Emage Vision's automated systems can replace human inspectors

Chairman Charles Cher talks about the importance of innovation as well as the possibility of an IPO


IMAGINE a factory floor devoid of human inspectors, with machines doing all the work instead. That scenario is actually a reality these days for Emage Vision, a company that produces "machine vision" machines designed and built to replace human inspection.

Emage Vision chairman Charles Cher said in an interview with The Business Times that these systems look out for and weed out defects for mission-critical devices in the production processes.

He added that the company's latest product - a machine-learning vision inspection system - is a hybrid system incorporating the best of machine vision as well as machine learning.

"(This is) probably the first of its kind in the world. We have successfully launched and implemented it on the production floor already. It was launched sometime in the middle of 2019," he said.

Some of Emage Vision's customers include companies in the pharmaceutical and semiconductor industries.

Describing machine vision as robust, fast and consistent, Mr Cher saw this development as a natural step in the move towards automating manufacturing processes.

On how he got into this field, Mr Cher shared that it was about 20 years ago when he was in the equipment business and companies at that time were just starting to look into automation.

"Customers started to ask me about vision inspection, so that was the trigger," he said.

In the black

Incorporated in 2011, Emage Vision has been profitable since its first financial year in 2012, with its revenue growing from S$3 million in 2012 to around S$9 million last year.

Mr Cher declined to reveal specific information regarding its funding, and he would only say that the company's funding has been "all organic" so far.

While discussing the company's financials, the possibility of Emage Vision going for an initial public offering cropped up, although Mr Cher cautioned that there are many considerations in wanting to go public.

"(There's the) timing of the market and whether you qualify. It is always something at the back of our mind but we are not obsessed with it. Building and growing the business, that's our obsession," he said.

"What we want to do is to continue to develop innovative solutions for the market. We want to incorporate machine learning as part and parcel of our product offerings. Hopefully, we want to disrupt the machine vision industry with our hybrid system," Mr Cher added.

He acknowledged that while the machine vision industry is fairly new, there is vast potential for growth.

"By incorporating machine learning into machine vision, we are able to help the customer increase their yield, reduce their costs and boost productivity."

Overcoming obstacles

Mr Cher stressed that Emage Vision has encountered many hurdles along the way, with its credibility often thrown into question.

He said: "Why would a multi-national customer trust a young company to provide solutions in their critical production line? That's one of the challenges we faced. We (overcame) it through what we call 'relentless innovation'.

"We continue to develop innovative products. We earn our spurs by demonstrating to customers that our product works, and that our products are superior. We continue to innovate, develop and further enhance our existing solutions on a continuing basis to the customer."

The two other challenges that Mr Cher faced revolved around talent - namely, the lack of local engineering talent and the difficulty in hiring foreign manpower.

One way that Emage Vision has attempted to resolve the latter was to set up engineering bases in India and Vietnam, which provide engineering support and develop solutions about products.

When asked if he would describe Emage Vision as a first-mover, Mr Cher said it was a difficult question to answer.

"We are first-movers in a sense that our hardware and software are customised for a customer's specific requirements. We don't sell standard products. We work very closely with the customer, with them telling us exactly what they want," he explained.

"We customise the hardware and software just for that particular requirement. From that sense, I can say we are first-movers. We think it (machine vision) is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of being implemented in the factory."