June cover story: A new way of seeing

Vision Engineering
Vision Engineering

Vision Engineering has been at the forefront of microscope and industrial viewing technology development since the 1950s. Ed Hill visited the company to experience its very latest DRV-Z1 3D imaging innovation that it believes will revolutionise quality and inspection.

It’s not often we can single out a UK company as a genuine technological and manufacturing world leader but Vision Engineering, based in Send, Surrey, has spent the last 60 years developing some of the most pioneering visual inspection devices on the market.

Founded in 1958 by Rob Freeman, an ex-Jaguar racing team engineer, the company began by developing and manufacturing borescopes to inspect the interior of cylinder blocks without having to dismantle the engine. The devices also soon found widespread use in the burgeoning aero engine industry as they were ideal to inspect wear on turbine blades and other hard to access areas of the engine.

Since then this second generation, privately owned, British company has continued to develop numerous patents used in its technology and its optical stereo and digital microscopes are used for inspection and metrology applications in sectors ranging from electronics to automotive, aerospace and medical, jewellery and many others.

It exports to all areas of the globe and customers include world renowned brands such as Samsung, Bosch, Philips and Lexus (Toyota). More than 90% of Vision’s products are sent for export and in 2017/18 its turnover was just under £32 million. It also has a manufacturing plant based in the US where a large percentage of its sales are made.

As well as its own products Vision Engineering also supplies and manufactures instruments and components to other non-competitive companies. In the past, as well as optical devices these have included parts for highly detailed model steam engines and even exclusive shaving kits for the well-heeled.

Ergonomic advances

One of the company’s most significant world firsts was the development, 25 years ago, of its ‘eyepiece-less’ Mantis stereo microscope, which meant users could see objects on a large, heads-up viewing screen rather than being hunched over the eyepieces of a traditional microscope for lengthy hours. Sold worldwide, Mantis technology is the basis for many of Vision Engineering’s products and the device has won many design and innovation awards.

Vision Engineering’s products are divided into two main application areas: systems used primarily for quality control/inspection and the other main area of metrology and measurement.

“We make unique patented equipment,” Mark Curtis, managing director at Vision Engineering, begins. “Around 60% of our turnover comes from our own patented technology but importantly our main driving motivation is making ergonomic products – i.e. products that are easier for humans to use. These can be optical systems or digital technology based around video cameras.”

In recent years the company has been developing another world first using its patented TriTeQ technology in what it calls a DRV (Deep Reality Viewer).

The DRV-Z1 model, featuring a zoom module, launched at Control 2019 and described as a “revolutionary digital 3D stereoscopic display” is actually a clever combination of both optical (glass) and digital (video) technology.

Designed as an alternative to current virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) viewing devices, DRV-Z1 is said to avoid the sensory isolation and disorientation that these systems can impose on users when they have to wear uncomfortable headsets, goggles or other specialist glasses. It uses an ingenious combination of lenses, concave mirrors, digital cameras and display screens to produce a full high definition 3D image.

Another dimension

When the human eye looks through the DRV-Z1 viewer, objects appear to ‘float’ in space in front of the operator, yet at the same time the user’s peripheral vision and sense of sound and touch allows them to interact easily with other equipment such as PCs, hand tools or other work colleagues.

With the use of the control, objects can be spun, rotated, flipped and enlarged by the operator, revealing exceptional detail.

The technology is said to be particularly useful for companies that need to model and test components in 3D. It can help to address quality control and production requirements in sectors including electronics, aerospace, automotive and medical, helping to aid improvements in manufacturing processes such as deburring and reworking. Vision Engineering’s developers also see the technology being used in gaming and animation applications to produce ever more realistic computer-generated images.

Graham Mercer, design and development director at Vision Engineering comments: “DRV is a patented, disruptive viewing technology that provides: stereo 3D with vivid depth perception; unparalleled hand to eye coordination; a unique, real time stereo FHD (full high definition) resolution; ergonomic viewing experience with no special polarised eyewear or isolating VR headsets, and full communicability of real-time stereo FD across multiple sites.

“It is a realistic, highly usable tool for inspection and manipulation, analysis and interpretation in a wide range of industrial, laboratory, scanning and medical areas.”

Of course, this being the era of Industry 4.0, the new DRV-Z1 viewers can be fully networked to digital inputs meaning that images and data can be shared by Wi-Fi and other communication systems. These inputs mean that CAD files, MRI/CT or industrial scans can be examined and manipulated and microscopes/viewers can be ‘daisy chained’ across remote sites and interconnected systems to multiple users.

“The DRV-Z1 provides enhanced 3D visualisation and overcomes current problems with 3D modelling and inspection systems,” Mark Curtis adds. “By amalgamating our existing technologies, we’ve delivered an entirely new concept to our existing customer base as well as opening up opportunities in fresh markets.”

Home grown production

Another laudable approach found at Vision Engineering is its commitment to UK manufacturing. At its distinctively modern 84,000ft² headquarters in Send, its highly-skilled staff, design, develop and manufacture innovative products which have to perform to the highest standards for its customers in highly competitive, regulated and medical markets.

There’s a healthy ethos that UK technology companies can compete with the rest of the world without the need for outsourcing manufacturing. It’s hard not to believe that if all UK companies followed Vision’s example the state of our manufacturing sector would be much stronger.

“We develop products with global appeal in profitable markets,” Mr Curtis affirms. “And we develop products with sufficient technology advances and cost margins to make manufacturing in Western Europe and North America viable.”

In an age of increasing automation, Vision Engineering’s approach is essentially to make products that optimise human skills, knowledge and physiognomy with technology that makes inspection and metrology as accurate, efficient and straightforward as possible.

“Design is important with our new products,” Mr Curtis explains. “You have to counter two natural human responses. The first is ‘Will I break it?’ because it looks really complicated. The second is ‘Will it break me?’ because it is going to be too difficult for me to use.

“We make instruments that are user friendly. We achieve this by using intuitive non-lingual controls, because most of our products are sold to markets where English is not the first language. This means the Graphical User Interface (GUI) is very important and our designs have to encourage users to touch and interact with them easily.”

He concludes: “Our equipment is about speed, accuracy and control, helping an individual to look at what they are seeing, interpret that image and use their experience to assess or measure it.

“Our main function is enhancing the human/viewer interface so users can optimise their knowledge and experience, ultimately to improve quality and productivity.”

Vision Engineering www.visioneng.com

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