Machine vision technology remains the key to quality, productivity and competitiveness in production. It also is extending beyond the traditional factory applications and beginning to conquer new markets such as robotic vision.In Europe and, specifically, Germany, machine vision has experienced above-average growth rates.Market sales rose 7 percent in 2005 and are expected to increase 9 percent in 2006, achieving an overall value of €1.1 billion. A survey of members of the German Engineering Federation (VDMA) estimates that the rate will increase another 8 percent in 2007. As in 2005, exports account for much of the growth in 2006. For the first time, higher sales were achieved by shipments going abroad than by goods sold within the country (55 percent). Also for the first time, sales in Germany dropped 5 percent from 2004 to 2005, attributed to its sluggish investment activity. Sales to Asia in the same period dropped 4 percent. The main growth was seen in exports to North America (42 percent). Exports to other European countries rose by 18 percent, whereas total exports rose 20 percent. In a study conducted by the European Machine Vision Association, growth of 9 percent was seen throughout Europe from 2004 to 2005. Sales to North America rose 43 percent, while sales within Europe increased a moderate 6 percent. A 3 percent drop was noted in Asia, attributed to cyclical customer sectors. The estimate for 2006, based on input from 55 European companies, is for an overall increase of 14 percent over 2005.Within individual product groups, German producers showed the greatest growth rate (45 percent) in configurable systems. In Europe overall, configurable systems rose 39 percent (Figure 1). These systems are not application-specific, making them more attractive to a greater number of buyers. Application-specific systems in Germany decreased 3 percent, whereas overall in Europe they rose 2 percent.Figure 1. Machine vision products continue to grow in Germany (blue) and in Europe (brown). Data from VDMA.Among the components within machine vision, lighting showed a growth rate of 34 percent from 2004 to 2005 in Germany. This is attributed to the availability of a greater variety of lighting, and the fact that customers are now more likely to buy standard lighting than to develop their own.Machine vision software is another area of growth (29 percent), with software libraries leading the way in Germany. As with configurable hardware systems, software libraries allow the user to configure various applications more easily and without extensive prior knowledge. In the camera realm, smart cameras led the way at a 26 percent growth rate in Germany and Europe in general from 2004 to 2005. Conventional machine vision cameras increased 16 percent among the German suppliers — 10 percent among the European suppliers — in the same period. Not surprisingly, optical systems achieved a growth of 10 percent, riding the increased growth in the camera market, with inspection being the leading application (Figure 2). Figure 2. The most common application for vision systems and smart cameras in 2005 was inspection. Data from VDMA. Frame grabbers, on the other hand, have stagnated, with a drop of 1 percent from 2004 to 2005. This is owing to the unmistakable trend toward digital cameras, which can be used directly, without simple frame grabbers, through USB or FireWire connections. However, for applications where the processing of very high data rates is involved, such as in the rapid and high-resolution inspection of continuous material, frame grabbers show a rising trend.Throughout Europe, including Germany, the automotive industry accounts for 30 percent of the sales of machine vision systems, followed by glass manufacturers (13 percent in Europe and 16 percent in Germany). The printing industry is next, with a 10 percent share in Europe, though only 2 percent in Germany. Another important sector is electrical/electronics (9 percent in Europe, 10 percent in Germany).One-fifth of the sales were realized by systems providers selling products for applications outside of industrial mass production. This field includes the automated production of hemograms, the detection of opposing traffic on roads and tracks, the reading of license plates and remittance slips, and iris and fingerprint recognition systems. In Europe, component producers achieved 31 percent and in Germany, 35 percent, with these nonindustrial customers accounting for a large part of those sales.Turning to applications, inspection of parts and continuous materials dominates. In Germany, nearly half the sales of systems producers is for parts inspection, although in all of Europe, it is only 40 percent. Inspection of continuous materials is second at 21 percent in Germany, whereas it is 26 percent in Europe overall. Metrological applications, both two- and three-dimensional, rose 13 percent in Germany and totaled 15 percent in Europe. Other important applications include robot guidance systems, recognition of parts and characters as well as the reading of codes. In Europe, parts inspection led the way with 40 percent of the market.Machine vision technologies are becoming easier to use, hardware size is decreasing, and cameras are becoming more efficient and computers faster. Standardized interfaces facilitate and accelerate integration into existing systems. This creates excellent potential for further growth, which will open up even more new applications and market areas.Meet the authorDietmar Ley is CEO of Basler AG in Ahrensburg, Germany, and chairman of the VDMA Machine Vision Group; e-mail: email@example.com.