Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Laser Munich Part 1--German mood lifts all

You can tell that Germany is doing well these days just from going to Laser Munich. And not just Germany. Everyone from Coherent, IPG, and JDSU are all smiles these days. In fact, everyone I met at Laser Munich this week was in a great mood.Of course, it helps that the beer starts flowing in the booths at 5:00 sharp. Even better!

The German economy didn't fare as poorly in the financial crisis as other major countries, and it recovered better and more quickly.German unemployment is now the lowest since reunification 20 years ago. This recovery has lifted German companies, most notably Trumpf and Rofin-Sinar, but many others too.(Read about it from David Belforte, here.)Laser sales are back to 2008 levels.The good cheer came out in the CEO Roundtable: what did photonics companies do right that they fared so well in the recession?

My standard answers are:
2.Semiconductors and electronics (think iPads and smartphones)
3.The jobless recovery--buying new laser systems instead of hiring workers.
4.Did I mention China?
5.Oh and yes, this time photonics companies reacted quickly.

These factors affect some companies more than others,but enough is happening that it gets spread around. That said, there was the usual grumbling that there are too many competitors. More on that in a later post.

The Munich venue is great, but what if it were somewhere else? Stuart Schoenmann of CVI Melles Griot kept it real in the CEO Roundtable when he gave his respects to Japan.The Japanese economy was hit with not one, but two crises: first the financial crisis and now the tsunami/nuclear crisis.The latter didn't take much production out of service, but it did upset the supply chain. Moreover, the Japanese stock market has never recovered to the peak of 1990, not even close.And that was 21 years ago.

And it's not just Japan that has been hit. I don't know about you, but every company I know was cut to the bone.More on that in a later post too.

But that's somewhere else. Here, it felt like a "normal" show. No fads. No gossip. Just a good mood and good beer.

Tom Hausken

Friday, May 6, 2011

A big optics/vision opportunity: service robots

Looking for a new opportunity in optics and vision systems?   Check out this new  market report on vision for service robots from my colleagues at Vision Systems Design.  This is a market set to take off.  To give you an idea, with industrial robot unit sales in the tens of thousands per year, service robots could potentially sell in the millions.

Most robots today are not the futuristic kind we remember from the Jetsons or the somewhat creepy Actroid kind commercialized in Japan..  An industrial robots today is basically just factory automation with an articulating arm that makes it seem like a robot. 

A service robot is more like the more futuristic version--mobile, uncontained, and diverse--but not trying to act human, like some insecure, fawning android.  More precisely, it operates semi- or fully-autonomously to perform service functions, excluding manufacturing.  An industrial robot can be a service robot too, if it meets this definition. 

Examples of service robots include: UAVs, explosive or hazard disposal, automating cow milking, driver assistance, inspection and maintenance of hard-to-reach places, medical rehabilitation, surgery, and scientific exploration.  The UAV is the biggest market opportunity, becuase of the sophistication involved.  There are many smaller, fast growing segments.

This is a big deal for photonics because most service robots requrie machine vision of some kind.  This means the use of structured light (like what is used in the Microsoft Kinect), time-of-flight (like what is used in virtual keyboards), LIDAR, and so forth.  This has to be fused with other technologies, like GPS, radar, sonar, and inertial guidance.  For more sophisticated robots, simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) is critical to build maps of unknown environments or to update maps within known environments, while at the same time keeping track of the current location of the robot.

The technology is still emerging and remains to be worked out.  That means lots of hardware and software, and pretty deep stuff.  Imagine that the system doesn't necessarily need to "see" things the way we do--it just has to get the information it needs from its sensors.

For more information on the report, click here.