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A close look at optical microscopy.

Despite a history that spans five centuries, optical microscopy (which here excludes confocal and most educational microscopes) remains an active and growing market, totaling almost $2 billion and expected to grow 5%-6% per year. In recent years, the focus has been on expanding the flexibility and resolution of optical microscopy through advances in lenses, software and detectors. The market's dominant companies have remained consistent--Olympus, Nikon, Carl Zeiss Microimaging and Leica Microsystems GmbH--but now include Danaher, which acquired Leica last year (see IBO 7/15/05).

Each company participates in the three major market segments for optical microscopy: clinical, industrial and life science. The clinical market includes applications in pathology, cytology and hematology. Among industrial users are electronics, metals and polymer companies. However, it is the life science market, which includes pharmaceutical, academic and government laboratories, that is the fastest growing market, due to imaging applications and research funding. In the life sciences, applications can be found in the fields of molecular and cellular biology as well as microbiology. The diversity of end-user markets as well as advancements in performance and design have kept optical microscopy sales steadily growing, yet competition is increasing, particularly for cellular imaging and from lower cost suppliers and rival techniques.

The optical microscope market can be segmented by product type and includes compound microscopes, stereo microscopes and microscopic imaging. Compound microscopes account for almost two-thirds of the market, while stereo microscopes represent less than one-quarter. Compound microscopes allow the user to view a sample by transmitted or reflected light and can be inverted to permit the viewer to examine the underside of the sample such as through a culture dish. Stereo microscopes have two eye pieces that receive a slightly different image, thus forming a 3-D image. However, stereo microscopes provide less magnification than compound microscopes.

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The fastest growing segment of optical microscopy market is digital imaging systems. Using fluorescence microscopes and probes, cellular and subcellular components and mechanisms in live or fixed cells can be observed and recorded in real-time. Advances in software as well as camera and detector technologies, driven by growing interest in cell-based approaches, have intensified competition. Unlike confocal systems, optical image microscopes collect all emitted wavelengths, producing a full spectrum image. In addition, optical systems are less harmful to live cells and tissues and are less expensive. All four major companies offer optical imaging microscopes as well as confocal systems. Olympus and Nikon have both stated that they intend to expand their microscopy products to live cells applications.

Despite the maturity of the market, or perhaps because of it, competition is heating up. Danaher's purchase of Leica Microsystems may have been the critical event, as many feel the LMS business unit will be much more aggressive as part of Danaher. In April 2006, Olympus hosted a meeting for journalists in Mallorca to highlight several product introductions focusing on its new SZX2 stereo microscope series, which purports to offer the highest resolution in the industry for a stereo microscope. Olympus also launched its new analysis family of specialized imaging processing solutions for materials inspection as well as its DP71 microscope digital camera sets with enhanced brightfield and fluorescence imaging. Just three weeks later, at Analytica, Leica Microsystems introduced a bevy of new products, including two new confocal systems, two new optical microscopes, the DM6000 B for biological samples and the DM6000 M for research in industrial materials, both featuring automation and ergonomics that make them easier to use. Leica also introduced a number of specimen preparation products, including a high pressure freezer, automatic freeze substitution systems anda new ultramicrotome.

Competition of a completely different sort is also affecting the optical microscopy market. This year, scanning electron microscope (SEM) suppliers Hitachi High-Technologies and JEOL set their sights on the market, releasing new, lower cost, easier-to-use SEMs. Hitachi's TM-1000 Tabletop Microscope enables atomic-level view of surface morphology as well as dimensional information. Hitachi claims the system provides "10x improvement in resolution and magnification as well as 100x improvement in depth of field compared with conventional optical microscopes." JEOL's JSM6390 model is positioned as a low-cost SEM, featuring software anda user interface to simplify operation.

Also making an impact on the optical microscopy market are lower cost manufacturers. Based in developing nations, such companies are perfectly situated to take advantage of the growing demand for microscopy in the life science industry in Asia. Motic, a division of Hong Kong-based Speed Fair, was founded in 1988. Its manufacturing and R&D operations are headquartered in Xiamen, China and it has subsidiaries worldwide and more than 2000 employees. Miotec serves as both an OEM and direct supplier. Miotec manufactured Carl Zeiss' new Primo Star educational microscope. India's Labomed also supplies optical microscopes on an OEM basis to companies such as Leica as well as makes its own systems. Its subsidiaries include LaboAmerica.
Optical Microscope Product
Segments (2005)

Imaging Systems 10%
Stereo 24%
Compound 66%

Note: Table made from pie chart.
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Publication:Instrument Business Outlook
Date:Aug 31, 2006
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