Fu­ture’s fu­ture: Let there be LED

Montreal Gazette - - Business - JA­SON MAGDER THE GAZETTE

Michael Parada has the dis­tinc­tion of be­ing the Fu­ture Elec­tron­ics em­ployee with the most valu­able base­ment.

Now a sep­a­rate sub­sidiary, Fu­ture Light­ing So­lu­tions was es­sen­tially born in Parada’s base­ment when he con­verted the first stan­dard lights for the in­te­rior cab of a Volvo and retro­fit­ted it with LED lights.

“I took the ex­ist­ing lights, and gut­ted ev­ery­thing, and re­placed them with LEDs, and sent it back to the cus­tomer. The cus­tomer said, ‘this is fan­tas­tic,’ and placed a $100,000 or­der.”

Parada is the lead re­searcher of Fu­ture Light­ing So­lu­tions – a com­pany born out of a part­ner­ship in 2000 be­tween Fu­ture Elec­tron­ics and Philips, the com­pany that pro­duced the world’s first power LED.

Ex­perts say power LEDs are poised to re­place all the light­ing in com­mer­cial, in­dus­trial, and in­sti­tu­tional spa­ces within the next five to 10 years.

“Within five years, I think this will be­come a main­stream con­sumer prod­uct world­wide,” said Susie Inouye, re­search di­rec­tor and prin­ci­pal an­a­lyst at the Reno, Nev.-based mar­ket re­search com­pany Databeans Inc. The com­pany’s re­search shows the LED mar­ket will grow by 20 per cent an­nu­ally, reach­ing $17.4 bil­lion by 2015.

Fu­ture Light­ing So­lu­tions calls it­self a light­ing en­abler.

It doesn’t pro­duce the com­po­nents or the lights, rather it fig­ures out how to adapt the new technology to re­place con­ven­tional bulbs, and acts as a dis­trib­u­tor to sell the nec­es­sary parts.

Fu­ture technology could be the cause of your next speed­ing ticket.

It’s be­ing used to make Mon­treal’s po­lice cruis­ers more in­con­spic­u­ous with a small hor­i­zon­tal bar of red and blue flash­ing lights in­side the car, rather than the large lights fas­tened to car roofs. Fu­ture also had a hand in cre­at­ing the new Times Square ball, which was first used in 2008 New Year’s Eve cel­e­bra­tions. Sev­eral new de­vel­op­ments in China also use LEDs in their street lamps.

It took four years for the light­ing di­vi­sion to be­come profitable, but now, Fu­ture is poised to ben­e­fit from what’s ex­pected to be a tremen­dous growth mar­ket. From 2000 to 2007, Fu­ture had 100 per cent mar­ket share of the power LED mar­ket, but more re­cently that share has di­min­ished as other play­ers got into the game.

Part of the rea­son for the pop­u­lar­ity of LEDs is that they last 50 times longer than in­can­des­cents, and they’re more ef­fi­cient. While reg­u­lar light bulbs ra­di­ate heat, a very in­ef­fi­cient use of en­ergy, LEDs pro­duce less heat, and the heat can be har­vested and used more ef­fi­ciently.

Jamie Singer­man, cor­po­rate vice-pres­i­dent for Fu­ture Light­ing So­lu­tions, said the technology is a no-brainer for gro­cery stores to use in their freez­ers, be­cause not only will the lights last longer, but it will re­quire less en­ergy to run their freez­ers, since the lights aren’t a sig­nif­i­cant source of heat.

Power LEDs are also pro­gram­mable. They can change colours, and be con­trolled re­motely, so they’re al­ready pop­u­lar among en­ter­tain­ment com­pa­nies, which use them to dec­o­rate rooms for par­ties.

How­ever, most com­pa­nies con­vert­ing to LEDs have trou­ble adapt­ing to the new technology, be­cause it re­quires us­ing and adapt­ing semi­con­duc­tors. That’s where Fu­ture comes in.

“Many of our cus­tomers in the light­ing busi­ness don’t buy semi­con­duc­tors,” Singer­man said. “Their core com­pe­tency is metal

Some day, “we will be the light­ing com­pany that does busi­ness in elec­tronic com­po­nents.” LIND­S­LEY RUTH, QUOT­ING ROBERT MILLER

bend­ing and fix­ture de­sign, not light-source de­sign. What this has cre­ated is a need for them to build the light bulb ef­fec­tively, and many of them couldn’t build the light bulb.

“This is a per­fect fit for us, be­cause we lever­age all the semi­con­duc­tor technology and un­der­stand­ing that we have (from Fu­ture Elec­tron­ics).”

Fu­ture Light­ing does the job of retro­fit­ted tra­di­tional light sources and light fix­tures to LED technology, and then pass­ing on that knowhow to its cus­tomers. On the day Parada was show­ing off his lab, he had just re­placed a flu­o­res­cent ceil­ing light with LEDs.

Singer­man said the busi­ness has been grow­ing rapidly, as the price of power LEDs has de­creased. He said it now takes about two years for heavy users to see the pay­off from chang­ing stan­dard lights with LEDs.

In­nouye, how­ever, said the prices are still a bit high for full-scale adop­tion of LEDs.

“Right now, if you go to Home De­pot, you can buy an LED bulb for $20. That price needs to get down to around $5 be­fore it be­comes in­ter­est­ing for con­sumers to use them in their homes,” she said. “The prob­lem right now is that there isn’t enough ca­pac­ity in the world to pro­duce these things, so the price is still quite high.

Fu­ture’s founder, Robert Miller said go­ing into the light­ing in­dus­try was a tremen­dous risk at the time, be­cause it wasn’t ob­vi­ous this would be­come a mass mar­ket prod­uct.

“We in­vested $27 mil­lion into this, which was quite risky,” Miller said. “In fact, it turned out to be a great de­ci­sion.”

The light­ing di­vi­sion is the fastest-grow­ing part of the com­pany, said cor­po­rate vice pres­i­dent Lind­s­ley Ruth.

“Some­times Mr. Miller will say, ‘down the road, we will be the light­ing com­pany that does busi­ness in elec­tronic com­po­nents,” Ruth said. “That’s a po­ten­tial.”

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