The 50th anniversary of the laser captured our attention last year, and this year we find ourselves observing that golden milestone for the industrial robot. I can watch robots and production machinery in action all day long, and I got my chance to do just that in late March when I spent a day at Automate 2011 in Chicago. The show is a production of the Automation Technologies Council, comprising the Robotics Industry Association, the Automated Imaging Association (AIA) and the Motion Control Association. Although the robots were fascinating, my main interest was recent developments in machine vision. “Advances in machine vision have played an important role in helping companies achieve improved product quality in industries such as food and beverage, semiconductors, electronics, automotive and pharmaceuticals for decades,” Jeff Burnstein, president of AIA, the industry’s trade group, said in a statement. “In recent years, the technology has expanded into a wide variety of nonmanufacturing industries such as security, lab automation, medical imaging, defense and entertainment, which is why we’re seeing rapid growth on a global basis,” he added. North American machine vision sales are recovering after declining by 29.2 percent in the first quarter of 2009 over the same period in 2008, according to reports from AIA. In one titled Quarterly Machine Vision Sales Tracking Report, covering the first quarter of 2010, North American machine vision sales increased by 34.4 percent over 2009 and rose again in the third quarter of 2010, when year-over-year growth hit 68 percent, up from the second quarter 2010 at 60 percent and the first quarter at 34 percent. On issuing the third-quarter 2010 report, Paul Kellet, AIA’s director of market analysis, said, “These results are very impressive, leaving little doubt that the recovery in the North American machine vision market is real and sustainable. Based on industry expectations, we expect the recovery to continue at least another six months.” Machine vision companies exhibiting at Automate 2011 included Adimec, Advanced Illumination, Basler Vision Technologies, CCS America, Edmund Optics, Flir, The Imaging Source, JAI, Keyence, LMI Technologies, Matrox Imaging, MVTec, National Instruments, PPT Vision, Point Grey, Resonon, Schneider Optics, Spectrum Illumination, Teledyne Dalsa, Toshiba Teli, Vision Components and Z-Laser America. At a press briefing during the show, Adimec, of Stoneham, Mass., presented an overview of trends in industrial CMOS and explained how its cameras address concerns including uniformity, shot noise and interface. On the show floor, Vision Components of Ettingen, Germany, displayed its smart cameras for quality inspection and automation, including one with a sensor modified to increase sensitivity in the near-infrared range, with applications for electroluminescence quality control in the photovoltaics industry. Edmund Optics, of Barrington, N.J., featured ultracompact lenses offering telecentricity with very low distortion, making them suitable for small-space applications such as circuit boards and semiconductor inspection. So, the picture is improving for machine vision sales in North America, and I’m looking forward to checking in on the industry in Europe in person when I attend Vision 2011 in Stuttgart, Germany, in October. A special issue of EuroPhotonics is in the works, with a focus on vision. In the meantime, I’ll see you at SPIE Optifab, May 9-11 in Rochester, N.Y., and at Laser World of Photonics, May 23-27, in Munich, Germany. Enjoy the issue.