The Machine Vision Market: What to Expect in 2014
| By: Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor
At the beginning of 2013, the machine vision industry was feeling good about its prospects for the coming year, even after experiencing a slowdown in the latter half of 2012 due in part to uncertainty over the presidential election in the U.S. and a cooling manufacturing environment.
“Based on surveys of our members, we see an optimistic outlook about the economy and North American manufacturing, which indicates a likely return to growth in 2013,” Jeff Burnstein, president of AIA, the industry’s trade group, said in a news release posted in March.
So was this optimism warranted? With 2013 behind us, AIA is going through all the numbers and compiling a report about growth in the industry over the past year. We caught up with Alex Shikany, AIA’s director of market analysis, to get a sneak peak—and to talk about the industry’s prospects for 2014.
“It’s good news, mostly,” he says of the findings for last year. “We’ve been experiencing growth above and beyond what we expected. And the news is good in pretty much all areas, aside from a couple of components markets that have been down in the past few quarters.”
Shikany had forecasted growth of about 4 percent—maybe a little above—for 2013. This would have returned the industry to its historical baseline, but in fact, the growth for the year is expected to be about 9 percent.
This surprising growth came “primarily from skyrocketing machine vision systems sales,” Shikany notes. “We’ve seen ASMV [application-specific machine vision] and smart camera sales really go up in the past couple of quarters, and that’s driven the overall growth that’s been in the system.”
What about those components markets that have been down in the past few quarters? Optics was mostly flat, Shikany says, down by one percentage point but with an error of plus or minus a percentage point. Software was the one segment that posted negative numbers: down by about 8 percent through September of 2013, according to the AIA findings.
Even within this segment, though, there was cause for optimism.
“In 2013, we saw growth in all regions, but the growth rate was very different,” says Lutz Kreutzer, manager of PR and marketing with Munich, Germany-based MVTec, a manufacturer of software products for machine vision. “Asia was driven by the electronics and semiconductor industry and Europe was somehow slow compared to 2012. This has been caused by the slowdown of the investments of the automobile industry in 2013 compared to 2012.”
America was up, he notes, possibly due to the manufacturing industry investing more than in previous years.
Growth sectors for the vision industry
Shikany points to two application areas that contributed to growth in 2013 and will likely drive some of the market activity in 2014: life sciences and traffic applications. The former, in particular, is opening up new opportunities for machine vision companies.
“Life sciences is a hot-button area for vision people,” Shikany says. “You’re getting new applications that are outside the factory, leading to new, exciting products with different feature sets, which weren’t being used or purchased by factories.” Applications in the life sciences can range from automated microscopy and image analysis solutions in basic science research to clinical applications including noninvasive disease screening and monitoring in ophthalmology.
Shikany has been busy preparing a life sciences market opportunities study, in large part because of AIA member interest. The amount of information and growing demand among the membership could mean a two-part life sciences report. AIA is planning to release the study—available for free to members—at its upcoming Business Conference in Orlando, January 22-24.
Machine vision companies also have benefited from growing demand in the areas of traffic enforcement and traffic management. They have been developing technologies to aid in red light enforcement, average speed or “section” control, license plate capture for both traffic flow analysis, and more.
What does the crystal ball say?
We have to wonder: Given the impressive growth in the past year, can we expect more of the same in 2014? Kreutzer of MVTec is optimistic. Even assuming the year ahead remains under the same macroeconomic conditions—the budget problem in the U.S., the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, and last but not least the exchange rate fluctuations within parts of Asia and South America—if the effects of the conditions are in the same range as in 2013, then 2014 most likely will be friendly and provide for growth for the machine vision industry.
Shikany breaks it down further. While components markets are expected to continue to go up in the first half of 2014, the systems side, which has been booming, will likely level off. He doesn’t see this as a cause for concern, though. “I think the optimism is low with the systems market because of how strong it’s been of late,” he says. “History tells us that when we get a booming cycle like this it eventually tapers a bit.”
What this means for the bottom line remains to be seen. But Shikany expects growth to continue in the first and second quarters of the year, and possibly above historic rates: “probably about 6 percent total, if I had to put a number to it.”
After that, though, things could change.
Economists like Alan Beaulieu of ITR Economics are predicting a mild recession for 2014, citing factors such as payroll and other tax hikes, federal spending cuts, and healthcare reform costs. And this, of course, could have an impact on how the machine vision industry performs.
“I expect slower performance in the second half of the year in line with economists’ predictions,” Shikany says, “which may end up hindering total growth for 2014, quite honestly.” Despite this, the potential slowdown likely won’t be drastic enough to say the industry is going to contract or post zero growth in total for 2014. There is still reason to be optimistic about this market moving into next year.