Focal point

Cognex claims to have developed world’s smallest vision system for faster, easier installation on production lines. Siobhan Wagner reports.

What is claimed to be the world’s smallest complete machine vision system has the potential to make installation on the production line faster and easier.

Cognex’s In-Sight Micro, which looks like a remote-head camera measuring 30mm x 30mm x 60mm, is a complete system that can be mounted in tight spaces on robots, production lines and machinery at angles up to 45º for hard-to-reach applications.

Its design, which the company calls the ‘origami of PCB placement,’ was the brainchild of Tim Jakoboski, head of research and development at Cognex. ‘You’re basically running a full computer in a box that’s 30 by 30 by 60,’ he said.

The system is made up of four distinct printed circuit boards, one of which is a special kind of PCB called rigid-flex, which is a foldable board used in electronics such as the Apple iPod.

A rigid-flex PCB consists of a combination of flexible and rigid substrates laminated into a single package. These boards can be bent and folded in a way that allows electronics designers to replace multiple PCBs interconnected with connectors, wires and ribbon cables with one single package.

The system’s other three boards were interwoven together with multiple high-density connectors similar to the ones used in the mobile phone market.

‘We spent six to eight weeks integrating these boards to fit the tightest compartment using all the available connector styles and technologies,’ said Jakoboski.

With any small electronic package, one of the main concerns is heat dissipation. ‘Primarily when you are working on a system that doesn’t have sufficient mass or surface area to dissipate the heat, the aim is to not create it,’ said Jakoboski.

‘We spent a significant amount of time tuning power supplies to be highly efficient so we didn’t create that heat in the first place.’

One key part of the low-powered, low heat-generating design is a digital signal processor made by Texas Instruments. This, while low-powered, still maintains a processing speed of 600MGHz

For any heat created by the system, the designers used three different types of thermal compounds to transfer that heat through the boards and out of the case.

Apart from the size, another significant feature of In-Sight Micro is it does not use a standard voltage output. The system uses power over Ethernet as input power.

‘Designing the power over Ethernet circuitry was probably one of the most complicated parts of the process,’ said Jakoboski. Yet it was important.

‘This lets us reduce our cable count from two to one for many installations,’ he said, ‘which allows for a fairly tight installation on factory floors.’

In addition to being easy to install, In-Sight Micro’s designers say it is also easy to use. The system’s EasyBuilder configuration software is designed to make the vision system simple to set up and deploy. By just pointing and clicking, the software guides users as they set up a vision application. There is no need for programming — even when a user wants to customise a complex application. The company said while other systems can take two days to programme, EasyBuilder takes only 20 minutes.

In-Sight Micro was recently launched in the UK and the company has been targeting markets ranging from semiconductor manufacturers to the food and beverage industry. The technology features five different models that cover a range of price, performance and resolution levels, including a two-megapixel model.

While Cognex has the smallest vision system on the market, Jakoboski said that in the future an even smaller version could be possible.’It is technically possible,’ he said, ‘but I think for a while we are going to run with this size.’