The cost of vision components plummeted, and their performance advanced significantly over the past decade, yet there’s no huge company built by vision.
A look at the biggest vision companies shows revenues hovering around $1 billion, unless the company is a division of a larger conglomerate. For example, the cell phone market explosion for sensor makers (Sony, Ricoh, Fuji) has been huge. But cell phone cameras are not a vision application so much as a photography medium.
On the scale of the overall economy, $1 billion isn’t a big company. To make the Fortune 100 list, a vision company would have to edge out #100, which is the Coca-Cola Company with $43 billion in revenue.
Some Fortune 100 companies seem to be getting into vision, most notably Apple with its Vision Pro product, but apparently sales are poor, so it may be one of Apple’s more short-lived products.
Addressing Core Human Needs
One conclusion I have reached is that until vision delivers a core consumer need, it’s going to stay relatively small. For example, when vision-guided self-driving cars deliver transportation, vision will have arrived, as there are many Fortune 100 transportation companies, all of which make products to address core consumer needs.
Another example is healthcare. I’d suggest there’s a lot of vision in healthcare. In fact, I’d suggest that, ideally, healthcare would be 98% vision and 1% invasive tests that we can’t do via vision. Treatment would be the other 1 %, having meticulously analyzed everything else to solve a core problem with minimal disruption to your life. Of course, while there’s been some success checking X-rays and other types of imagery with AI, vision is still years away from delivering substantial healthcare.
All speculation aside, maybe we’re thinking about this the wrong way.
First, what do you want the machine, X-ray or factory machine to solve? Often, it’s a vision problem. There’s a perception that the machine should cost X and the vision problem 10% of X. But when utilizing technology, your core question isn’t about technical specifications of the X-ray machine; it’s “is the bone broken and what do I need to do next?”
It’s a vision question. Making "good parts" in a factory is a vision question, too.
Should we change our perceptions about the commodity and where true value lies? Billions of dollars will follow whoever can answer “is the bone broken?” fastest and most conveniently for the customer.
The factory space can have similar dynamics; 1-3 machine builders, 1-3 vision companies and a specialized conveyance firm are often behind the production lines that generate $1 billion a year in revenue. Every Fortune 100 manufacturer has multiple production lines generating $100 million to $10 billion a year. The machine builders and vision companies that make those production lines are small. They may sell a $1 million machine with a $250,000 vision system to a manufacturer, but they make that revenue once, and the manufacturer only adds so many production lines in a decade.
Technology has been more static and interest rates have been lower, so there’s more patience bringing things to market. Sales for the smaller vision company involves proposing projects that shave the most labor and cycle time off a very static process. You make sure to play your cards right to get enough funded projects every year.
Rethinking the Automated Production Line
But that environment is changing, and you see this in announcements of new products and technologies. For example, a new battery promises to enable an electric vehicle to go more miles thanks to slightly different chemistry. It’s a great innovation. While big companies have R&D departments that are good at this type of innovation, often they can’t build what they invent. They have legal departments to patent it and businesspeople who want to see a case study proving that it will make money—and both of these processes can stifle technology innovation.
Until machine builders and vision companies can make a production line that builds a fully assembled battery pack in a realistic cycle time (seconds), this new product is not feasible. It’s going to require a new process; the winner will build it quickly. Higher interest rates will also reward that speed. This could make vision (and machine building) very valuable.
The winner of these new races will have the in-house capability to make a fast, efficient production line. That won’t happen without good machinery that doesn’t run blind, and good conveyance between machines. Note: the consumer requires good battery cells, which is a vision question
Maybe that’s where vision will find its value, solving a core problem of large organizations. Of course, solving a core human problem probably won’t hurt, either.