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.
P&IT: Are there other growth areas for high-speed in addition to machine vision?
Shikany: Outside of machine vision, for example in microscopy or a laboratory, it gets a little different though. I'm sure they'd like it, but are they going to be willing to pay for it — probably not. They need high resolution and other value drivers.
The consumer space is moving toward higher speed, however. Applications for the high frame rates available on cameras are popping up all over. YouTube people are doing all sorts of high frame rate cool things like blowing up watermelons. I think people are going to purchase faster cameras in the consumer space. How necessary is it? I guess the market will answer that.
The bottom line is that, especially in industry, it's always about the application.
P&IT: What other areas excite you about where cameras are going?
Shikany: The move toward 3D is one.
A lot of new technologies are coming for 3D vision. We've had Time of Flight (TOF) 3D vision, stereo 3D vision, and others.
There are several different ways to accomplish 3D imaging — we're seeing companies trying to innovate and we're hearing testimonials about the way they've found value in it. That's encouraging to me because when I started five years ago, 3D vision users were a small niche group. It was very specific when you would use it and it was very expensive, and not yet widely adopted. That's certainly changing and I think that's exciting,
P&IT: It would seem really useful for automated manufacturing and assembly to have 3D images to work with.
Shikany: Yes, absolutely, assembly's a great one.
Another is simulation: mapping environments in real time. Think about if you couple a 3D vision camera with virtual reality and augmented reality. That's really coming up now in terms of popularity. You come to a point where you have the world at your fingertips in terms of design. So, if I want to build a smart factory, I could say this is what I want it to look like. You could literally create that and walk around in it in a matter of a day or two with a skilled programmer. That will save cost and time — it'll create many efficiencies.
Another exciting area is the move toward embedded technology, which is a hot button issue now. For example, cheaper, smaller board-level cameras imbedded inside a camera in your smart phone. The embedded vision technology bridging over into the industrial realm is quite exciting right now. There are new applications, new ways to solve problems yet to be explored. We're seeing innovative concepts being displayed at trade shows, for example, in the field of robotics. Think of a robot arm — it would be real cool if that robot could see and sense its surroundings. If you were to say that a year ago, or even today to some extent, you'd need an ad-hoc solution where you'd strap a camera or multiple cameras onto it, using an after-market harness or some type of solution manufactured by other companies. But what if you could imbed that camera right in the robot arm? What if you could imbed the sensors and imagers at a high enough resolution and speed, with a software package attached to the imager? What if you could do all that inside the robot itself? That robot might have 10, 20, 50, 100 more uses because of the form factor difference and the capability difference. That's an example of industrial imbedded imaging that we're seeing explored by a bunch of different suppliers and researchers.
Autonomous vehicles are another example — you see imbedded imagers everywhere in new cars. Even standard equipment groups now have multiple cameras and sensors.
P&IT: Anything else?
Shikany: Those are the main areas in the general uptick in interest in vision and imagers. The growing variety of applications that are available now are because all these industrial companies — major players and even mid- and smaller-sized companies are interested. When you talk to them, they're interested in connecting their devices to grab hold of all the data available to them. They want to have all the data always available so they can better analyze, better plan, and better do preventative maintenance rather than emergency repairs. The smart factories and Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) trends that we're seeing in the marketplace — these all require data inputs. Vision and cameras are one very important and effective way of gathering that data.
All these major companies are sitting on their piles of cash looking to invest in new automation strategies and new factories. Vision sits on the ledge waiting to receive it. In my view, we're at the early stage of this process. There's still a lot to be figured out, for example, when do you use a vision sensor as opposed to a proximity sensor. These questions will all be answered in due time. Vision will get its share of the overall pie.