How do you think the new GigE standards will influence the machine vision industry?
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By Keith Reid
Bang for the buck—imaging is going through a golden age of ever-increasing performance at ever-decreasing cost. There are many factors driving the increase in power, typically related to market demands. In many cases the demands come from such traditional sources science, industry or the military. Speed, light sensitivity, resolution and form factor are critical in these areas, and solutions that meet those demanding specifications carry a price premium. However, the current generation of consumer platforms—such as mobile imaging—create some sophisticated performance demands of their own, with price constraints that are driven by consumers in a competitive retail market.
"It's not so much that one requires more technology or more advanced technology then the other, they just require different kinds of technology," said Sandor Barna, director of strategy and planning for Micron Technology, Inc. (San Jose, Calif.). "What you have at the low end is a drive towards very low cost cameras because size and cost are directly related. As a consequence of that, you have a drive towards very small pixels, which are very difficult to make. Because the mainstream mobile camera has such huge volumes worldwide, we are able to do a lot of R&D because you know you are going to make it back. That has direct benefits into the higher-end work were the volumes are typically much smaller."
As fabricating and assembly plants get streamlined to meet tremendous consumer volumes, the efficiencies developed there can often be directly applied to production for the more sophisticated specialty markets. In some cases, the same production lines can turn out virtually the same base product for the range of consumer and specialty markets. "We have currently filled more than one fab, and as long as you run the same process with the same needs you are able to get significant cost savings in the manufacturing," said Barna. "It doesn't cost that much more to run a wafer for a product that is lower volume compared to a product that is higher volume, if everything else stays the same."SENSORS
One core technology that benefits from consumer/specialty market synergies is the image sensor. Image sensors facilitate a broad range of advanced applications from fluoroscopy; to sophisticated broadcast imaging; to high speed ballistics and machine vision applications. On the consumer side, sensors are used in everything from disposable digital cameras that cost $20, to mobile phones to "prosumer" digital still and video cameras.
The research firm Gartner (Stamford, Conn.) estimates that the annual sales of mobile phones will surpass 1 billion units in 2009, and many of these will be camera phones. Although slowing, digital camera sales are expected to reach 95 million units in 2007, according to International Data Corporation (Framingham, Mass.). By comparison, specialty markets will only use a fraction of this number of units with far smaller revenues.