For an in-depth look at current trends in the camera market, we interviewed Alex Shikany, Director of Market Analysis, Association for Advancing Automation (A3), Ann Arbor, MI.
Photonics & Imaging Technology: What do you think about the future of CCD vs CMOS imaging?
Alex Shikany: CCD vs CMOS is the age-old debate. You get that question a lot when you're around people in this industry. We have seen a steady increase in the amount of CMOS cameras sold in the marketplace for several years now, dating back through the “great recession.” In fact, since 2005, CMOS sales have been steadily increasing. Although there are still uses out there for CCD cameras, for example, scientific and other applications that require low-light or large arrays — applications that require large sensors. Many vendors and customers, however, are coming to realize the advantages of CMOS. Usually they're much cheaper to manufacture, therefore cheaper to purchase for a given level of resolution. They've really come a long way, so the word out there is that CMOS is the future. CCD is slowly being phased out. A few years ago, Sony said they would stop manufacturing them and some of the large manufacturers are talking about similar plans for moving away from CCD. It's a bit of an evolution of the technology; however, if there's an installed base of a product, there needs to be a level of service and continued support from manufacturers. Although there will still be CCD cameras being sold for certain applications, it's my belief that they will ultimately be the minority.
P&IT: How about infrared?
Shikany: Infrared imaging is a growing technology — we're seeing more applications. One of the top industries that pops into my head is security and surveillance. Security and surveillance usually bumps right up against the defense industry, mainly military, where the IR cameras are outfitted on drones and other types of aerial vehicles both piloted and unpiloted, that can map a landscape.
I don't believe we've yet seen the peak for sales and applications. Although the vast number of machine vision sales still use visible light, there's been an uptick in industrial applications that use IR imaging. For example, in agriculture and food sorting, IR allows a company to see whether their fruit or vegetable is a certain age or infested with pests.
But the consumer side is also getting wise to IR. FLIR, who recently purchased Point Grey Research, as one example, has an add-on for a consumer smart phone that allows you to see exactly where your home might be leaking heat — you can map your home's heat signature.
P&IT : What special capability of IR is enabling these expanding applications?
Shikany: For now, IR applications represent a niche market. There are certain applications that could use either light or IR but in those cases the tendency is to select visible light because at this point it's easier and less expensive. However, there are some things that can be accomplished by IR that can't be done with visible light. One example is inspecting fruit — If you shine an LED light on a fruit you can see its exterior, but IR can look a little deeper — it will see surface imperfections your eye, or even a standard camera, wouldn't be able to detect, things like discoloration or soft spots. Infrared is unique because it's absorbed differently than visible light. It has a different wavelength and therefore interacts with the surfaces of objects differently.
One thing that's helping it to be more widely adopted is that people are becoming more comfortable with the technology as it's more available.
P&IT: What do you see trending with high speed imaging?
Shikany: High speed is a big value driver in camera systems these days — it's become a buzzword — but the question is for which applications does it add value. For example, if a bottling plant wants to inspect caps on bottles at the rate of 100s or even 1000s per second, they need high speed. That means their camera system must have very fast shutter speeds and the ability to quickly process lots of data. Although it would be the more expensive option, it would be worth it for their application.
Also, in the life sciences industry, for example, pill sorting, and most of the laboratory automation space, as throughputs increase, as more products are created, you'll see more high speed imagers.
However, if you're inspecting a single part or have a metrology or any other application that requires high resolution images and you're doing one image every minute or so, or a product is on a slow-moving conveyor, you don't need high speed and can save money.
The general trend is towards faster cameras that can do more. It's a good thing for companies in general because they will be able to have more choices. Variety is always a good thing in industry, and the competition among suppliers, who are creating faster and faster cameras, keeps raising the bar and lowering prices.