Towards the best in machine vision technology

machine vision

In the 40 years since its founding, Cognex has pioneered and refined the best in machine vision technologies. Sven Klockmann talks to MHD about the company’s tireless efforts to achieve 100 per cent barcode read rates.

Machine vision manufacturer and solutions provider Cognex was founded in 1981 by Dr. Robert Shillman – an MIT lecturer – and two of his students. The goal of the enterprise was to be the leading machine vision company, says Sven Klockmann, Head of Sales Logistics Solutions – ANZ, ASEAN & India.

Starting off with its DataMan product series, Cognex went on to develop various machine vision systems for some of the largest automotive, consumer electronics, and pharmaceuticals companies in the world. “In these and other industries, we solved challenges in robot guidance, quality inspection and identification applications,” Sven says. “Now Cognex is the leader in cutting-edge machine vision – we hold over 1000 patents in registration.”

Along the way, says Sven, Cognex became a major problem solver in the supply chain and logistics space. “We developed the world’s leading barcode reading and 2D code reading algorithms,” he says. “And these are now used by the world’s largest logistics providers and e-commerce retailers in their distribution and fulfilment facilities.”

Cognex brought the fist camera-based code reading system to the materials handling market while everyone else was still using laser-based scanning technology. The cameras are now used in automated single and multi-side identification tunnels, high throughput presentation reading stations, and for large area pallet identification.

Sven explains that there are important advantages of camera-based coding and reading systems compared to the traditional laser technologies.

“Camera-based systems and technology hold a natural advantage over laser-based systems, even though the latter are still predominantly used in this space,” says Sven. “First of all, you can actually see the image with a camera, rather than just having a laser reading of a barcode. As a photo or video is taken of a box or parcel going through the field of vision, you can actually see what the system is seeing, which makes it much easier to analyse what’s happening, and what’s going wrong if something does go wrong. If there is no read of a barcode you get this visual feedback from the system – and pictures obviously provide a lot more information.”

Visual feedback allows users to see why a barcode wasn’t read correctly, whether it be due to dirt, damage, or other packaging issues. The information gathered from such failures is then used to further tailor Cognex’s algorithms to reduce the chance of failure occurring again.

“It is quite easy for our camera systems to outperform lasers, but our algorithms – consistently refined and improved – allow us to outperform new competitors with their own camera systems,” says Sven. “And today we are pretty proud of the fact that there’s really no other system provider out there that can provide better read rates or match our read rates in automated systems with barcode reading.”

Better read rates means greater reliability in the entire distribution centre machinery, Sven says, maximising the throughput of logistics operations.

According to Sven, in Australia barcode reading is still done primarily with lasers. This is a problem as more and more parcels are being delivered in greater variety and in greater volumes.

“Read rate failures with laser systems are much higher, but increasingly so for foiled and non-cuboidal objects, which is important these days as more items are getting shipped not in boxes but in various shapes and bags for economical purposes – presenting more variability and challenges for barcode readers,” he says. “To take one example, when it comes to reading barcodes that are shiny on foil non-cuboidal packages, we compared our camera system with competitor systems that utilised a combination of lasers and cameras, and we still achieved better results with our DataMan product.

And what does this mean in terms of numbers?

“We had a great success story in Germany with a major fashion e-retailer, which is one of the largest in Europe,” Sven says. “The challenge was to bring their systems from a 95 per cent read rate to over 99 per cent. And we brought it to well over 99 per cent. Given the volumes that are processed, you can imagine what even a fraction of a percentage means when applied across millions of packages. But it’s not only the far higher read rate – it’s the fact that when a barcode was not read, our system was able to give a reason why it wasn’t, which is ultimately something that the company’s operations team wants to understand.”

But even with 99 per cent plus read rates, users want – and Cognex aspires towards – a 100 per cent target. To that end, Cognex recently launched a new image intelligence platform that better collects and categorises images. With better categorisation of images, operations teams can improve how they zero in on precise problems to find their root causes. 

“For example, one big issue that we’ve found is with flagging labels, where a label is coming off a box,” says Sven. “This might result in not only a non-read, but further issues downstream in terms of materials handling equipment – getting stuck on a roller conveyor, for instance.”

This year Cognex opened its first Australian office, identifying not only Australia, but also the surrounding region as ripe for improvement. 

“In Australia and New Zealand in particular, we have sophisticated countries and economies with high labour costs,” says Sven. “And I think our technology is a natural fit here to reduce costs right across the supply chain, increasing efficiency and throughput as well as making it more robust at a time when there is a great deal of pressure on it. From Cognex’s perspective, with our successes in America and Europe, it’s a great time for us to come down and help out by seeing where our technology can be applied.”

“We believe our technologies are the best on offer and that our culture is the best out there” says Sven. “We work hard, but don’t take ourselves too seriously – our main concern is to solve problems for our customers.”

For more information on Cognex, click here

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