vision Show (Boston, MA, USA; June 10–12) allow vendors to exhibit OEM components, these products may not prove useful in small, embedded applications, and the system may have to be designed from scratch. For the designer of these products, it is not easy to identify the components or subassemblies needed.

Specialty embedded events such as the Embedded Systems Conference focus more on components and operating systems; other shows such as Medical Design & Manufacturing aim to bring together both the components and production equipment used in medical applications. Unfortunately, attending every trade show that pertains peripherally to machine vision and image processing is not possible for most engineers or engineering managers.

Despite the power of search engines such as Google, the variety of options or companies that assist in the design of embedded imaging or machine-vision systems is not immediately apparent. On a recent trip to New York, for example, I uncovered two companies involved in embedded system design. One, D3 Engineering (Rochester, NY, USA; www., provides DSP engineering services based on the Texas Instruments range of DSPs to companies involved in machine-vision, automotive, and medical markets. With a camera-development kit and SDK, the company currently supports more than 20 different imager types for embedded imaging applications. The other, Imaging Solutions Group (ISG; Fairport, NY, USA; had designed a portable arthroscope based on a custom CMOS color imager that you can read about on page 20 of the May issue of Vision Systems Design.

Unsung heroes
Products such as those from D3 Engineering and ISG thus appear as specialized cameras or products from companies in the medical market. However, there remains a general lack of awareness of these engineering companies by those who may require their services. The reason is twofold: these companies are relatively small and do not have the time or money to spend on self-promotion, and, because no trade show specifically targets embedded imaging, their full capabilities cannot be readily displayed. The very nature of trade shows and the limited budgets of most embedded-systems-design companies means an embedded vision show may not be viable.

To promote their services, these specialized design houses often join partner programs created by vendors of imagers, DSPs, and software. By word of mouth, customers are referred to the custom embedded-design houses. However, those looking for help with their embedded designs are more likely to find resources from press releases, advertising, and trade-show presence from more established vendors. The reason, perhaps, is that companies involved in developing cameras, for example, are more likely to understand how to tailor their product for an embedded application.

While contract work by developers of embedded imaging systems may provide revenue for a few embedded-design companies, their end-user products may prove more lucrative for companies that have commissioned projects. To ensure the future of their companies, many have chosen to spin out the technology developed for others into new products. By doing so, companies previously thought of as specialized design houses will achieve the engineering recognition and financial rewards they deserve.