Thermal cameras: Growing demand thaws prices

Thermal cameras: Growing demand thaws prices

Thermal imaging has faced many setbacks in the security market, namely with price point. However, with technological advances and demand on the rise, the price of thermal imaging equipment has come down, allowing for wider adoption of this valuable piece of technology.

Unit shipment growth in the uncooled thermal security camera market is forecast to grow 25 % over the next 5 years, according the latest report from IHS. This growth is close to twice the rate of the CCTV and video surveillance market. Therefore, what has spurred this growth in unit shipment? Several factors including new technology, demand, and competition have caused this downshift in price, resulting in an upshift in growth in the thermal market.

Driving Down Prices
In the past, one of the biggest challenges faced by the thermal imaging industry was the perception that thermal products were too expensive for commercial use. This “sticker shock”, as noted by Jeremy Hickman, Business Development Manager, Thermal Imaging at Pelco by Schneider Electric, resulted in limited adoption in the commercial market. While there still may be some truth to the price concern, the thermal industry has worked hard to prove that thermal cameras are not only more effective in security applications, but also more cost effective in the long run.

Tech Advancements Lower Production Costs
In order to reduce selling prices, costs must first be reduced at the source. As noted by Hickman, “ongoing R&D, some funded by the industry and some funded by governments, have brought higher yields and lower production costs through improvements in material science and sensor manufacturing techniques.”

Several technological advancements are helping bring thermal prices down. “At the sensor level, for a quarter VGA we have a pixel pitch reduction that helps the size of the existing infrared camera chip today,” said Emmanuel Bercier, Market Group Leader of Ulis, a subsidiary of Sofradir and GE Equity that specializes in the design and manufacture of high quality infrared imaging sensors for thermography, security and surveillance, automotive, and military applications. By reducing the pixel pitch, also known as dot pitch or phosphor pitch, “just at the level of the sensor, there is a cost reduction thanks to new technology in the sensor.”

At the optics level, key thermal industry players noted the use of molded lenses also as a driver helping to lower overall thermal camera prices, which drops roughly 10 percent every year according to Bercier. By using chalcongenide glass instead of expensive crystalline materials like germanium, zinc selenide, or zinc sulfide — commonly used materials for thermal imaging lenses — costly grinding and polishing can be avoided. Since chalcongenide glass can be molded instead of cut by a machine, these lenses can be manufactured in high volume with a highly repeatable, consistent performance that is much more cost-effective. Additionally, molding yields more reliable lenses, in terms of quality consistency, versus machined lenses that can result in variations in surface figure, which can cause variations in performance from lens to lens.

Increasing Demand, Decreasing Price
The dramatic increase in volumes of sensors produced has helped lower prices, according to Bill Klink, VP of Security and Surveillance at Flir Systems. “With BMW and Audi both using Flir sensors in select models, the total volume of sensors produced has increased dramatically,” said Klink. “This increase in efficiency has enabled us to produce more and more affordable finished cameras to the security market space, which, in turn, has generated increased demand and awareness of the technology as a viable and more affordable 24/7 imaging solution.”

In addition to automotive, higher volumes from procurements in other market areas, such as military and firefighting, have “resulted in higher operating yields and greater amortization of manufacturing overhead costs across a great number of units,” added Hickman.

A market analyst at IHS attributes the decline in thermal imaging prices to increased competition, in addition to new technology developments. This sentiment is echoed by industry players. “There is certainly much more intense competition both at the supplier level of the thermal cores and the camera level, where everybody is trying to get more and more market share by coming up with attractive prices,” said John Romanowich, CEO and founder of SightLogix.

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