QMT Features: October 2011
Forecast - bright and sunny
Regaining its momentum, the machine vision industry is set to play a critical role in driving operational and production efficiencies forward.  
By Vijay Mathew, Frost & Sullivan.

While 2009 was widely considered as one of the most difficult years not just for the global economy but also the machine vision industry, in 2010, the industry breathed a collective sigh of relief. Buoyed by the recovery of key end user markets and an even stronger focus on improvement of production efficiencies, the market has regained its lost momentum. If anything, the downturn has reinforced the importance of production and operational efficiency and the critical role of machine vision systems in driving this vision.

Though, in comparison with other industries, particularly related to industrial inspection and automation, the machine vision market fared relatively well. According to the Automated Imaging Association's (AIA) report, the market remained static in 2009, but bounced back strongly in 2010 to generate approximately $6.5 billion in global revenues with the market expanding 54 percent in North America.

This article will attempt to analyze the factors that brought about this dramatic turnaround by assessing the latest in industry and technology trends and what we can expect for 2012.
Industry experts and publications will confirm that the machine vision market has recovered well, in fact surprisingly quickly. In addition to the recovery of its key end user groups, protectionist measures as a result of past experiences helped tide the impact of the recession to a certain extent. “The 2008-2009 recession was brutal for the machine vision market since the industries that we serve came to a grinding halt,” said Francois Bertrand, vice president of sales & marketing for Matrox Imaging. “However, the market has recovered extremely well due, in large part, to the manufacturing sector leading this recovery. Major machine vision players — Matrox Imaging included — are reporting record sales. Manufacturers, especially those in the electronics and semiconductor markets, better managed their inventories as a result of the lessons learned from the dot-com bubble. This has resulted in increasing demand for machine vision components as manufacturing led the way out of the last recession.”

This view was confirmed by Mark Butler, manager – Product Management and Marketing at DALSA, a leading manufacturer of digital imaging components for the machine vision market. “The market recovered strongly in 2010,” he said. “The recovery was across the board in types of products and in geographic regions.”
All signs point to a strong future ahead of the machine vision industry and this sense of optimism is not restricted just to the manufacturing hot-spots but encompasses the entire globe. Although Asia Pacific is expected to generate highest growth, the latest market report from the European Machine Vision Association (EMVA) indicates that the European market for machine vision systems and components is expected to grow at approximately 20 percent in 2011, a trend that is expected to continue into 2012 with factors such as robotics, emerging application areas and 3D imaging highlighted among other key factors for this rapid progress. “Matrox Imaging is seeing more demand from Asia Pacific for machine vision as manufacturing moves to that part of the world,” said Bertrand. “Rising fuel costs however, may reverse this trend as evidenced by “re-shoring” — companies moving their manufacturing back to North America and Europe.”

Butler, however, expects majority of DALSA’s growth to be driven by the Far East. “Over the past few years we’ve seen a significant shift to the Asia Pacific regions such that approximately half of our sales come from Asia Pacific versus Europe and North America. It is likely this shift will continue for some time.”
Getting the basics right

Undoubtedly machine vision and associated components have made some rapid technological strides over the years. High-end systems developed less than 5 years ago are now considered outdated, unable to meet the demands of today’s productivity requirements for real-time, high-volume data processing using application-specific sensor technology and complex algorithms. But despite these advances, the central theme around which end users define their requirements is quite obviously, higher productivity. Simple interfaces that enable easy integration with the existing technology infrastructure that improves speed of inspection and thereby optimization of production line efficiencies, is what the manufacturing industry is looking for. Undeniably several of these technology innovations over the years have been successful at achieving this – 3D vision, LEDs, vision-guided robotics, smart cameras, CMOS, colour vision, and GigE cameras among several others, have contributed tremendously to the machine vision industry. “As always higher throughput demands by equipment makers is driving the need for higher speed and higher resolution. In addition, the electronic chips (i.e. FGPA’s) continue to get economically better, such that, the market for smart cameras continues to grow above typical machine vision rates,” said Butler.

However, Bertrand highlights that companies, particularly those in manufacturing and production environments are reluctant to embrace new technologies. “The markets that vision-based inspection serves tend to be conservative. They want to adopt technology that has proven itself. They are not interested in taking a huge leap of faith on something new, unless there is an overwhelming cost and performance advantage and historically the advantages afforded by new machine vision technology have been mostly incremental in nature,” said Bertrand.

The opportunities ahead  
The machine vision industry has benefited greatly from the recovery of its primary end user markets. The use of machine vision technologies is currently well entrenched in the automotive, aerospace and other manufacturing industries. Two decades ago this wasn’t the case as vendors struggled to meet the right balance between productivity and enhanced inspection requirements of its customers. Technology since then, however, has rapidly improved and machine vision is now an integral component of any complex manufacturing or assembly processes. Although, the recovery of the automotive industry, a key piece of most leading vendors’ business, provided a much needed boost to the industry, the importance of regulatory compliance – stricter regulations for manufacturers, distributors, and retailers - in industries such a pharmaceutical, food & beverage, medical devices and biomedical provide significant opportunity for the future.

In addition, a plethora of opportunities in fields such as solar cell manufacturing, advanced electronics, battery manufacturing and alternate energy is expected to drive a new level of sophistication and capability to machine vision solutions. According to Butler the need for machine vision will continue to grow as automation and quality control becomes even more significant. “Applications that are reaching mass adoption tend to be the ones that start requiring machine vision. There are a number of growing opportunities in solar panel inspection as well as intelligent transportation systems, where the expertise of machine vision is seeing a good fit.

We are finding there are a growing number of applications that many would consider outside of machine vision that are requiring the services and products that machine vision can offer, for example, the entertainment industry in video game development and movie development.”

Another trend in particular that has created a stir over the last few years is the shift to renewable sources of energy. As oil prices soar and environmental concerns continue to grow, the relevance of alternate sources of energy, particularly wind and solar, in today’s world has gained prominence. Component manufacturers in these industries are increasingly turning to machine vision vendors to meet their inspection requirements while maintaining high level of productivity to meet rising consumer demand. This trend is also evident in the automotive industry with the shift toward eco-friendly cars. “The revival of the automotive industry, and the fact that they are looking at alternative sources - hybrid, pure electric drive, etc - which require rigorous inspection of an increasing number of electronic components and electrical systems, offers a lot of chance for growth,” said Bertrand.

The costly and well-publicized recalls of a variety of products ranging from automotive components to baby products over the last few years has once again emphasized the importance of machine vision systems being integrated with production processes to achieve greater throughput and product quality. The future of this industry looks brighter than ever; however, the recent debt crisis in Europe and U.S. has created a sense of uncertainty as fears of a second recession looms.
Despite this the machine vision industry presses on. As concepts such as Factory of the Future, SmartFactory and Universal Automation increasingly become a reality, machine vision is expected to play a critical role in realization of these goals.l
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