A glimpse on the uncooled IR lens market: a Chinese perspective. Interview with Ningbo Sunny Infrared

In 2018, 1.4M uncooled IR cameras were sold, and this will increase at a 15% compound annual growth rate through to 2024. According to Yole Développement’s latest report, ‘Uncooled Infrared Imagers and Detectors 2019, these volumes were mostly driven by legacy thermography, surveillance and defense markets, in conjunction with the dramatic increase of thermal camera use in firefighting and personal vision systems (PVS).

One important component of these cameras is the microbolometer focal plane array (FPA), and another is the lens. Generally, each camera uses one or two lenses in low-end markets, but high-end zoom cameras need up to five lenses. As imager prices fall, the optics cost portion will become higher than the imager cost. Thus, optics suppliers will play an increasingly important role in the supply chain.

It is noteworthy that China is investing in R&D and ramping up microbolometer production in order to address its domestic thermal imaging market. In order to understand the Chinese lens market, Yole Développement’s Dimitrios Damianos, MEMS and Sensors Analyst, and Dr. Eric Mounier, Fellow Analyst, have interviewed Heqi Ren, Vice President of Ningbo Sunny Infrared Technologies, a key domestic infra-red (IR) optics player. The i-Micronews Team is pleased to share the discussion with its readers.

IR Lenses 2017 2024 forecasts

Dimitrios Damianos (DD): Can you please present Ningbo Sunny Infrared Technologies and its position within the IR camera lens ecosystem?

Hequ Ren (HR): Ningbo Sunny Infrared Technologies Co., Ltd is a subsidiary of Sunny Optical Technology (Group) Co., Ltd, founded in 2006, specializing in developing infrared material and design and manufacture of infrared lenses.

With a top R&D team investigating new infrared materials and decades of experience in optical lenses, Sunny Infrared is not only good at traditional infrared polishing, diamond turning and coating, but also at melting and precision molding of chalcogenide glass. We are one of the few enterprises in the world to master the know-how range from manufacturing infrared materials to designing and producing high-performance thermal imaging lenses. We have several sales teams in Asia and North America and have built partnerships with customers all over the world. In 2018, our shipment volumes increased rapidly, and now they account for about 10% of the global market share.

Eric Mounier (EM): What type of lenses do you offer? We’re interested in material, F#, focal length, field of view (FOV), temperature range, dimensions, fixed or continuous zoom, and other specifications. What pixel size detectors do you target?

HR: We provide competitive thermal lenses mainly made of chalcogenide glass and germanium with the full range of focal length and F#. We have athermalized, manual, motorized and zoom lenses to meet the needs of different application scenarios, such as thermography, security, night vision and smartphones. Customers could choose antireflective (AR), diamond-like carbon (DLC) or HD multi-layer coatings as needed to increase lens performance. Currently, our lenses are suitable for detectors from 10?m to 50?m pixel size. At the same time, the company’s next-generation products that match 8?m pixel size detectors are under development. We can also provide customers with various customized products.

Lens Ningbo Sunny Infrared Technologies -i-micronews - Yole Développement
Courtesy of Ningbo Sunny Infrared Technologies

DD: Cameras for thermography, security and automotive are the largest markets you address. What are the differences between the lens specifications for these markets?

HR: For thermography, most lenses are manual or motorized with typical FOV of 20 or 24 degrees. Extra extenders are also available for each lens. For security, athermalized, motorized and zoom lenses all could be widely used depending on the different scenarios. Under harsh environments, there could be a protective window or DLC coating added in front of the lens. For automotive, most lenses are the compact athermalized type with high shock requirements. Considering the driving circumstance, a window is also needed in front to resist shock. All in all, we will develop new lenses based on customers’ demands.

EM: How sensitive to price and performance is the automotive IR lens market and how does Sunny Infrared compete?

HR: With the development of assisted driving and self-driving vehicles, automotive IR lenses, as the main technology in night vision, are in great demand for front view and internal monitoring. Automotive infrared technology is currently in its early stages. Regarding its strict requirements for shock, size and imaging, the entire automotive infrared system is relatively expensive. It is mainly used in premium cars, extending to mid-range models. In order to promote IR systems to a wider market, the Tier 1 part and system supplier companies have to control the cost of each component and manage to achieve mass production. Therefore, our customers are continuously aiming to push products to lower prices.

Courtesy of Ningbo Sunny Infrared Technologies
Courtesy of Ningbo Sunny Infrared Technologies

Sunny Infrared entered into automotive market since we found in 2006, which has brought us many years’ experience and customer resources in this field. We’re committed to developing new material and technology for automotive IR lenses. There’s no doubt that we have a big advantage in lens performance and the service level we offer.

DD: What technological, market and business trends do you think are most important right now for each of these markets? And how do Sunny Infrared’s products connect with them?

HR: We believe technical trends are the most important nowadays. Infrared thermal imaging products can be widely used in various fields and have great market potential. However the cost is too high to promote widely. With breakthroughs in infrared detector material and packaging technology the potential market will be further enlarged. As for IR lenses, they will get smaller, lighter and cheaper. Together with new generation detectors and IR lenses, the IR market will definitely boom soon.  Sunny Infrared is ready to offer customers better products and better service. We’re devoting all our time to be a leading global IR lens company.

EM: How do you see and think that these markets will evolve domestically in China? Will they be a great opportunity for lens manufacturers?

HR: In general, the IR market is growing rapidly in China. At present, the technology of thermography products is relatively mature and the market expansion speed is slowing down.

In terms of security monitoring, infrared has advantages over traditional visible light security lenses in night vision, smog environment, remote monitoring and temperature sensing. It has a wide application range and is a major market segment with fast growth rate both in China and oversea markets.

With the development of night vision and autonomous driving technology, automotive infrared lenses are also becoming an attractive direction for the future. Until now, the originally equipped IR systems have mainly been provided by developed countries, and only a few manufacturers in China provided after-market IR systems.

In addition, emerging applications such as smartphones and smart buildings are gradually becoming popular in China, which will bring new opportunities in the IR market. At the same time, ever more competitors are entering infrared lens production, which has intensified the competitive environment in the market and brought Sunny Infrared more challenges.

DD: There is a strong presence of Chinese companies ramping up microbolometer production. Do you use already or have any future plans for using wafer-level optics (WLO)?

HR: Recently, China has attached great importance to scientific and technological innovation. Many companies have successfully developed microbolometers, which has laid a good foundation for a prosperous domestic IR equipment market. In particular, the emergence of 12?m pixel size detectors has provided more cost-effective options for the market, and has also driven the sale of small infrared lenses. Now, Sunny Infrared has created a new technology for compact lenses – SWLO. SWLO is a molding technology similar to WLO, but it will significantly reduce mold investments while providing better lens performance. It is the key technology for mass production of small lenses in the future.

Courtesy of Ningbo Sunny Infrared Technologies
Courtesy of Ningbo Sunny Infrared Technologies

EM: Germanium is traditionally mined in China. Do you see a domestic opportunity for higher germanium lens adoption in IR cameras?

HR: As a widely-used infrared raw material, germanium is accepted by customers for its performance and easier processing. It will still be used in the IR market for a while. However, as a constrained resource, the amount of germanium will be limited in the future and that will cause price fluctuation. On the other hand, chalcogenide glass is now the best alternative to germanium, with lower prices and better performance, and has already been widely used by customers. Sunny Infrared has independently developed its own chalcogenide glass. We have mastered the technologies of material production and provided chalcogenide glass to major IR companies all over the world.

Courtesy of Ningbo Sunny Infrared Technologies
Courtesy of Ningbo Sunny Infrared Technologies
Courtesy of Ningbo Sunny Infrared Technologies
Courtesy of Ningbo Sunny Infrared Technologies

DD: China has become a hotbed for imaging technology providers, from image sensor chips to camera modules and also end products like smartphones and security cameras. Do you think there is still some part of the industry which is missing in China?

HR: China has developed rapidly in recent years, with a wide range of product applications and products. However, China’s infrared industry started late, and the performance and production technology for some high-end products are a little behind. As industry competition intensifies, customers become more sensitive to performance and price. Fortunately, more and more companies, including us, are aware of this problem. We are increasing investment in research and development to develop new materials and technology which can reduce costs while meet customer needs.

EM: What does the future hold for Sunny Infrared?

HR: Sunny Infrared is already the largest supplier of infrared lenses in China. We have great advantages in product quality and service with stable partners. Through continuous technical progress, strategic cooperation and market promotion, Sunny Infrared will become the largest infrared component manufacturer in the world. We are looking forward to work together with our customers to create a booming market.

DD: You will plan to participate to the 4th Executive Infrared Imaging Forums organized by Yole Développement and the CIOE in September in Shenzhen, China. What is your feeling about this event?

HR: As the largest optoelectronic professional exhibition in the world, Shenzhen CIOE attracts more than 50,000 visitors every year. It is the best platform to understand the development of optoelectronic market, technological innovation and enterprise dynamics. At this fair, our company will also promote the latest infrared lenses at the exhibition, including the full range of 12?m lenses that have been mass-produced. At the same time, I would like to thank Yole Développement and CIOE for organizing the Executive Infrared Industry Forum, providing each company with an opportunity to showcase new technologies and products. We will recommend the latest small infrared lens processing technology – SWLO which will lay a solid foundation for our company to flourish in the future “Thousand Yuan era” of Infrared system. Everyone is welcome to actively participate in the Executive Infrared Imaging forum and learn about the latest trends of Sunny Infrared at the 9C16 booth.


Heqi Ren - Ningbo Sunny Infrared - i-Micronews - Yole Développement

Heqi Ren graduated from Zhejiang University with a master’s degree. He is now the vice-president of Ningbo Sunny Infrared Technologies who’s in charge of both R&D and sales departments. He joined the Sunny Infrared in 2006 and became an excellent optical design engineer. He has obtained 22 patents including 13 invention patents. Under his lead, Sunny Infrared has built a professional R&D team with decades of design experience. He has helped the company establish a great influence on the global IR lens market.


Dimitrios Damianos - Yole Développement

Dimitrios Damianos, PhD joined Yole Développement (Yole) as a Technology and Market Analyst and is working within the Photonics, Sensing & Display division.
Dimitrios is daily working with his team to deliver valuable technology & market reports regarding the imaging industry including photonics & sensors.
After his research on theoretical and experimental quantum optics and laser light generation, Dimitrios pursued a Ph.D. in optical and electrical characterization of dielectric materials on silicon with applications in photovoltaics and image sensors, as well as SOI for microelectronics at Grenoble’s university (France).
In addition, Dimitrios holds a MSc degree in Photonics from the University of Patras (Greece). He has also authored and co-authored several scientific papers in international peer-reviewed journals.

Eric Mounier - Yole Développement

With almost 20 years of experience in MEMS, Sensors and Photonics applications, markets, and technology analyses, Eric Mounier, PhD provides deep industry insight into current and future trends. As a Fellow Analyst, in MEMS & Photonics Technology & Market, in the Photonics, Sensing & Display division, he is a daily contributor to the development of MEMS and Photonics activities at Yole Développement (Yole), with a large collection of market and technology reports as well as multiple custom consulting projects: business strategy, identification of investments or acquisition targets, due diligences (buy/sell side), market and technology analysis, cost modelling, technology scouting, etc.
Previously, Eric Mounier held R&D and Marketing positions at CEA Leti (France).
He has spoken in numerous international conferences and has authored or co-authored more than 100 papers.
Eric has a Semiconductor Engineering Degree and a Ph.-D in Optoelectronics from the National Polytechnic Institute of Grenoble (France).

Related report

Uncooled Infrared Imagers and Detectors 2019 - Yole Développement

Uncooled Infrared Imagers and Detectors 2019
New applications drive greater shipment volumes, which drive new applications, bringing the uncooled IR sensing market into a virtuous cycle.

Related event

3rd Executive Infrared Imaging Forum - Yole Développement - CIOE 2018
Courtesy of FLIR

4th Executive Infrared Imaging Forum
September 6, 2019, AM – Shenzhen, China
Yole Développement is proud to collaborate once more with the China International Optoelectronic Expo (CIOE) to organize this 4th edition. The million unit threshold has been crossed! With more than a million imager units shipped in 2017, thanks to FLIR’s Lepton core and SEEK Thermal’s success, the uncooled IR detector and imager market looks promising.