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Machine vision market: Weathering the storm

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Caren B. Les, [email protected]

In the opinion of John Morse, senior market analyst for the Automation and Control division of IMS Research, the machine vision sector will be slightly more resilient to the adverse market conditions that prevail in industrial automation in general. The main reason, he said, is that many businesses will be motivated toward more automation, and vision inspection will be an option. The food and beverage industry is expected to be a better market for machine vision than the badly hit automotive sector, he said.

Morse, author of a May 2008 report titled The World Market for Machine Vision Hardware, said that IMS plans to update the report in 2009. In 2008, he forecast that the world machine vision market would grow to more than $2.1 billion by 2012. According to the report summary, prospects for the industry over the long term are expected to be good because the continuing high rate of technical development enables more control and inspection applications to be developed and involves greater use of machine vision.

The scope of the report is the market for machine vision hardware, which encompasses smart cameras and smart sensors, compact vision systems, personal-computer-based machine vision systems, machine vision lighting and cameras, and frame grabbers.

A variety of factors were considered in making the market forecast, including plant construction and upgrades, the rate at which new machine vision technology is being applied in new areas, the underlying economic growth of the overall market, and the growth rates reported by manufacturers and users of machine vision products.

iStock_5181783Med.jpgThe continuing development of built-in software products for smart cameras, smart sensors and compact vision systems is expected to contribute to increased use of machine vision, according to Morse. It will enable users to set up their own systems instead of employing a systems house for all but the most complicated applications, he added. And new suppliers to this market will need to have access to software expertise to compete.

Morse said that, although most of his research is focused on factory and process automation, there are groups at IMS Research that specialize in the medical, security, surveillance and transport industries. He is finding that more companies that specialize in industrial automation are selling products to these other markets, and that market sector boundaries are becoming harder to define. He suggested that one of the main reasons is the greater need for image quality, particularly in security-related markets.

Stability and growth

High-output LEDs have become the No. 1 choice for machine vision lighting, according to Morse. More users are purchasing commercially made units rather than making their own light arrangements, mainly because the quality of cameras has improved and exceptionally good lighting is required to reap the benefits of their features. Also, there is a need to replace a like-for-like lighting source quickly. New suppliers to the machine vision lighting market would have to be aware of the increased need for heat-management expertise to produce reliable products, according to the report.

Morse has observed a decline in the use of frame grabbers as more industrial automation users opt for smart cameras that don’t need them. However, the market for frame grabbers appears to be holding up in other application areas, such as security, he said.

The economic downturn is affecting the world machine vision market but, as growth in the Asia-Pacific region was estimated to be highest in 2008, Morse said that growth in that region is unlikely to go negative in 2009 and beyond, noting that no prediction can be certain. Costs in China are growing at a high rate, especially labor costs, he said, and this trend leaves the country struggling to maintain its low-cost status. He said he is aware of machine vision companies that have ventured into the Chinese market and found it difficult to sell quality products and high technology.

According to the report summary, a few large global corporations manufacture a wide range of machine vision products, and many smaller companies supply the market, some of which supply a limited range of products, but specifically to the machine vision market, and others of which manufacture products for specific niche markets.

A company voice in the wilderness

Douglas Malchow, business development manager for industrial products at Sensors Unlimited Inc. in Princeton, N.J., part of Goodrich Corp., said that it is clear that the effects of last fall’s turmoil in the financial market are upsetting all other markets and that the landscape is changing so completely that predictions are almost meaningless, whether for one’s own investments or for the corporation’s investments. He believes that some companies will seize the moment to invest in improving their productivity, but that most will at least hesitate on new investments. Unfortunately, this will hurt machine vision revenue for a year or more, he said.

When asked about the most important challenge facing the machine vision market, he said it is convincing the customer that value proposition for machine vision investment pays off immediately in lower production costs, higher yield and increased production quality, sustaining profitable pricing in uncertain financial times.

Technical developments

The counterforce driving the purchase of machine vision systems is the increased pressure for safe, consistent and reliable foods, medicines, products and transportation, Malchow said. He noted that these pressures are benefiting the short-wavelength-IR detectors market, as some of Sensors Unlimited’s customers for linear arrays are supplying near-IR spectrometers to monitor milk and other food products. The continuing size reduction of near-IR spectrometers is opening up field testing and manufacturing markets as well, he said.

The SU-LDH high-speed square 25-μm-pixel short-wavelength infrared digital line-scan camera from Sensors Unlimited Inc. is suitable for high-speed machine vision to monitor continuous processes and moving objects. It images beyond the visible wavelength to provide added inspection capabilities for moisture detection, plastic sorting and many thermal processes, according to the company. Photo courtesy of Sensors Unlimited Inc., part of Goodrich Corp.

He added that the company is seeing increased interest in its SU1024LDH camera because of advances in biomedical imaging. Using the center wavelength, the optical coherence tomography (OCT) technique has demonstrated imaging completely through the dermis, a major advance for cancer surgeons because it enables them to find the boundaries of lesions before they operate. This same wavelength of OCT also enables imaging the blood vessels feeding the retina, even when the patient has cataracts, Malchow said.

Outlook for application areas

Although Malchow predicted that growth is likely to be on hold for a while for all segments of the industry, he said that the uncertain times will trigger spending on security and surveillance and that implementation of good manufacturing practices in the medical industry should sustain medical machine vision revenues.

Stimulus investments may help investments in inspection tools by the renewable energy component manufacturing sites. The stimulus also may help some local and state governments to continue or step up transportation and traffic monitoring projects that use cameras and that otherwise might have been cut, Malchow said.

Despite the decline in oil prices, solar cell manufacturers have continued to invest in Sensors Unlimited’s line- and area-scan cameras for wafer inspection because the devices can see through the silicon substrates, Malchow said. He sees this action as an example of a forward-looking industry that is investing for the long term and concluded that the economy will need more of such actions from industries before it begins to grow.

Photonics Spectra
Apr 2009
machine vision
Interpretation of an image of an object or scene through the use of optical noncontact sensing mechanisms for the purpose of obtaining information and/or controlling machines or processes.
BusinesscamerasConsumerdefenseenergyframe grabbersindustriallight speedmachine visionSensors & Detectorsspectroscopy

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