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Expanding the niche

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John Murphy discovers how PCO is developing its applications in new areas

One of the biggest problems for camera manufacturers is that there is an lot of competition. The solution to this problem is to specialise but, of course, the more specialised the market, the smaller it tends to be. The camera technology is becoming more standardised and the standard cameras are becoming firmware configurable, so profitable niches are getting harder to find.

PCO is one such player. Rather than concentrate on traditional industrial machine vision applications, PCO develops specialised cameras for scientific applications. PCO customers want to use the camera to find individual photons sometimes, for example, those generated by fluorescent microscopy or where very small effects can only be imaged using extremely long exposure times.

PCO’s products have been most successful in scientific applications.

PCO’s products have been most successful in scientific applications.

Sometimes scientists are not counting photons and do not need photomultipliers, they just want a very sensitive camera for extremely low light applications or where a quality control process is looking for very low contrast defects. PCO adapted its scientific multiplier camera for this application and found a whole new market.

Another specialised application is high speed cameras. Many things take place far faster than the human eye can detect or else they only make sense when they are slowed down by a high-speed camera. Scientists studying combustion inside an engine would see nothing from a normal video camera, but at 600fps they find out a lot more. Physicists might study the formation of droplets or the effects of a femtosecond laser burst on a sample of material using such a high-speed camera. There are many filmbased cameras available, but the amount of film required to create slow motion on a few seconds of action at 1000fps is large and expensive to process chemically.

So far PCO has been able to find a niche and make something special by adapting standard Sony sensors, but the competition is hot on its heels and the next generation of products needs a new sensor designed from scratch for its high-speed applications. Designing a new sensor is an expensive gamble for a relatively small company like PCO, but as a private company it can afford to make brave decisions as there are no Wall Street analysts to satisfy with each set of quarterly figures.

PCO was founded in 1987 by Dr Emil Ott, who is still the sole proprietor. He was using image intensifying cameras in his academic research and decided that he could design something better than the imported  cameras that he had been using. He set up a small company and designed one. But it was not the success he had hoped for.

‘The first camera was an intensified camera with a 5ns response time,’ he says. ‘It was probably a bit too sophisticated and it was two or three years ahead of the market, which wanted something simpler at a lower price.’

He went back to the drawing board and came up with the first in the intensified camera range. It had high-quantum efficiency and used thermo-electric cooling to increase the signal to noise ratio by reducing the dark current. This was a much bigger hit with the scientific community. Customers then started asking for the camera without the photomultiplier. He suddenly realised that this could be another separate product line. He simply needed to cool a standard Sony sensor, obviously with electronics to match, and he had a camera that could work in low light intensities to create an image, rather than counting photons.

The market for these cameras was still primarily research, but it was much wider than the photomultiplier market. As the Sony sensors became larger and more efficient, so did his camera, and the market grew. Ott was able to introduce new developments, such as multiple shutters. When the faster generation of CMOS sensors came along he saw that there was going to be a market among the same research community for high-speed, all-electronic cameras.

Dr Emil Ott, founder and sole proprietor of PCO.

Dr Emil Ott, founder and sole proprietor of PCO.

Today PCO has three ranges of cameras: the intensified, the sensitive and the high speed camera, which currently run at 1Gbit per second and 636fps at full resolution. The range includes intensified and portable versions. PCO also makes special cameras for individual customers with multiple shutters or variations on other aspects of the specification.

Most of PCO’s customers are in university research, but recently the market has grown to include life sciences research and the automotive industry. Ott says: ‘We were the first company to work with interline sensors. Previous cameras were using frame transfer sensors, and we were able to prove that interline cameras can do the job better. Over the years our development has been driven by the speed of the electronics. About five years ago the speed of electronics started to overtake the speeds possible with mechanical cameras.’

The sensors available on the market are what Ott calls 1k x 1k x 1k, in that they give you a 1k by 1k image at a frame rate of 1k. You can trade resolution for speed, but it always works out the same. Using generally available sensors means that PCO is always being chased by competitors. Ott decided that the time had come for the company to invest in the design of its own exclusive sensor in order to make a breakthrough in the market. This was a huge investment for what is still a relatively small company and the potential market is still small.

Ott says: ‘We wanted to develop much faster products and so it was necessary to invest in making a new sensor. We also have to develop all the electronics and interfaces. It has taken one and a half to two years from us first having the idea to creating this sensor. We had to plan this carefully and recruit engineers who could do this. There are three partners in the design: a design company and a CMOS fab facility, and then another company who could assemble it into a working product.'

‘We will see what is coming up, but it will be our own exclusive sensor and we will decide whether we sell the sensor or whether we only sell it as part of a camera. This will be a 2k by 2k sensor with a maximum frame rate of more than 1,000fps. ‘The customers will come from several areas, including OEM applications. They are likely to be in physics research, automotive research – for example crash testing – and the broadcast industry. We are competing against film cameras; if our camera can produce several Gigabytes per second, we can record a good time span of slow motion HD video. There are many applications where a few seconds are enough, for example whether or not a tennis ball has fallen on a line, but other applications need longer times.’

Ott believes that this will take the technology of the sensor to its very limit. The challenge for making digital cameras even faster will come from advances in the technology of getting the data from the camera and into the computer. He says: ‘The greater the resolution, the more data you have to put into the memory of the computer. The scientific community does not want to use compression, because that causes losses. If you want to make measurements based on your image data then you cannot accept losses. This is our main market.’

Ott decided, when he started the business, that it was important to fully support users of his cameras. He knew they would not buy the camera if they found it difficult to use in a live situation. The company has a suite of application software called Camware, freely downloadable from the website, which includes an application package for serving images and controlling the camera from a host computer. It also includes drivers for many thirdparty application packages. He adds: ‘We allow people to download new firmware for the camera too. If we solve a bug, for example, we will post a fix. Normally we develop a new feature in firmware that is for a particular customer, but if there is a new feature that is generally available then we will post the firmware upgrade for free.’

PCO head office in Germany.

PCO head office in Germany.

Over the years PCO has built up a very extensive network of distributors around the world to support the products. Most OEM customers will deal direct with engineers in Germany, but the distributors are highly trained to be able to deal with most customer issues locally.

OEM business is increasingly important, growing from about 30 per cent to about 50 per cent of the business. While universities are very technically competent and want to know everything about their camera, the OEM business is more interested in producing a stable system. The OEM business is growing PCO’s presence in the industrial market Ott has grown the business entirely on its own resources and remains its sole proprietor. It is without any external investors or debts. He believes this has been an advantage in making the company more flexible and able to respond quickly to the needs of the market.

He says: ‘Because we are independent, our decision-making cycle is very short and we do not have to have a detailed business plan to which we have to stick. There are many things that we might do in the future and when we decide it is right to do things, we just do it.’