On-line and unsupervised industrial inspection for quality control and process monitoring is increasingly required in the modern automated factory. Optical techniques are particularly well suited to industrial inspection in hostile environments because of their noncontact nature, fast response time and imaging capabilities. Optical sensors can be used for remote inspection of high temperature products or otherwise inaccessible parts, provided they are in a line-of-sight relation with the sensor. Moreover, optical sensors are much easier to adapt to a variety of part shapes, position or orientation and conveyor speeds as compared to contact-based sensors. This is an important requirement in a flexible automation environment. A number of choices are possible in the design of optical inspection systems. General-purpose two-dimensional (2-D) or three-dimensional (3-D) imaging techniques have advanced very rapidly in the last years thanks to a substantial research effort as well as to the availability of increasingly powerful and affordable hardware and software. Imaging can be realized using 2-D arrays or simpler one-dimensional (1-D) line-array detectors. Alternatively, dedicated single-spot sensors require a smaller amount of data processing and often lead to robust sensors which are particularly appropriate to on-line operation in hostile industrial environments. Many specialists now feel that dedicated sensors or clusters of sensors are often more effective for specific industrial automation and control tasks, at least in the short run. This paper will discuss optomechanical and electro-optical choices with reference to the design of a number of on-line inspection sensors which have been recently developed at our institute. Case studies will include real-time surface roughness evaluation on polymer cables extruded at high speed, surface characterization of hot-rolled or galvanized-steel sheets, temperature evaluation and pinhole detection in aluminum foil, multi-wavelength polymer sheet thickness gauging and thermographic imaging, 3-D lumber profiling, line-array inspection of textiles and glassware, as well as on-line optical inspection for the control of automated arc welding. In each case the design choices between single or multiple-element detectors, mechanical vs. electronic scanning, laser vs. incoherent illumination, etc. will be discussed in terms of industrial constraints such as speed requirements, protection against the environment or reliability of the sensor output.