Interview on the 35th anniversary

In 1986, Dr Hermann Tropf founded the company VisionTools. Initially as a one-man company in private premises, the move to a former cheroots factory in St. Leon-Rot followed soon, where, with constant growth, the development of the Vision-Verify (later V60) image processing software and increasingly powerful hardware was driven forward. At today's location in Waghäusel-Wiesental and its branch offices, VisionTools employs about 90 staff; the systems are in operation worldwide.

On the occasion of the 35th anniversary, we held a brief interview with Hermann Tropf about the circumstances of the foundation of VisionTools.

Mr Tropf, what made you decide to become self-employed and start a business in 1986? 

At that time, I saw an opportunity to solve the three main problems of industrial image processing: These were: high prices for hardware, long computing times and lack of configurability. 

As far as hardware was concerned, the mid-1980s was a time of upheaval. Machine vision systems at that time were expensive systems with specialised hardware that cost at least 100,000 DM, usually much more. With the advent of PCs and inexpensive frame grabbers, suddenly there was a chance to implement complete systems for a fraction of that. And with the IBM industrial computer, there was also a PC suitable for industry at the right time.
As far as computing power was concerned, the key was limitation: firstly, by carefully designing a few elementary functions and, secondly, by limiting to tasks with stationary objects and to tasks where the regions to be evaluated were small and easy to localise. Tasks like that were in abundance in industry and they still do exist today.
At that time, it was an obstacle that each application had to be programmed specifically. I was able to remedy this by reducing it all to a few basic functions and providing tools with which the user themself could compile and parameterise these basic functions into an application - this was my major contribution. That's why I named the company Vision Tools. Years later, the catch phrase "configuring instead of programming" came up in general.

So at that time I saw the possibility to put into practise a company with good development potential without having to invest overly large amounts.

And how do you see the situation today?

Today, once again industrial image processing is in a period of upheaval. With the performance of today's hardware and the current maturity of AI methods, the window to new shores is opening once again.

For example, we are working specifically on advanced virtual commissioning, based solely on CAD data of the workpieces and the acquisition and lighting geometry, so that on-site work can be reduced to a minimum. That way we are also tackling the issues of high numbers of variants and rapid product changes.

Back story

Long before VisionTools existed, our company founder Dr. Hermann Tropf had been scientifically involved in the field. As head of the machine vision group at the Fraunhofer Institute for Information and Data Processing in Karlsruhe, he was one of the pioneers of industrial image processing. Theoretical work was awarded prizes (IEEE Computer Society Pattern Recognition Award 1980, German Association for Pattern Recognition extra award 1987), pioneering practical applications successfully ran over the long term at VW, Ford and Siemens. Details (in German).

A fundamental work on multidimensional range search in mass data found its way into diverse technical applications and into today commercial big data systems. Details (in German) with history, applications. For explanation of the key function (LITMAX / BIGMIN), with  Pascal source code, see here.

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