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Innovation in imaging and machine vision

Posted on 01/12/2018

Collaboration - with other industry sectors, with players in the same sector and with academia - is a fundamental driver in photonics innovation.

By Matthew Wasley, Knowledge Transfer Manager, Photonics

A recent report by the European organisation Photonics21 showed that while the European photonics industry, on the whole, grew less than the world market, imaging and machine vision succeeded in keeping pace.

The imaging and machine vision industry has already seen many changes, and as new developments such as artificial intelligence and even quantum imaging have the potential to drive huge change, it’s more important than ever for business to collaborate in order to innovate and succeed.  Help is available across Europe for collaboration, and businesses must grasp the opportunity this presents.

There is plenty of evidence to show that Europe holds its own on innovation.  Eleven of the top 20 innovating economies in the Global Innovation Index came from Europe, including the top three (Switzerland, Netherlands and Sweden).  In addition, the EU Industrial R&D Scoreboard, which tracks the 2,500 companies worldwide investing the largest sums in R&D, found that 567 EU companies accounted for 26% of the total R&D expenditure.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the R&D Scoreboard also found that these companies were actively engaged in scientific publications in a wide range of fields, often in collaboration with academia.  The Scoreboard report noted that there is a positive correlation between a firm’s R&D expenditure and the number of publications it has contributed to, which also holds true for patents.

Large companies, it seems, see the value in collaboration to drive innovation.  Academic collaboration is a part of this, as is collaboration with other business, notably around supply chains.  But what about SMEs; how can they access the same facilities as larger companies?  How can they find the expertise they need to bring innovative new products to market?  Fortunately, help is at hand.

There is support across Europe for companies looking to collaborate.  In the UK there are a number of organisations playing different roles in supporting companies.  Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) plays a key role in this process as part of the UK’s innovation support landscape.  KTN runs collaboration events across the UK, connecting business to business and business to academia.  KTN is interested not only in supporting collaboration across an industry vertical, but also encouraging connections across different sectors.

An example of cross-sectoral working can be found in the case of a laser manufacturer who came to KTN with a method of imaging plant collagen but had no connections into agriculture.  KTN’s expertise in different areas enabled the manufacturer to link with a crop specialist and, with KTN support, go on to set up an R&D collaboration.

Very often R&D collaboration is thought of as university-to-business, but this is by no means the full story – the business-to-business relationship is an important one.  Mark Williamson, Managing Director of Stemmer Imaging, said that very often the most successful collaborations are with the company’s customers: “We’ve found that the most successful relationships with our customers are where we’ve developed a genuine partnership.  We might work with a company which has a great product, but very limited machine vision experience and we can collaborate with them to develop and integrate the imaging technology.”

Like many companies Stemmer Imaging also engages with the academic base, supporting master’s students and offering industrial placements.  This approach reflects the fact that companies work with universities in several different ways, from recruitment to R&D, licensing and ongoing relationships between the universities and their alumni.

At the R&D level, it’s important that the parties understand each other’s drivers and motivations.  Academics need to undertake new research and publish, whereas often the company partner is looking for a near-term solution and confidentiality is necessary.  However, evidence from the UK’s innovation funding body suggests that there is an overall advantage for projects with academic partners. It seems these different perspectives can be useful though in finding new solutions to problems.

The ability of the imaging and machine vision industry to innovate has been key to its growth, but the pace of technological change is rapid and the industry must continue to innovate to stay ahead.  It is clear that collaboration – with other industry sectors, with players in the same sector and with academia – is a fundamental driver in innovation.