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NxtGen is only self-aligning, fully automated in-line system for film and sheet inspection

Dark Field Technologies
The system from Dark Field Technologies (Shelton, CT) is designed to work with cast film and plastic sheet and film.

The automated optical inspection (AOI) system market was estimated to be worth $444 million in 2018 and is expected to reach $1.6 billion by 2024, achieving a compound annual growth rate of 24.3% during that period, according to a recent report from MarketsandMarkets (Pune, India). The major factors fueling growth of the AOI market, according to the Automated Optical Inspection Systems Market report, include growing demand for consumer electronics, increasing need for high-quality electronic components and demand for higher productivity by electronics manufacturing services (EMS) companies.

Optical vision systems also are in demand for many applications in plastics processing, including for the detection of off-spec parts in injection molding operations or for sorting resins by type in a recycling environment. “Those are very simple optical systems, and we don’t do ‘simple,’” commented Tim Potts, President of Dark Field Technologies (Shelton, CT), to PlasticsToday.

Dark Field Technologies has developed a unique state-of-the-art technology that uses a combination of lasers and cameras to make the only self-aligning, fully automated in-line system with a host of benefits for film and sheet manufacturers. Potts explained that the challenge with some optical systems is that they can drift out of alignment. That won’t happen with the company’s NxtGen system, and it does not require any maintenance. It’s also the smallest system on the market, because space on film lines is at a premium.

The NxtGen system is designed to work with cast film and plastic sheet and film. It’s simple to install and offers the highest resolution—down to 1 micron measurement and detection. “Where these benefits are best suited is in high-value-added films such as laminated films, because our system is the most technically advanced and costs more to produce,” said Potts.

The Dark Field system generates reports and trends, so it can be customized to show the information required in real time. “Many systems generate lots of data but don’t generate information,” Potts said. “Our system goes from data to information to provide custom reports and trends, and can detect repeating defects and clusters of defects.”

Dark Field Technologies’ focus is on PC, PE and coated films—barrier films that can be used with multiple layers of plastic film. “We can inspect the film and coatings inside a vacuum chamber from outside the chamber, detecting pin holes, lumps and particles down to 1 micron. No other system can make that claim,” Potts stated.

Dark Field Technologies’ NxtGen system is being used to produce different types of plastic film membranes for biological operations and in reverse osmosis (RO). “These RO membranes are going into the largest desalination plant in the western hemisphere, located in Oceanside, CA,” said Potts.

The company was founded in 1997 and for most of its history the vision systems were built by Dark Fields’ partners in England and Germany. “We came out with NxtGen lasers about 10 years ago. They are so much more powerful and less costly to make in the U.S. than in Germany, so we closed down our European operations and today they are 100% made in USA.”

Potts noted that in addition to allowing manufacturers to perform inspections easier, faster and more reliably, Dark Fields’ systems for film and sheet applications also increase production yields, reduce costs and create better products.

“In our markets—at the very highest end—the drivers for demand of the NxtGen laser inspection systems are quality requirements, which are getting tougher and tougher,” said Potts. “The defects that must be found are getting smaller to the extent that human beings can no longer find the defects with the naked eye or even using conventional optical systems. Customers no longer accept a moderate level of defects—they want vendors to certify that what they’re shipping is defect-free, and the only way to get that level of quality is to automate the inspection process with a high-end laser vision system, such as Dark Field’s solid state laser reflection (SSLR) technology.”

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