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New Environments Pose New Challenges for Imaging Components

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2005
John M. Stack, Edmund Industrial Optics

The world of automated imaging has expanded substantially from its origins in scientific and industrial machine vision applications, and it will continue to advance into new markets in the coming year. Driven by improved component technology, faster processing power and decreasing prices, it is little wonder that everyone, from the US Army to automobile manufacturers to those designing the next generation of DNA sequencers, is finding a new way to integrate automated imaging technology into an operation.

As these and other emerging markets develop cutting-edge applications, they will require automated imaging to support more innovative design and manufacturing methods. One example is the cell phone market, where integrated digital cameras have become a popular value-added feature for mobile devices. The lenses designed for these cameras must maintain high levels of contrast and resolution. The problem, however, is that conventional metrology equipment for measuring lens performance metrics, such as modulation transfer function, cannot keep pace with the current monthly production of cell phone cameras — numbering in the millions.

This manufacturing challenge has spawned a new generation of unconventional, high-speed, modulation-transfer-function metrology inspection systems based on automated imaging technology. These systems borrow more from high-throughput semiconductor applications than they do from conventional optical metrology devices. Given the higher performance these production volumes demand from automated imaging technology, expect to see an evolution over the next few years toward the delivery of higher resolutions, faster throughput, more intelligent data processing and more flexibility.

Emerging markets also will drive the development of small, integrated imaging systems that incorporate LED illumination and the camera and lens components in a compact package. These packages likely will find application in less-than-ideal environments, including automobile guidance systems. For commercial lens designers, this will pose challenges more familiar to defense designers, such as building systems that can perform well in environments with very little or no light available or in those with stray light from other sources. Consequently, commercial lens designers increasingly will have to address stray light issues and to consider nonsequential-based illumination.

Fortunately, the number of software design packages that perform such analysis has increased. However, few designers are sufficiently knowledgeable or experienced to truly utilize the capability of these programs. This factor will play a role in how fast designs will evolve to address stray light and illumination issues.

Advances in smart camera technology are another trend pushing the bounds of automated imaging. Driven by onboard processing and miniaturization, smart cameras are replacing many standard PC-driven systems. This will improve flexibility in imaging package design and will expand potential imaging markets dramatically.

The US Army’s Land Warrior program, for example, intends to equip foot soldiers with the ability to view video and graphical data, as well as to offer them imagery from weapon-mounted thermal sights. To accomplish this, designers will have to devise smaller and smaller imaging packages that likely will incorporate high-performance smart cameras, lenses and illumination components. Such programs will drive camera, lens and illumination manufacturers to push the size, weight and power requirements of both components and systems.

Meet the author

John M. Stack is president of Edmund Industrial Optics in Barrington, N.J.; e-mail:

The science of measurement, particularly of lengths and angles.
automated imagingdefenseFeaturesindustrialindustrial machine vision applicationsintegrate automated imaging technologymetrologyscientific

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