In Trend: Interview with Petko Dinev, CEO at Imperx
The image processing market is very dynamic. It is essential for a company such as Imperx, with Headquarters in the US, which develops and produces digital cameras and frame-grabbers as a global player in this market, to recognize new developments and trends as early as possible.
Inspect talked about the latest trends in camera development with Petko Dinev, CEO at Imperx.
inspect: A modern industrial camera is not a monolithic block. It consists of components, which are also subject to further technical development. Which of these components are of particular interest to camera developers?
P. Dinev: Modern industrial cameras are improving every day - the applications and clients are becoming more demanding, and everybody is looking for more pixels, faster speed and more internal processing, so I think, all camera designers are trying to improve all these parameters, and to incorporate the latest components into their products. The three parameters are interconnected and they all are continuously improving. Modern cameras will not exist without the combined technological advances of all three parameters. It was only a couple of years ago, when the biggest CCD or CMOS imager commercially available had only 16 megapixels. Now, when we are offering 29 megapixel cameras, this is not enough for the most demanding applications (airborne, TFT, etc.).
Our clients are asking us for 50+ megapixel cameras. I am sure that several years from now, cameras with 80+ megapixels will be very common. It is the same with the camera's internal processing power - several years ago it was considered "state of the art" to put a 1 million gate FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) in the camera, now most of the cameras are using 3 or 4 million gate FPGAs. I strongly believe the rapid development of FPGA technology is playing a big role in the advances of modern industrial cameras. It allows for more internal processing, and thus offloading some of the image processing functions from the computer and placing them inside the camera. Interfacing multi-megapixel imaging sensors will not be possible without a modern FPGA. Of course, having all the megapixels and processing power will be useless if you cannot transmit the data.
Only 10 years ago most of the cameras were analog with a VGA resolution. Nowadays, having a multi-megapixel camera with a 24 Gb/s output interface is common. Sending data with 1Gb/s (using GigE) or 6 Gb/s (using CoaXPress) over 100 meters is now the "de-facto" standard.
inspect: CCD, CMOS, Global Shutter, Rolling Shutter, PoE, GigE, Camera Link, CoaXPress, USB3 Vision, C-Mount, S-mount etc. etc.. Which "navigation aids" does Imperx use to set the right course for camera development within the system of standards.
P. Dinev: There are many standards and it is not practical for us as a company to provide products that support all of them. Imperx is focusing on what our clients need when we are developing our new cameras. We have an established base of existing distributors and clients, and we are listening to them when we are discussing specifications for new products. We are also following the market trends and we are trying to be proactive in our product development. It is also very important to keep in mind that the actual application determines what standard will be used, some applications can accommodate multiple standards, while some cannot. We are always trying to advise our clients which standard is best suited for their application.
Since the beginning, Imperx has been developing only CCD based cameras, but we see a growing demand for fast multi-megapixel cameras and we are responding to the demand. At VISION 2014, we will be presenting our first 12 megapixel, CMOS based camera with a global shutter. As far as standards are concerned, we are supporting many optics formats and our cameras currently have Camera Link, PoCL, GigE with or without PoE, and CoaXPress. As future trends, we see an increasing interest in GigE Vision and USB 3.0 Vision, and leveled or slightly declining interest in Camera Link. The biggest surprise for us is the very slow adoption of CoaXPress. From a technical point of view, this standard is perfect - it has the long cable reach of a 100 meters, very high bandwidth - up to 24 Gb/s, carries 15W of power, and accommodates data and controls to be carried via a single cable. And also the price of the cable is much lower compared to some of the other standards.
inspect: These days cameras are also intelligent. This is made possible by embedded technologies and FPGA programming. What chances will conventional cameras still have in the future?
P. Dinev: It is very difficult to imagine a modern camera that does not have a powerful FPGA engine. The advancement in FPGA technologies are making it possible to convert any standard camera to a stand-alone, sophisticated image processing engine. A camera developer can now incorporate a low power, small footprint FPGA (based on 14 nm process), that has several embedded ARM processors, and has a computational power much bigger than a 486 based PC computer. Imperx currently offers such options in all our cameras. With our User Programmable Board option, the user can incorporate their image processing algorithms directly into the camera, and thus address almost any imaging challenge.
But not all cameras need to be like this. Having such a sophisticated engine requires an advanced knowledge which is not readily available. Also, not all applications require such expensive and advanced solutions. This is why currently, and most probably for the next couple of years, most of the machine vision cameras will be conventional. With the further advancement of the embedded and FPGA technologies, smart cameras will be less "challenging" to the average user and gradually they will replace the conventional cameras.
inspect: On the basis of the Imperx camera range, how would you distinguish "Standard" and "High-end" in comparison with each other.
P. Dinev: There are several criteria that differentiate "Standard" and "High-end" cameras. For most people the price is a leading factor, but we think other parameters are more important. Reliability, extended temperature range, high shock and vibe parameters, rich feature set, programmability, and flexibility are much more valuable when the user differentiates between a high and low end cameras. Application is the most important test. In majority of the applications, it is very difficult to see the difference between a "Standard" and a "High-end" camera. In most applications, many cameras are considered "good enough". To fully appreciate what a "High-end" camera can offer, the user has to compare how a "Standard" and a "High-end" camera will perform. In such applications, the difference between the "Standard" and a "High-end" camera becomes apparent, and in some applications "Standard" cameras simply cannot do the job!
Our Bobcat camera line is built to last. The Bobcat line offers MTBF greater than 660,000 hours at 40°C, 100G vibe and 1500G shock, and extended temperature range operation from -40°C to +85°C across the entire camera line. Our cameras are fully programmable and we are offering very rich feature set that can satisfy the requirements of the most challenging applications. A lot of our cameras are flying in high altitude airborne platforms (UAVs, planes, rockets, satellites, etc.). In other words, our cameras in environments where they have to operate in extreme temperature and shock and vibe conditions where equipment failure is not an option. In such applications, "High-end" cameras show their real value.
inspect: The fields of industrial applications in which modern high performance cameras are installed as part of the image processing system are increasing in number. What are the changes in the requirements for the cameras with the new applications?
P. Dinev: The variety of applications for the modern camera systems is growing every day. The cameras have to have a bigger resolution, low power, smaller size, be faster, be accurate and be able to perform some of the image processing tasks internally. With the miniaturization of the everyday products we use - laptops, smartphones, cameras, tablets, etc., the requirements for the cameras size, weight and power on one side and resolution and speed on the other are becoming very critical. Most of the 3-D inspection systems used today, require multi-megapixel cameras with 60 fps or higher - the higher the better. Until recently only a couple CMOS sensors could satisfy this requirement, now almost every camera vendor offers such cameras. With the TFT displays growing in size - up to 90" now, having a camera with extremely high resolution (100+ megapixels) and very fast speed becomes a necessity. I believe, very soon we will be at a point where the cameras will be able to produce so much information, so transmitting and processing the data will become a challenge. In such situations, in camera processing along with custom HW solutions will be absolutely essential.
inspect: Which fields of application for modern camera systems are still waiting to be more intensively developed?
P. Dinev: Probably the collaboration between the camera technologies and the applications has never been stronger. The necessity for faster and better cameras is predominantly application driven. With the price of an average imaging system dropping to sub $5,000.00, more and more systems will be implemented in nontraditional places. It is very difficult to point out all fields which are underdeveloped and could benefit from imaging systems. During a high volume manufacturing, continuous and uninterrupted flow of the entire manufacturing process is highly critical. We see a potential improvement in the "event recording and process monitoring", where an imaging system is not only use to control the quality of the products manufactured, but to be an integral part of the entire manufacturing process, and to control the process itself.
inspect: From 4 to 6 November, the world's leading exhibition for image processing, the VISION 2014 will be held in Stuttgart. Will Imperx also be presenting products and system solutions there? How important is the VISION for Imperx?
P. Dinev: VISION show is very important for Imperx, and we participate regularly. At this show, we are presenting our latest products. This year we will be demonstrating our new, fast CMOS camera line, along with the latest additions to our signature Bobcat camera line. VISION has a well established reputation and all our clients and distributors from around the world attend the show. The show gives us the opportunity to see the latest trends are in imaging technology, compare our products to the rest of the market, meet with current clients, establish new relations with future clients, and be exposed to unique and diverse ideas.
inspect: Does the slogan "The sky is the limit" apply for the further development of industrial cameras and their distribution, and will the Imperx product highlights at the VISION 2016 look completely different?
P. Dinev: Imperx really believes in "The sky is the limit" thinking. Since the beginning, the company is pushing the boundaries of the technology. Imperx was the first company to introduce frame grabbers for laptops, and we pioneered this technology. Our clients are constantly challenging us to develop more advanced products and to address the most challenging applications. We are currently developing several new camera lines, which are addressing a wide range of markets and we will be really proud to present these new products at VISION 2016.