One voice, one vision

20 April 2021

While UK manufacturers seek to recalibrate from one of the most challenging financial years in a generation, the emergence of new machine vision technology is driving the greater adoption of automated inspection technology and vision-guided robot systems, says Neil Sandhu.

I believe that there is plenty of room for optimism, despite the UK’s exit from the largest single market and the onset of Covid-19. It’s about having the right long-term vision that delivers a sustainable and competitive advantage. 
I believe that sometimes it can take something of the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic to both move and realign the goalposts and encourage people to think outside of the box.
Since 2016, the UK manufacturing industry was suspended in mid-air; not knowing which way to turn or which decisions to make for the best. And while Covid-19 has only served to complicate matters, companies are now better placed to review their business operations and make capital purchases based on fact, opposed to political hearsay.
Due to the complexities borne out by Brexit, labour shortages, and increasing supply chain demand, machine vision technology will only increase in demand as the industry moves towards automating more of its process and procedures. 
The challenge, however, is not what can be achieved through vision, but being able to close the knowledge gap of people’s understanding of it; and how the technology and software can be used. 
A red herring
There has long been a school of thought that, to automate a process, you need to have an in-depth understanding of the technology, which is a red herring. Yes, it’s important to know what you’re buying, but it’s more important to understand what you’re looking to achieve from the outset and avoid the propensity to change too much too soon.
While the areas of application in industrial vision are diverse, advances in vision technology are now a driving force behind industrial automation; providing machines with a humanlike ability to detect defects on products, guide robots, improve health and safety, and help optimise factory operations. 
Following changes to the immigration rules and right to work in the UK, we can expect robotisation to become commonplace throughout industry as quality control is tightened, margins get squeezed and competition increases from overseas suppliers.
Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), for example, is one area of change. They are already starting to replace automated guided vehicles (AGV) within high volume UK logistics environments through the advance of 3D vision technology. Gone are the days when a manual handling machine should be used to move parts to us in a delivery area, and then involve a manual process to pack the goods. It’s a laborious process and does not stimulate employees’ mental and physical wellbeing.
The buzz words from the last two machine vision conferences in the UK revolved around artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning. The capacity offered by AI is immense; however, the industry still has some work to do to place context around AI and the full scope of 3D vision technology and applications available; then and only then will vision move from perception to reality across the wider manufacturing community.  
It all comes down to what application you are looking to automate and the reason for doing so. The cost of the technology and capital equipment needed to automate is also coming down, which lends itself to a more favourable return on investment to ease the justification.
Whether through the outcome of Brexit or Covid-19, there is a renewed sense of urgency to gain a competitive advantage. Therefore, the question that manufacturers perhaps need to ask themselves is why they wouldn’t now invest in new robot and vision technology to avoid potentially languishing behind?
To find out more you can  register for the forthcoming Machine Vision Conference & Exhibition (15 July 2021) at:

Neil Sandhu is chairman of UK Industrial Vision Association (UKIVA). He is also a product manager at SICK (UK).

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