Europe and US under the spotlight

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Manufacturing across the globe has been hit hard in recent years and machine vision companies have had to diversify to stay profitable. Three industry bodies - the EMVA, VDMA and AIA - share their views on the current state of the vision market and the important developments taking place in Europe and North America that could ultimately affect vision firms

Toni Ventura-Traveset, EMVA president

Over three decades, the machine vision industry has grown out of infancy to an industry which has become indispensable in many customer segments and which is still being taken up by new customer segments and fields of application. During these years, the machine vision companies in Europe have achieved a leading position in the world.

Machine vision is a knowledge-based industry sector, where innovation and technological R&D are key factors contributing to the competitiveness of the companies. This success came through a mixture of innovative small- and medium-sized enterprises, often driven forward by a founder with technical enthusiasm, as well as the unique network of applied research centres all across the continent – such as the Fraunhofer institutes, Imec in Belgium, TNO and Wageningen UR in the Netherlands, Aido and CVC in Spain, to name a few. Financed by commercial contractors to a large extent, the cooperation between these institutes and the SMEs of our industry is a vital factor for research and innovation. The high number of spin-offs guarantees that new enthusiasts dedicate their talent to push vision technology to new limits

EC funding opportunities

A subject that has been out of reach for many vision companies due to its complexity is EU funding. With a fairly new funding programme implemented by the EU authorities, called Horizon 2020, this topic will come more into focus in the future. Its opportunities are disseminated by EMVA to its membership.

The new EU financial instrument, with a total budget of €80 billion, will be implemented from 2014 to 2020 and aims to strengthen industrial leadership in innovation across the continent, targeting three objectives: excellent science, competitive industries, and better society – and their intersections. Herein, machine vision plays a vital role as an enabling technology for most of the industrial priorities established by the EC, such as micro- and nano-electronics, photonics, nanotechnologies, advanced materials, biotechnology, advanced manufacturing, and processing. Funding opportunities are relevant also for innovative projects in non-industrial applications like transport and mobility, food production safety, and security, or applications coping with the challenge of an ageing population.

In addition, Horizon 2020 is strengthening participation of innovative SMEs. The European Commission decided on 13 June to dedicate €77 million more to help SME innovation in manufacturing. I4MS (ICT for manufacturing SMEs) is an initiative from DG Connect, which is part of the public-private partnership ‘Factories of the Future’ (FoF PPP). The focus in I4MS is on emerging innovative information and communications technologies (ICTs) and processes, which need to be customised, tested and validated before being able to compete on the market. A special emphasis is placed on strengthening European SMEs, both on the supply and on the demand side.

Within I4MS, more than 150 experiments will aim to bring together relevant actors from the use and the supply side, supported by competence centres as appropriate. The experiments are expected to make the most effective use of funding with explicit and immediate impact in the shortest possible time. Experiments will target:

  • Advanced robot solutions for new manufacturing applications;
  • Simulation services for engineering and manufacturing SMEs, including a cloud-based service infrastructure that provides the needed high-performance computing resources;
  • Innovative sensor-based equipment solutions in manufacturing and control; and
  • Innovative laser applications in manufacturing.

EMVA participates as a partner in the I4MS-Gate project, which supports the I4MS initiative through coordination and dissemination activities, facilitating the involvement of manufacturing SMEs. The projects have started in July and will be developed during the next two years.

Paving the way for a brighter future

Participating in EU R&D programmes has been difficult for SMEs due to complexity of bureaucracy, low speed of processes and difficulties in finding the right partners. Horizon 2020 aims to solve some of these problems by offering simpler processes, and EMVA will help to facilitate participation of machine vision SMEs. This, however, is only a part of the measures for a prosperous future. More elements are vital for the European machine vision industry in order to remain successful. One of them is cooperation: machine vision is not an isolated technology, but often integrated into other systems. It will be crucial to promote cooperation with other industrial sectors and with academic research organisations. EMVA will play an important role as an interface to industrial associations and research institutions in related industries. This includes the presence at EU level in order to keep the level of awareness high and to participate in the funding possibilities.

Another key aspect for future growth is standardisation. Here, EMVA participates on a global level together with AIA and JIIA in the G3 and in the Future Standards Forum in order to drive standardisation forward globally and to prevent the future development of competitive industry standards in different parts of the world.

Last but not least, the machine vision industry needs the effective transfer of innovations to the industry. This can only be guaranteed by continuous education and dissemination of machine vision knowledge, a field where EMVA will continue to play an active role.

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Alex Shikany, AIA director of market analysis


Despite a relatively weak conclusion to 2012, the North American vision markets poised for expansion. AIA statistics from the first quarter of 2013 have painted a promising picture for the rest of the year, and vision companies selling into North America should be encouraged. The bottom line is that total machine vision financial transactions in North America
increased six per cent over the fourth quarter 2012. This resurgence is due in large to the bounce-back in application-specific machine vision (ASMV)
system sales, which are up 10 per cent over Q4 2012. Certain vision component markets have also helped – namely optics and imaging boards, up 23 per cent and four per cent respectively over the final quarter of last year.

There has also been plenty of buzz surrounding new applications for vision
technologies. The hot areas for vision technology today in North America are life sciences, vision-guided robotics (VGR), and intelligent traffic systems (ITS). The industry has expressed overwhelmingly high levels of interest in visionguided robotics – which, in turn, has formed the International Conference for Vision Guided Robotics in Atlanta, Georgia on 12 to 14 November of this year. The event is co-sponsored by RIA, AIA and Georgia Tech’s Robotics and Intelligent Machines Center, and will include sessions designed to demonstrate techniques in VGR.

2013 Forecast – MV financial transactions* in millions (USD)

Left: Index of industrial production (USA). Right: MFG purchasing manager’s index (USA)

While applications inside the factory have historically been responsible for vision sales in North America, we’re seeing a shift in interest to applications outside the factory. While it may have once been considered an irrational thought, it is now feasible that the lion’s share of vision revenue will be attributable to applications outside the factory in five to 10 years’ time. As we continue to explore vision technologies in North America today, we have uncovered two main insights. For one, the money is in digital. AIA data has shown evidence to support the fact that, by the end of 2013, sales of vision
cameras in the North American market will be more than 85 per cent digital. Secondly, I have had numerous conversations with vision industry professionals who believe the future of sensor-related technology lies with CMOS. Of course, only time will tell. Additionally, like in other product markets based on technology such as PCs, vision products continue to pack more functionality per dollar of cost as time progresses.

The North American vision market is in an exciting place, and the conclusion to 2013 will certainly be interesting. AIA believes that 2013 will prove to be a year of growth for vision in North America and we have good reason to believe this. At the end of 2012 we saw a slowing in manufacturing in North America, due largely to the uncertainty surrounding the US presidential election and the Eurozone crisis. These factors played a significant part in the fourth quarter contraction of the vision market in North America. The good news for the vision industry, which is tied to manufacturing, is that economic indicators in North America have been largely positive in 2013. Three indicators that track well with the performance of the vision market in North America have been the index of industrial production (overall measure of manufacturing production) and Purchasing Manager’s Index or PMI (indicates whether manufacturing is expanding or contracting). As you can see below, each indicator is tracking well –a promising sign for the market in North America.

Due to the excitement around new technologies, promising first-quarter statistics and healthy economic indicators, AIA expects 2013 to be a return to growth for the vision market in North America.

Therefore, using our best judgment given the information at hand, we expect the vision market in North America to grow four per cent in 2013.

Patrick Schwarzkopf, director of VDMA Machine Vision

Fascinating applications for machine vision are coming up constantly, especially in the non-industrial field. So it’s no surprise that the recent VDMA Machine Vision market survey marks 2012 as the year in which business generated outside of factories (a share of 28 per cent of total turnover) exceeded the volume of business within the automotive industry (21 per cent) for the first time. It is undeniable: non-manufacturing applications, such as intelligent traffic systems or precision farming, are growing faster than the classic factory automation jobs.

So, will the future of machine vision be shaped less and less by quality inspection and robot guidance jobs in factories and more and more by ANPR and apps in smart phones? We think this is a one-sided view to take. In fact, we see a great potential for growth in the industrial application field as well. Heavily automated countries as measured by the so-called robot density – or the number of robots in use per 10,000 employees in manufacturing – tend to have a strong industrial base with high employment levels and a certain robustness in times of crisis. The realisation that a thriving and strong industrial core will be at the heart of a successful economy leads to a shift in the attention of policy makers in many countries around the world. David Cameron has called for the re-industrialisation of Europe and a revival of the automotive industry in the UK is already visible. The US has defined a ‘wave of re-industrialisation’ as a strategic goal. This is strongly felt by the machine vision suppliers from Germany who increased their sales to North America by 14 per cent in 2012.

Rainer Plendl/Shutterstock.com

Rainer Plendl/Shutterstock.com

Manufacturing facilities in the USA are being modernised with state-of-the art automation technology to regain competitiveness.

China’s impressive track record as a manufacturing base is still largely dependent on manual labour. To stay competitive it must increase its level of automation. China has understood that it cannot simply continue to produce cheaply, but that it needs to play in the high-quality league and raise the productivity of its manufacturing base. This is where automation technology comes in – with machine vision at the core. The 29 per cent plus in machine vision sales from Germany to China in 2012 underscores this fact. Other Asian markets are following suit and putting much effort into building up modern manufacturing facilities.

So, what will the next big thing be in manufacturing? Some call it ‘Industry 4.0’, a paradigm shift that increasingly links the real-life factory with virtual reality. The ‘internet of things’ in which each automation device has its own IP address and seamlessly communicates in a system of decentralised control of production with hitherto unknown levels of flexibility. In such a scenario, we can easily envisage many tasks for machine vision systems. They could become the enablers of Industry 4.0 by feeding valuable visual information into a virtual data network.

Regardless of the potential of the dynamically growing non-industrial machine vision markets, there is much to come in manufacturing.

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