The Battle Cools Off
The CMOS marketplace will consolidate, CCDs will continue to advance and cameras
will become more integrated — all of which should benefit
One of the most significant imaging technology events will occur in 2002 because of
business circumstances: consolidation of the CMOS imaging marketplace. The past
five years has been a period of great enthusiasm for the potential of CMOS imagers,
which were promoted in varying degrees as performing as well as CCDs while being
more highly integrated and less expensive. They were heralded to displace CCDs in
traditional applications and to enable entirely new applications, especially in
consumer and near-consumer imaging products.
In some cases, CMOS imagers have risen to prominence,
particularly for those applications that don’t need the high image quality
of CCDs. In applications such as PC videoconferencing, games, automobiles, desktop
scanners, bar-code scanners and security cameras, they are becoming the norm.
However, the realities of a demanding
marketplace are taking their toll on the world of CMOS imagers. A few years ago,
a good but untested argument for these imagers triggered rampant experimentation
by both producers and customers, creating distorted market behavior. Cheap capital
from investors subsidized products and allowed consumers to buy at prices well below
true costs. This created artificially high demand, and many buyers were drawn in
by curiosity despite limited or uncertain benefits.
This state of affairs is giving way
to the challenges of operating a sustainable, competitive CMOS imager business.
In many applications, when image quality matters more than integration, CCDs remain
a more suitable technology. They are superior to CMOS imagers in performance-driven
applications ranging from the consumer realm — such as video cameras and digital
still cameras — to high-end uses in industrial, scientific and medical imaging.
As a result of the limited success
of CMOS technology in performance-driven applications, a contraction of players
in the CMOS imager industry is already under way. This trend will gain momentum
during 2002, as participating companies exhaust the eager capital of a few years
ago. The best CMOS business units — those with substantial differentiating
technology that lowers costs and improves application-specific performance —
will continue and thrive. Intermediate firms will consolidate — subject to
the egos of management — to try to achieve critical mass in technology and
market share to become efficient. The weaker and most overhyped firms will suffer
selective failure, and buyers will experience more limited product choices. Only
profitable, sustainable product lines will remain, but the post-shakeout CMOS imager
industry will emerge more solid and will offer customers better support.
The days of start-up CMOS imager businesses
coming to market with many new devices in a short period are giving way to a more
realistic pace of product development and launch, based on cash flow rather than
on capital. The era of breakthroughs and unlimited potential is gone. The demands
of running a business rather than an incubator for an exciting technology have set
in. Rational, streamlined product lines and producers will remain, delivering an
incremental and more sustainable pace of CMOS imager progression in 2002.
A web inspection system uses 15 Eclipse line-scan cameras to detect defects as small as
At the same time, CCDs continue to
advance. And steady performance strides in speed, dynamic range, image uniformity,
imager size and extended wavelength response will continue to characterize CCD development
Whether they use CCD or CMOS image
sensors, cameras will continue to shrink in size because of reduced component power
dissipation, higher component integration and smaller component footprints. Camera
integration will increase, resulting in richer user interfaces, enhanced programmability
and migration of system functions to the camera. These improvements will make cameras
easier to use and accessible for a broader range of applications. In industrial
uses, for example, camera improvements will continue to deliver increased automation
of manufacturing and quality control operations.
Standardization of camera interface
through the Camera Link protocol will increase competition because users will be
able to easily substitute cameras. This will place a greater premium on differentiation
of the front end of the camera: optics, sensor performance, camera size, functionality
and reliability. Proprietary camera interfaces that locked users into a particular
vendor will recede, creating a more vibrant marketplace of open standards competition.
Overall, 2002 promises steady progress
for imager and camera technologies. The hype and oversold expectations in some pockets
of the imaging industry over the past few years will die down as a more enduring
suite of products emerges. This will offer users better choices and more flexibility
to meet their imaging needs.
Meet the author
Dave Litwiller is vice president of corporate
marketing and business development at Dalsa Corp. in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
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