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Machine vision market: Registering recovery?

Photonics Spectra
Dec 2009
Caren B. Les, caren.les@laurin.com

WELLINGBOROUGH, UK — In the fourth quarter of 2008, machine vision companies saw sales fall an average of 15 percent from fourth quarter 2007 figures, according to John Morse, senior market analyst for the Automation Control Group at IMS Research. The firm’s research showed that some machine vision companies saw up to a 50 percent decline in sales revenues during the first two months of 2009.

As a result, in May, the company reduced its worldwide forecast for machine vision hardware, from 2008 to 2009, from a predicted growth of 7 percent to a revenue reduction of 13.4 percent. It indicated at that time that sales to the automotive, semiconductor and related industries were the worst affected, while sales to medical and infrastructure-related industries fared better.

Fastrack.jpgIn September, IMS Research reported that the machine vision market appeared to be on the road to steady recovery, based on data submitted by companies that supply machine vision-related products. Data for the second quarter of 2009 signaled that the machine vision market revenues in America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa experienced some leveling, Morse said. The apparent stabilization could be the result of more encouraging economic forecasts – and restocking within the industry – after many users had been living off their inventory since the downturn hit, he added.

“Asian revenues were estimated to have grown 10 percent in second-quarter 2009, following a sharp decline in the first quarter,” he said. “Around 40 percent of the machine vision business in the Asia-Pacific region is centered in Japan, which suffered particularly badly when the downturn hit.” Japan relies on exports to Europe, North America and other regions, and demand from these areas had dried up during the recession, he explained.

Morse said that some leveling off of the affected markets, possibly even mild growth, was expected in the third quarter of 2009, driven mainly by auto-related industries such as machine tooling, which is seeing a slight increase in orders.

He considers the main challenges for the machine vision market to be survival and riding out the economic storm, without sacrificing the staff and resources that can be used to advantage when the upturn comes. He said the main drivers in the upcoming years will be the overall economic need for automated inspection to reduce manufacturing costs and ensure the quality of products. An important application is in-line inspection, especially where records must be kept, such as for pharmaceutical products and aircraft parts, he said.

Smart growth

Paul Kellett, director of market analysis at the Automated Imaging Association in Ann Arbor, Mich., expects that smart cameras will continue to have a high rate of growth. He said that, once capital budgets begin to increase, cameras offering high bandwidth interfaces and frame rates also are likely to sell well, along with other machine vision products used with them.

He said that the value proposition of machine vision likely will prove increasingly compelling. He noted that recovery in the broader economy is not immediately translating into recovery for the machine vision industry.

First, Kellett said, the manufacturing sectors must begin to expand, and then production capacity must be sufficient to entail increases in capital budgets. Until capital budgets start to increase, there will not be much growth in machine vision orders, he said. Those orders then must be converted to shipments before sales revenue is realized. To the extent that sufficient inventory does not exist, new machine vision products must be manufactured, resulting in additional delay in revenue realization from the product order cycle.

In nontraditional industries, machine vision technology will enable new applications, such as the inspection of solar cells, microelectromechanical devices, weld seams on wind turbine tower sections and turbine blade surfaces, and advanced lithium battery electrodes and enclosures, Kellett said. As recycling grows in scope, the need for automated sorting based on machine vision technology will grow with it, he added.

Machine vision companies may be able to capitalize on the current efforts of automobile companies to develop electric cars and the advanced new batteries that will be used to power them, he said, noting that the US government’s Advanced Battery Manufacturing Initiative is an available source of funding in this area.

Countries with modernizing economies such as China and India may be considered rising areas of demand for machine vision products, as well as established countries where new technology markets are emerging, Kellett said.

“Like other industries, machine vision has suffered through the ‘great recession.’ While that has been long and painful, and will not end this year, the longer-term prospects for machine vision look bright. Time is on our side,” he said.


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