Giving Robots Perspective
Coherix, Inc., of Ann Arbor, Michigan gives sight to machines. The company’s 3D vision systems monitor robotic manufacturing operations to ensure that consistency, quality and precision are maintained. Led by a veteran of the high-tech industrial solutions world, Coherix has been earning kudos and has just secured a partnership that could result in huge growth.
“If you want to simplify it, we put eyes on robots. And the world is 3D, so we put 3D eyes on robots. That’s very simply what we do,” explains Dwight Carlson, Coherix Chairman, CEO and Founder.
Machine vision systems made by Coherix can be used to inspect parts and processes, and to guide robotic operations. By compiling data and spotting errors, the company’s solutions reduce downtime and waste, while boosting throughput and efficiency.
Coherix provides its systems to manufacturers, application providers and system integrators. Specific clients include Ford, Honda, Panasonic and Toyota, and vision system integrators such as VRSI, VistaLink and Vantage, as well as adhesive dispensing equipment producers Atlas Copco and Nordson. From its base in Ann Arbor, Coherix has operations in China, Germany, Japan and Singapore.
“Our biggest market region is China, second is Europe, third is Japan and fourth is the Americas. We are a global company; over 80 percent of our revenues come from outside of North America,” states Carlson.
While the company subs out some machining work, product development is done in-house. The company benefits from being based in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan and its excellent talent pool. Coherix has a close relationship with the university, with some graduates working for the company.
According to Carlson, Coherix’s strong focus on 3D technology sets the company apart from other machine vision providers.
“The competition is all about 2D vision. There are some very good companies, but the world is in 3D, and 3D machine vision is ten times more complicated to develop, but ten times easier and more reliable in manufacturing than 2D vision,” he says.
Among other drawbacks, a 2D machine vision system only “sees” things as a flat picture. Without another point of view from a slightly different angle, it is more difficult to gauge the height of parts and such systems might not detect subtle changes in part contours, colours and shapes. A 3D system, by contrast, offers far greater accuracy in terms of part height, thickness, volume, curves, and more.
If the emphasis on 3D capability gives Coherix an edge, the company is also well positioned to benefit from ongoing industry trends such as the push towards “light weighting”. Making vehicles and planes lighter to increase fuel efficiency has become something of an obsession in automotive and aerospace circles. To achieve this end, companies are using parts that weigh less but are just as strong and durable as traditional parts. These parts are often joined with industrial-strength sealants and adhesives, rather than traditional welding methods.
In such cases, manufacturers must to ensure that adhesive is placed correctly and applied at a consistent volume. This is where the Coherix Predator3D™ machine vision system really shines; the system is mounted on a robotic arm, around an adhesive dispensing nozzle. Four high-speed 3D sensors provide complete, 360-degree views of sealant or adhesive beads. A software program embedded in Predator3D called i-Cite analyzes the width, height, location and volume of beads to detect gaps and errors.
“Right now, gluing and sealing is a big opportunity. Predator3D is THE product for gluing and sealing in the auto industry and the electronics industry,” states Carlson.
The i-Cite software program at the heart of Predator3D is also utilized by Coherix’s Robust3D™ machine vision system. Robust3D is primarily used for spotting errors in manufacturing assemblies. The system relies on Tru3D™ sensors to perform visual scans of parts. Three-dimensional models of part assemblies are created which are then reviewed by i-Cite software for errors and failures. Robust3D is a useful inspection tool, particularly in automotive and electronics manufacturing.
Developing innovative industrial software such as the i-Cite program is a Coherix specialty. The company regularly sends new software releases to applications engineers around the world and to its channel partners, and they decide whether or not to implement a given release.
In 2019, the company released a pair of new software programs called RobotOptimize and RobotAssist. As the product name implies, RobotOptimize is designed to create optimal robotic dispensing paths. Programmers can access RobotOptimize through a laptop or the human machine interface (HMI) on a Predator3D system.
“Whenever you’re working with robots that are doing functions on a complex path, there’s a tremendous amount of cost involved in the programming and re-programming throughout the entire launch process, then through production. It’s very expensive. There’s a lot of downtime, waiting for the robot program. Our mission, for all of our customers, is to create the perfect robot path in the shortest time. That’s what Optimize is all about,” explains Carlson.
For its part, RobotAssist speeds up and simplifies the robot programming and re-programming process required for part changes. In this manner, RobotAssist software can reduce downtime and costs.
In addition to coming up with new products and software, Coherix offers clients extensive training and support. Coherix staff will work with customers to determine the best machine vision solution for their needs. Training involves showing customers how to make the best use of their hardware and software and how to analyze machine vision data.
Coherix, Inc. is not Carlson’s first foray into the world of industrial high-tech solutions. As an engineering graduate from the Flint, Michigan-based General Motors Institute in the late 1960s, Carlson founded a firm called XYCOM. Carlson served as president and CEO of the company, which was a pioneer in the field of industrial microcomputers, from 1968 to 1981. During his tenure, XYCOM developed the first microcomputers for use in gas station pumps to control fuel dispensing.
Carlson left XYCOM to launch a new venture called Perceptron in 1981. Perceptron quickly became a leader in non-contact machine vision technology. Among other achievements, the company developed a measurement solution that manufacturers could use for quality control purposes.
Carlson worked as Perceptron’s CEO and president until 1996. By the time he stepped down, the firm had become a roaring success, with annual sales of more than $50 million and a market valuation of $350 million. Carlson moved on and Perceptron continued to offer innovative machine vision solutions.
“Coherix, which was incorporated in 2003, is the third innovative manufacturing company we started here in the Ann Arbor area,” states Carlson.It’s clear they know what they’re doing!
Many industry experts would agree. Coherix picked up a gold-level 2018 Innovators Award from Vision Systems Designs magazine, for its Predator3D Bead Inspection (embedded vision) system. Back in 2009, Coherix earned the Henry Ford Technology Award by the Ford Motor Company. Coherix won this honor — the highest technical achievement award given out by Ford — for developing ShaPix 3D High Definition Holography for measuring purposes in collaboration with Ford.
Coherix is affiliated with several industry groups including the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), Leveraging Innovation Technology (LIT) and the Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT). Carlson has served as Chairman of the Michigan Industrial Technology Institute (ITI) and the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center (MMTC). The company also enjoys a close relationship with the University of Michigan’s Manufacturing Research Center. In fact, the Director of the Center, Professor Jun Ni, serves on the Coherix Board of Directors.
Right now, Coherix employs roughly 70 people around the world, up from approximately 55 team members last year at this time, and yet it has maintained an excellent work culture among its team.
Carlson says the company is always on the lookout for qualified people with good attitudes. “We can train them for everything else. We cannot change an attitude.” Of course, given the nature of the work, high-tech skills can also be a requirement for a particular position.
For all its cutting-edge technical expertise, Coherix doesn’t ignore the importance of human contact when promoting its services and products. The company regularly attends trade shows and industry events. In October 2019 Coherix, for example, gave a presentation at the Nissan Manufacturing Innovation Summit. A month earlier, Coherix attended Insight @ BMW Manufacturing Co., LLC 2019, a major event hosted by the automotive OEM. The company also utilizes a website, social media and advertisements to promote itself.
The Coherix CEO has big goals for the firm: in five years, the company’s goal is to increase its earnings and be registered on the NASDAQ. To achieve this end, Coherix is relying on its excellent reputation, leading products and a major deal it just forged with Carlson’s old firm, Perceptron (which also sells coordinate measuring machines and automated metrology systems, in addition to 3D machine vision for robots).
Announced in November 2019, the deal will see Coherix and Perceptron teaming up in a global alliance. This move will almost certainly enhance and expand Coherix’s prominence and market reach.
The Perceptron deal bodes well for Coherix, in part due to better access to talented people around the world. “It’s a tremendous deal for us, and for them. Our products fit right into their market,” says Carlson.
The alliance will allow Coherix to benefit from the knowledge, experience and contacts of Perceptron’s globally based team of engineers and salespeople. The partnership with Perceptron underscores Coherix’s commitment to innovation and expansion.
Carlson certainly knows the lay of the land in this industry, and he enjoys the competitive innovation it’s built on. “We run as fast as we can to put a gap between us and our nearest competitor. We have now widened that gap,” he says. At Manufacturing in Focus, we certainly aim to watch this race, and look forward to following up on this story in the near future.