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Feature Articles

Bullet-Proof Tech: Machine Vision Industry Will Outperform in 2016

by Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor - AIA

The sweetest place to be in any technology market is on the upward leg of the adoption curve. And that’s where the machine vision industry is and will continue to be in 2016.

“For the past 30 years, the machine vision market has continued to expand,” says Ghislain Beaupré, vice president of operations and R&D for Teledyne DALSA’s (Montreal, Québec, Canada) OEM group and new AIA board member. “When one industry’s demand has gone down, another industry has increased demand. The same is true of regions. The U.S. used to be the dominant market. As manufacturing moved overseas, that changed.”

As an enabling technology, machine vision doesn’t drive markets, but like water, it flows into all available spaces. When manufacturing moved from the U.S. to Asian markets, U.S. companies responded by using automation to reduce production costs. Today, according to Dr. Rex Lee, president of machine vision distributor Pyramid Imaging (Tampa, Florida) and an AIA board member, China is turning to vision-guided robotics for the same reason the U.S. did 10 years ago: to protect manufacturing market share as companies view even lower-cost manufacturing markets in India, Vietnam, and elsewhere.

“The other unknown beyond which countries represent the new manufacturing frontiers is which countries will become new consumer economies,” Dr. Lee says. “The U.S. is the leading consumer country, which has been great for machine vision companies in the U.S., but who will be next? China? The stock market has had a rough start this year, but car sales are up, gas prices are dramatically down, disposable incomes are up, and the U.S. economy continues slow but steady growth. If we can avoid destabilizing events, I think machine vision will continue to grow through 2016.”

A strong U.S. market also has the leading machine vision market analyst upbeat on 2016. “The machine vision market saw a softening toward the end of 2015 due to a cyclical downturn from record-high order levels earlier in the year,” says Alex Shikany, director of market analysis for the Association for Advancing Automation (A3). “Turbulence in the semiconductor industry, which is an important market for machine vision companies, also contributed. As we move into 2016, the global manufacturing climate is poised to remain strong, and more specifically, analysts are predicting a great year for the U.S. manufacturing sector. This is a good sign, as many experts in the machine vision industry expect North America to be their key region of focus over the next 3-5 years. AIA expects the market to turn upward and resume growth by the end of the second quarter in 2016.”

360° Demand

Another enabling factor is that machine vision is used pretty much everywhere these days. While outperforming the general market may seem like optimistic folderol in light of Wall Street plunges and Asian market slowdowns, a look at specific economic drivers reveals both the source of headwinds and emerging opportunities.  

Greg Hollows, director of machine vision solutions at Edmund Optics (Barrington, New Jersey) and an AIA board member, expects that Asian market difficulties and semiconductor softness could flatten global growth in 2016, but new applications could pick up the slack for the machine vision market.

“The semiconductor market is supposed to come back big this year, but in the last year, a couple of the largest consumer electronics manufacturers have warned about softening sales,” Hollows says. “The cell phone and tablet markets, for example, will continue to grow, but it’s hard to keep up explosive growth once sales volumes reach hundreds of millions of units. The Internet of Things and medical and life sciences could all help the electronics market, however. Other big opportunities include vision-guided robotics and autonomous vehicles.”

George Chamberlain, CEO of Pleora Technologies, a manufacturer of high-performance video interfaces (Kanata, Ontario, Canada), sees huge opportunities attached to the automotive data network of the near future.

“When you look at the requirements of driverless cars or driver assist, these networks need low latency, testing, and networking,” Chamberlain says. “The machine vision industry has solved all those problems, which creates a lot of opportunities for us. Today, it’s not about high-volume machine vision sales into autonomous vehicles; it’s more about being a part of the design win. High-volume sales are still a few years away.”

Infrastructure and surveillance applications will continue to drive machine vision industry growth in an uncertain world, adds Chamberlain, as will technical developments and emerging standards such as NBASE-T, which provides intermediate data rates between 1 and 10 Gigabit Ethernet.

“In 2016, GigE Vision cameras are still the most popular with over 50% of the global share of units sold. However, USB3 Vision has seen strong recent growth and now represents over 10% of the global market,” says A3’s Shikany. “GigE is the interface most users are comfortable with and is used in the lion’s share of all machine vision cameras in traditional machine vision applications. USB3 is making noise, however, and is consuming share from Camera Link and FireWire interfaces as it grows.”

Next-generation USB3, Thunderbolt, Camera Link HS, and CoaXPress will all help to lower the overall share of GigE Vision cameras sold during the next 3-5 years’ time, Shikany adds, but also notes that only a fraction of current widespread applications will be demanding these higher bandwidth interfaces. “Thus, GigE as an interface remains at least somewhat protected moving forward,” he says.

Whether it’s new interfaces, standards, or simply the shrinking of existing technology and price points, all these factors are combining to drive new demand in existing machine vision markets while introducing new ones.

“Our existing customers demand newer, better cameras, which then opens up new markets for us,” says Teledyne DALSA’s Beaupré. “When it comes to machine vision, people aren’t really investing in a new service, but in a system that will save them money down the road. It’s not difficult to invest in a solution that helps you save money and be more productive.”

 

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