LED Manufacturer Lights Up the World from Vancouver-Area Plant

Friday, November 30, 2001

Carmanah Technologies Inc. is a small company located in a little city on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, but size and location haven't prevented it from becoming a major player in the world-wide market for solar-powered LED (Light Emitting Diode) lights.

    Although it was founded just a few years ago, in 1996, the 32-employee company in the Victoria suburb of Esquimalt has already carved out for itself a piece of the global marine market for LED lighting products. And recently it has started to make inroads in the much larger markets for rail and highway warning lights.

    Carmanah, which means "the source" in the Salish language founded by BC technology inventor Professor David Green. In the early 1990s, Green, an avid sailor, was looking for a new way to illuminnate his sailboat's anchor light, the nighttime marker light atop a boats mast that warns other vessels to keep away. Automobile batteries, the traditional power source for anchor lights, can lose much of their power overnight. Battery power loss can make it difficult to start a sailboat's engine in the morning if there isn't enough wind and the boat needs to use its engine to get underway. In addition, standard marine lights are difficult and expensive to install. Green thought a solar-powered LED anchor light might provide the less costly, easy-to-install alternative he was looking for.

    After four years of research in his laboratory, Green had developed working prototypes for a line of products for marine application that incorporated LED technology, solar power, power storage systems and "smart" power management. He soon followed with production models of the lights.

    According to Carmanah, LED technology is "the most fundamental improvement in lighting technology since the invention of the light bulb." LEDs use a semi-conductor chip to produce light. The chip enables them to use less power, last at least 20 times longer, and emit less heat than the standard light bulb.

    Carmanah lights are sealed enclosures between six and 16 inches tall, and come in green, red, amber, white and blue. The lights can be programmed to produce over 200 of the world's standard IALA (International Association of Lighthouse Authorities) flash characters and are designed to operate for up to five years without battery or bulb replacement.

    Despite their unique features, the lights sold slowly in Carmanah's early years, and the company made just enough to survive. By 2000, however, its prospects began to improve. In March, Green mode a sale to the United States Coast Guard in Groton, Connecticut, earning Carmanah credibility in the nautical market. And just a few months later he raised enough money to enable the company to do some serious marketing, which included setting up a network of distributors around the world.

    In September 2000 more changes were made. David Green left the driver's seal at Carmanah to head up the company's intellectual property office, and Art Aylesworth, former president of Sharp's Audiovisual in Victoria, succeeded him as CEO. Aylesworth's mandate was to put together a strong sales and marketing team, and find new markets for Carmanah's solar-powered LED lights.

    Since Aylesworth took over, the company's sales have increased 100 percent. Carmanah sells between 18,000 and 20,000 lights per year at an average price of Cdn$300 each. It has six models of lights in production. Installations include a marina in Mexico, a mussel farm in New Zealand, and an aquaculture operation in Norway. B.C. Ferry Corporation is testing Carmanah lights as ferry berth markers at two of its terminals on Vancouver Island and is adding them to other terminals as well.

    Carmanah's standard LED navigation lights include the 500 series, which operate at short ranges up to one nautical mile (l.5km), the 600 series, up to two nautical miles (3.6km); and the 700 series, up to three nautical miles (5.4km).

    Carmanah has recently added a series of lights for railway applications. They include Model 209, which can be used in all types of "blue light" warning applications, and Model 509, which omits 360 degrees of steady or flashing blue light.

    Carmanah buys the solar panels for its lights in Asia, the LEDs in the US and Japan and the batteries in Europe. It purchases board components in Canada from Canadian companies. "Our main edge over our competitors is the design of the electronics in the lights and the software that operates them," Aylesworth says.

    Carmanah sells products for the marine navigation market through a network of 85 distributors all over the world. The company's eight salespeople in the BC head office sell directly to the rail market. The lights for highway application are still at the prototype and beta test stage, and Carmanah has yet to decide how to distribute them.

    Carmanah's distributors buy the lights from the company and then resell them. "Our distribution system works well for us and for our distributors," Aylesworth says. "The products require zero maintenance and the rate of product return is miniscule."

    Aylesworth says Carmanah's location on Vancouver Island hasn't hurt the company. "Location doesn't matter," he says. "Our market doesn't care where we are. Shipping is a non-issue, because the product is relatively expensive."