The thermal imaging market and the importance of algorithms and testing in microbolometers – An interview with Seek Thermal

After an eventful 2020 and the huge success of Elevated Body Temperature / Elevated Surface Temperature (EBT/EST) cameras, the thermal imaging and sensing market is balancing out, showing signs of resistance. Although the market in 2021 contracted slightly due to the decline of EBT/EST camera sales and the return to some normality, it is now settling north of US$6 billion and expected to reach more than US$8.7 billion by 2026.

Currently, a new tailwind is blowing for traditional applications, such as thermography (building/utility inspection, predictive maintenance, etc.), PVS, surveillance, firefighting, drones, etc., that are recovering from last year’s effects and are expected to continue growing strongly in the next few years. These data have been extracted from Yole Développement (Yole) report: Thermal Imaging and Sensing 2021

In addition, the marketplace for thermal imaging cameras and modules is expanding rapidly with a multitude of products on offer. Image processing and associated correction algorithms are gaining more attention since they enable better camera performance. There is, therefore, a need for users, integrators, and sensor manufacturers to be able to discriminate between available products based on accurate and independent assessments of their performance and features. Yole’s partner, Piséo, is working to assess independently as a 3rd party the behavior of the bolometric image sensor embedded in cameras or modules. One of the cameras that Piséo tested comes from a leading player in the thermal imaging industry, Seek Thermal: Seek Thermal S309SP Camera Core Performance Analysis

In order to better understand the position of the company and its strategic view on the market, as well as to discover more about the testing and characterization protocol, Joël Thöme, Lionel Artinyan from Piséo and Dimitrios Damianos from Yole decided to sit down and chat with Mike Muench, CEO of Seek Thermal.

Seek Thermal is a relatively new company in the thermal imaging business, with its founders having a rich history and track record in similar previous companies.

Joël Thome (JT): Could you please introduce to our audience your company (main activities, market, business model) and your role?

Mike Muench (MM): Seek Thermal is a US-based Thermal Camera company that designs, manufactures, and distributes low-cost, high-quality microbolometer thermal cameras all over the globe. We deliver small, affordable thermal devices designed for specific markets like firefighting; we also provide other companies throughout the world with small, powerful OEM thermal camera cores so that they can make products for growing markets and applications.

Seek Thermal works with our foundry partners to produce a microbolometer from our proprietary design. This capability gives us complete control over all aspects of the camera performance, the microbolometer design, and optimization on a wafer through calibration and image processing. We have controlled and developed the entire signal chain that produces the thermal image and data.

My Role in the company is to build the team and the strategy to deliver on the vision set by Seek’s founders.

Dimitrios Damianos (DD): Could you tell us more about your OEM core business? How has it evolved through the years? What type of clients do you have, and from which industries?

MM: Initially, our OEM business focused on a few customers with specific performance and design criteria who shared our vision of making thermal imaging a part of everyday life. Because these were unique projects and designs, as a smaller company, we could only support a few of these at a time; ideally, these were customers capable of driving relatively high volumes. Through this experience, we learned what customers needed, both technically and to support their organizations in incorporating thermal imaging into their product offerings. These widely varying system requirements allowed us to develop the flexibility to integrate our sensors into a wide variety of host processors and create various configurations.

Once we felt we understood what it takes to be a development partner with our customers, we took these learnings and developed the Mosaic line of thermal imagers. These cameras represent the “best of” what we learned, designed to fit into a wide variety of host processing environments and applications.

Seek has a variety of customers who work with our OEM cores; these can range from private and public companies to municipalities, educational systems, and hobbyists. Various industries use Seek Thermal’s technology from firefighting, test and measurement, security and surveillance to rescue and safety, transportation, scientific research, botany studies, and medical.

The world’s smallest shutterless high-performance thermal camera – Courtesy of Seek Thermal, 2021

DD: Regarding the feedback that you have from your clients, which types of applications are gaining in popularity, and that you think will be the next growth driver?

MM: We have seen the adoption of Seek cores primarily in the “traditional” applications of thermal imaging: security, fire, and safety outdoors, and test and measurement equipment. These manufacturers are most familiar with using thermal imaging to solve customer problems with their products. Because of our lower price points in the markets, we have also seen some of these traditional applications incorporate thermal imaging into other devices, such as breathing apparatus for firefighters. We have also seen strong popularity in broader adoption of “traditional” applications with products such as FirePro. The affordability of thermal imaging devices can allow for the issue of devices to individuals versus one expensive camera for an entire department. 

In the future, we believe we will continue to see growth in the “traditional” application areas as the cost for all thermal imaging devices comes down and becomes more affordable to the users in these areas. We also expect to play a pivotal role in growing newer application areas such as biometrics, industrial monitoring, drones and robotics, medical, agricultural, vision systems, and smart buildings. And of course, we believe that at some point, thermal sensors will become low-cost enough to become a necessary part of automotive systems for autonomous driving and safety.

Last year we saw a surge in demand for EBT/EST thermal cameras and a strong push from Chinese manufacturers, which have ramped up their volumes drastically in one year.

DD: As a significant player in the thermal imaging industry, how do you see the competitive landscape developing?

MM: As reported in the Yole market share estimates, the commercial thermal imaging market has evolved from a few dominant players to many share players, with a significant increase in Chinese offerings. Commercializing thermal imaging technology and investing in domestic suppliers has been a priority for the Chinese government. Other countries have similar initiatives to commercialize this technology and will emerge in the global market.

As a result of several players operating at scale, we expect the following competitive dynamics:

  • Price competition will intensify, driving down prices for thermal imagers and the products that contain them. Lower prices will drive increased volumes in some markets as more commercial users can afford these lower-cost products. Manufacturers will experience increased revenues and profits, albeit with lower per-unit revenues and margins.  In other markets, it will just mean lower revenues and profits for manufacturers.
  • The competition will move beyond the lowest price to product differentiation, quality, reliability, and brand strength. An excellent example of this product differentiation is Seek’s dynamic pixels. For firefighting, where you may have very high temperatures and relatively low temperatures in the same scene, most thermal cameras offer a “high gain” and “low gain” mode. Low gain helps you see the range of temperatures from the high-temperature fire, but you lose the low-temperature image (of a person, for example). Seek has a proprietary pixel design where each pixel can be in either high or low gain mode. This design allows the user to see both high and low-temperature images in the same scene since each pixel operates independently.
  • Customers will value the supplier who can work with them to integrate thermal solutions into their products. With new applications arising from lower costs, many companies without the internal expertise to integrate a thermal imager into their products will look to the suppliers for this expertise. For many companies new to thermal, the cost of developing their products (time, people) far exceeds the differences in sensor pricing.

Owing to the success of Seek Thermal’s cores, Yole’s partner, Piséo, has analyzed the performance of a QVGA core module. Piséo’s aim was to identify the technical choices made by Seek Thermal and get a deep understanding of the heart of Seek Thermal’s main business.

Lionel Artinyan (LA): We saw differences between Piséo’s and Seek’s characterization protocol. Could you tell us more on what basis you developed your test protocol?

MM: Different testing methodologies produce different results. For example, Piséo ran tests to calculate sensor sensitivity (NETD) by analyzing our sensor’s raw data. Our QVGA camera core uses a shutter to reset the pixels periodically. We included the data produced while the shutter was closed in the raw data. Cores from other manufacturers exclude this data. Once Seek explained this to Piséo,  they removed the shutter data, and their measurements matched or exceeded what we specified.

There is no international set of standards for many of the specifications that manufacturers provide. Unless one knows all the conditions surrounding measuring those specifications, the actual results could vary significantly.

A world leader in microbolometer thermal camera technology – Courtesy of Seek Thermal, 2021

LA: Do you think it is common among American manufacturers?

MM: We are not familiar with how other US manufacturers perform testing, as this is often confidential company information. In the case of Seek’s shutter, we don’t believe other companies allow their users to see shutter events as described above. More broadly, globally, every manufacturer follows its own protocol for how they report these specifications.

The developer portal is a great idea with some well-written explanations. However, it can be somewhat tricky for inexperienced users.

JT: Did you ever consider going full “open-source” so that more people could access it and help each other with the different functions of your cores?

Seek Thermal’s SDKs are now available to the public so anyone can access them.

We also have a GitHub page with links to the SDK, a python wrapper, etc. Seek Thermal hosts its own “Developer’s Portal” site where Seek Thermal OEM customers, users, and integrators can access manuals, datasheets, integration guides, application notes, software development kits, video tutorials, and more. Once a member of the Developer Portal, customers also gain direct access to Seek Thermal’s Developer Support Team consisting of application and field engineers for consultation and support in developing a product or application using a Seek Thermal OEM camera core.

JT: While doing the report, Piséo became interested in the possibility of clients either buying a Seek coprocessor with the Mosaïc Core or developing custom processors for SPI pins.

How often do you get to work with clients on custom processors, and how closely do you work with them?

MM: We have slowly grown our OEM business to provide maximum flexibility in core configuration, lenses, and communications architecture for various products incorporating thermal imagers today. Unlike most of our competitors, we do not host our image processing software in a proprietary processor. Instead, we work with our customers to host our software on their processors. This approach results in more cost-effective solutions since they are not absorbing the cost of two processors (one in the core and the other for the product). Customers can use imaging algorithms, filters, and temperature tables built by Seek, use partially processed data, or even slightly corrected data which allows the customer to develop their own algorithms and filters.

We have developed several tools for our developers, and our field engineers will often assist in design reviews throughout the development process and assist customers with configuration and integration.

JT: In its previous reports, Piséo established that manufacturers usually go either for high-end bolometers with intrinsic good quality then have little to no image processing or the other way around and boost the quality of mediocre images with smart algorithms and lots of image processing.

What would be your feeling on this matter, and which strategy does Seek prioritize to enhance its portfolio?

MM: All companies who compete in commercial markets must do both: fabricate quality sensors and optimize with software. You are actually asking about acceptable yield for commercial applications since every bolometer manufacturer deals with a fabrication process where individual bolometer performance is not uniform. One may choose only to use the sensors with the highest “intrinsic good quality”, but the yield of these sensors from a wafer will be low. Therefore, the cost per sensor is very high. On the flip side, if one uses all the available sensors on a wafer, some will be of “mediocre” quality, but the cost of the die will be low. “Smart algorithms”, as you describe them, allow us to use more of the die on a wafer, thus lowering the sensor cost.

Seek starts by designing the best bolometer that can be produced in volume using proven semiconductor technologies. From years of experience in the performance of these wafers, we set a threshold of sensor performance. We develop the software to improve the image as much as possible, given the practical limitation of processor speeds from that baseline. Seek has proprietary expertise in BOTH to optimize the physical sensor and improve the image through software and calibrations.

In Piséo’s understanding, there are virtually no international standards available for the performance characterization of IR core cameras.

JT: Do you agree with this assertion, and do you see any interest in developing such a standard?

MM: I agree it would be helpful for customers to have some standards as you described. Today, all specifications come from manufacturers, yet there is little visibility into their processes to test those specifications. Like the previous question regarding Seek’s characterization protocol, we all know that you can get significantly different results on the same spec depending on how the initial test is performed. And yet, customers who may not understand all the nuances are comparing them as though they are all the same.

Honestly, today we do not see a big push for this among thermal imaging customers. Those knowledgeable in thermal imaging understand that specifications can be highly subjective based on the testing conditions. Those less knowledgeable don’t even know that such disparities exist. But I think if such standards could be developed and maintained, it would at least put all the manufacturers’ claims on the same playing field.

LA: Seek is soon in its 10th year after founding. So, what are the prospects for the next ten years for Seek Thermal?

MM: Seek has been shipping thermal products since 2015, and we have grown our reach and capabilities in many areas beyond just thermal technology itself. As we look to the next ten years, we will continue to build and evolve our technology and company capabilities to meet the competitive demands we discussed previously.

We believe Seek thermal has been a critical driver of making thermal imaging accessible and affordable for commercial applications. We see many new applications for thermal in the future as the cost of this technology continues to drop, the technology becomes easier to use and integrate into products, and markets learn about the value of thermal imaging technology and problems it can solve. Seek is well-positioned to grow as these dynamics unfold, and we expect to remain a key player in the market.

DD: Any final words or relevant points you would like to share with our audience?

MM: We appreciate the opportunity to share some of our thoughts with your readers. Seek Thermal was founded by industry pioneers and veterans Bill Parrish, Ph.D., and Tim Fitzgibbons, Ph.D., with the mission to make thermal imaging a part of everyday life. The vision is that thermal imaging can be a ubiquitous technology like GPS, digital cameras, or microprocessors. Since our founding, we have begun to see that happen.

Although we are still in our infancy of achieving this vision, there are many signs this transformation is occurring. For example, we see unit growth in “traditional” applications as well as a move to exciting new applications integrating thermal imaging into IoT networks, fire safety devices, drones, robots, and automobiles.

Our OEM pipeline is full of many interesting new applications, pointing to this transformation unfolding. New entrants to the market only reinforce that this vision is playing out. It may not be happening as quickly as some other technologies that have changed our world, but it is exciting to be in the industry.

Interviewee

Mike Muench is CEO and President, Board Director at Seek Thermal.

Bio – An accomplished leader in the technology industry, Mike joined Seek Thermal in 2015 to build a successful business around co-founders Bill Parish and Tim Fitzgibbons’ vision that thermal image technology can better the world if it’s made accessible to all.

At Seek, Mike oversees and mentors the executive management team focused on the company’s business, operations, product, sales, and marketing arms. In addition to managing the board of directors, business models, and financing. Mike’s vast management background includes both startups and more than ten years at Apple, the biggest global company and brand in the world. While at Apple, Mike served as Vice President of Apple Computer’s Consumer Division, overseeing product roadmaps and plans, in addition to all aspects of the commercialization such as marketing, distribution, and sales.

Previously, Mike was CEO and President of Line 6, creator of several revolutionary digital products for the audio industry.

Interviewers

Joël Thome is General Manager & Innovation Consultant at Piséo. In collaboration with Yole Développement’s team, Joël Thome performs numerous technical and market analyses focusing on Photonics based solutions, in addition to developing innovative optical solutions with Piséo’s R&D team. With a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, Joël has been working in the lighting industry for more than 25 years. After beginning his career at Philips Lighting, he has recently held various global business, marketing and R&D senior management positions. During this period, he developed strong expertise in lighting controls, LED technology and innovation processes including general management, strategic roadmapping and product portfolio management.

Lionel Artinyan is Photonic Systems Test Engineer at Piséo. Lionel Artinyan holds a degree from the ENSSAT Graduate School and has a strong background in photonic component and system characterization. At Piséo he oversees custom test bench engineering and test realization. He has participated in the design of many different test benches that include optical devices and control programs. Lionel has tested with success many systems that integrate pulsed light sources such as xenon lamps, LEDs, and laser diodes, as well as imaging sensors.

Dimitrios Damianos, Ph.D., is a Senior Technology & Market Analyst, part of the Photonics & Sensing division at Yole Développement (Yole). Based on solid technical expertise in imaging, sensing, and photonics, Dimitrios oversees the day-to-day production of valuable technology & market reports and custom consulting projects.

He also plays a key role in the expansion of Yole’s market & technical knowledge, supporting the development of strategic projects and maintaining long-term relationships with key accounts while ensuring their expectations are met.

Dimitrios regularly presents and delivers keynotes at international conferences and exhibitions. He has also authored and co-authored several technical & market reports as well as scientific papers in international peer-reviewed journals.

Dimitrios holds a BSc in Physics and an MSc in Photonics, both from the University of Patras (Greece), and a Ph.D. in Optics & Microelectronics from the University of Grenoble-Alpes (France).

Related reports

Seek Thermal S309SP Camera Core Performance Analysis

Seek Thermal Mosaic Core S309SP: testing the actual performance of a user-friendly and easy-to-integrate device!


YINTR21170-Thermal-Imaging-Sensing-2021_BD

Thermal Imaging and Sensing 2021

Beyond COVID-19, what is the outlook for the thermal imaging and sensing market?


Related presentations

Cet article vous a plu ?

Partagez-le sur vos réseaux sociaux