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e2v upbeat on strong imaging sales

18 May 2016

Annual results show 17% rise in sales of imaging products thanks in part to strong pull from machine vision applications and Anafocus contribution.

UK-based semiconductor maker e2v technologies has reported a 17 per cent rise in sales for its imaging division in its annual report for the year ending March 31, with CEO Steve Blair declaring himself “delighted” with overall results.

The Chelmsford company, probably best known for the use of its sensors in high-profile space projects like the New Horizons Pluto probe, the recent solar transit of Mercury (see NASA video below), and the ExoMars mission’s trace gas orbiter, is benefiting from the more prosaic but growing adoption of machine vision sensors in industry.

At £103.5 million, the imaging division’s sales were up from £88.7 million in the prior year, growing at a much faster rate than e2v’s RF power and high-reliability semiconductor divisions. Overall, the firm reported a 5 per cent rise in annual revenues to £236.4 million.

That translated to a pre-tax profit of £40.8 million for the year, up slightly on the 2015 figure.

Space margins up; management ‘refreshed’
In their statement reviewing the company’s performance, Blair and chairman Neil Johnson noted a sharp improvement in profit margins for the imaging division. Recent changes have included the summer 2014 acquisition of Spanish high-performance CMOS image sensor specialist Anafocus, and the sale of e2v’s thermal imaging unit.

“A refreshed management team for Space [imaging] has been established under the new divisional president [Matt Perkins] and we are beginning to see the benefits of the changes they are making,” reported Blair and Johnson, adding that the “recovery program” being addressed by the new management team was complex and multifaceted, and would take some time to complete.

A year ago e2v said that it had ten “problem contracts” in space imaging, of which four have now been completed and five are due for delivery within 12 months.

They also wrote that governments would increasingly seek to maintain independent space observation capabilities, while the expansion of climate change monitoring is driving a growing demand for new observation satellite programs.

“We have a strong position in Europe, particularly in CCD sensors, and our offering remains attractive to customers due to its long proven performance in flight,” said the e2v executives.

Back on terra firma, they pointed out the increased use of sensors for industrial automation, an area where Seville-based AnaFocus has brought on board some new customers. “We are well positioned to take advantage of the five year plan in China for automation to support the quality drive to 'made in China',” added Blair and Johnson.

Anafocus contribution
On Anafocus’s specific contribution, Blair told investors: “It’s great to see how the Anafocus team has integrated into the professional imaging business stream, and we’re now benefiting from these two teams working together on new opportunities with customers.”

As a “fantastic” recent example, he described Anafocus’s development of a 32k CMOS image sensor for semiconductor wafer scanning, with packaging provided by e2v’s existing professional imaging operation in Grenoble.

“This is the new state-of-the-art, provided by the collaboration between Anafocus and our Grenoble operation,” Blair said. “It has a spatial resolution of 32,000 by 256 pixels, it’s twice as high as the highest-resolution scanners currently on the market. It’s super-high resolution and high speed enables the inspection of full semiconductor wafers to identify even the smallest of defects, in a fraction of the time [taken by] conventional sensor scanners.”

While much of e2v’s historic activity on the space imaging side has been based around its high-performance CCD sensors, the company reported last month that it had won a major contract with Airbus to provide new CMOS imaging sensors for the European Space Agency's next generation of weather satellites – illustrating the growing adoption of this technology in high-end applications, where CMOS can offer an extended spectral range compared with the historically more sensitive CCDs.

Looking to the future, CEO Blair sounded a note of caution regarding the broader macroeconomic environment, but told investors that he still expected solid growth from the imaging division.

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