Carmanah on the Move

Victoria's high-tech darling has moved to the suburbs.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

As Carmanah Technologies continued its impressive growth of sales and employees, the company needed more space for a new manufacturing plant. Carmanah took the largest space available in Greater Victoria, a 30,000 square-foot warehouse in the Royal Oak technology park, which the company has already filled to capacity.

 

Carmanah Technologies Corporation
Yuri Lavrinenko glues and water-proofs solar panels at the new plant of Carmanah Technologies Corp., which officially opened Thursday in the Royal Oak technology park. (Credit:Lana Robertson/Victoria News)

Last week Saanich-South MP Gary Lunn, in his new role as minister of natural resources, joined Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard on a tour of the facilities on Enterprise Crescent.

Lunn and Leonard basked in the fact Carmanah is a homegrown success that chose to keep its main manufacturing plant local, even though it now has plants all over the world.

With media in tow, politicians, "oohed" and "ahhed" over workers who poured, moulded and wired the solar-powered LED lights that are used wherever stringing a long power chord is impossible or just plain inconvenient.

The latest Carmanah pride and joy is an army green light, not much larger than a stack of CDs, that is lining runways in Afghanistan.

Pilots use remote controls to turn the lights on, or shut them off when they want the runways hidden.

The plant is good news for Greater Victoria. About 67 people are working at the plant, about half of them former employees with JDS Uniphase, said Carmanah's production manager Tim Lowe.

Lowe hired many of the skilled workers who were left jobless after JDS Uniphase merged with SDL Optics, the large fibre-optics factory in Central Saanich that closed shop when the high-tech bubble burst.

Lowe was a former JDS Uniphase employee himself, lured back to Canada by Carmanah.

Another group of employees came from Soltek Powersource Ltd, a Central Saanich-based supplier of solar power systems. Carmanah bought Soltek in July.

Carmanah has kept its Vic West location next to the Johnson Street Bridge and will continue to house designers and marketers there.

Leonard said the company fits the vision of what Saanich is trying to do with its industrial area off Glanford Road.

"We're blessed to have such a dynamic company," Leonard said. "I'm proud that Carmanah is not only a Victoria success story, but a Canadian success story."

Carmanah's annual sales were $38,729,885 in 2005, a growth that earned it the 2005 Canadian Exporter of the Year by International Trade Canada.

Carmanah's claim to fame is to ride the wave of new applications for LED lights as the super energy-efficient lights evolved.

As short as a decade ago, LEDs were so faint they were only used for electronic displays (think of the light on your stereo's "on" switch).

As LEDs got brighter, Carmanah founder Dave Green invented a prototype light that used a solar panel to charge a battery, which ran a bright LED. Green came up with the idea while sailing in Fiji. On a small boat, it's a hassle keeping a charged battery to run lights necessary to be seen by cargo ships passing in the night.

LEDs are so efficient the relatively paltry amount of energy produced by a small solar panel is all that's needed.

Other companies had the same idea, but Carmanah enjoyed success from its solid design. Every component is internal, encased in a thick layer of plastic, making them impervious to the elements.

The same basic design graces every Carmanah product - from ocean buoy markers to flashing school crossing lights to household security lights.

Carmanah executives delight in receiving mail about the indestructibility of their lights.

Last week, they had a new testimonial from Afghanistan, where a light continued to work after being run over by a tank.

The airstrip light is the latest series of Carmanah lights that can be seen from four miles away, a milestone reached just a few months ago. Previous lights reached three miles.

Designers achieved the new distance through the shape of a new lens that focused the beam, Lowe explained.

"Once we reach five miles, we'll hit a whole new market," he said.

At that point, Carmanah might need to expand into the rest of the building though that space currently holds other businesses.

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