Thursday, May 07, 2009

New Interview with Michael Ng, CEO of Amko SOLARA Lighting Co.

So it’s been almost two years since your last interview, what are your thoughts on induction lighting and the market place now?

Induction lighting is now being recognized as a truly long life lamp with real world energy saving potentials higher than LED. It is 50% more efficient than CFL’s, and cuts energy usage of traditional lamps like mercury vapor and high pressure sodium by half or more. Its tested lifespan of over 30,000 hours makes it a reliable solution for hard-to-maintain areas. With a rated lifespan of 60,000 hours, it is also a very environmentally friendly solution that symbolizes reduction, recycle, and reuse.

At Amko, we continue to offer high performance induction lamps and fixtures with greater stability and consistency than our competition. Our luminaires are redesigned to bring out the best of induction lighting and they are manufactured either in Taiwan for high performance or in China for cost efficiency. We offer 5 year warranties on our lamp and fixture, 3 years on our ballasts, though we will extend that warranty at a fee for 2 additional years, basically sending you replacement units for those that have reached its end of life. We are also planning on introducing premium ballasts that carry a 5 year warranty later this year.

There have been a lot of new induction lamp companies starting up in the US over the past few years. What do you think of the current explosion of induction lamp competition?

Well, the reality is that there is only a hand full of, or five to be exact, manufacturers of induction lamp – that includes OSRAM, Philips, Matsushita, HongYuan (aka LVD) and Amko SOLARA, fully owned subsidiary of Amko Industrial – one of the largest shareholder of JK Yaming.

While the explosion of induction lamp companies in the US is exciting and may very well helped popularized the idea, we did get feedback that people are fed up with these companies posing as manufacturers when they are in reality just import/export companies with little knowledge on induction lights. We do not agree with their strategy.

If you observe closely, you will find that those claiming 100,000 hours are those relying on marketing, rather than a serious technical understanding of induction lighting. You will also notice that they don’t offer anything more than what the Chinese manufacturers are exporting to them because they don’t have the knowhow or development ability to bring out the best in induction lighting. There are much more than just a light bulb when preparing government projects – for instance our projects in Taiwan and Mexico contains restrict requirements in lighting distribution, glare reduction, ambiance temperature, and IP rating inspections.

We always thought that the keys to success with induction lighting was firstly the adaptation of an international standard, followed by genuine production capabilities, and lastly a sound and far reaching infrastructure that delivers both product and service to the consumers.

The first key took almost ten years in the making, with us leading the national standards all across China and now even Taiwan. Our continued efforts in researching the various generations of induction lamps allowed us to surpass every competitor out there, most of which abandoned induction lighting long ago.

Back in JK’s headquarters in Singapore, our board of directors continued to reinvest all of our profits back into expanding the production facilities, which now spans over five locations and totals more than 60,000 sqm (6,000,000 sqft). We designed the entire line of production equipment in house and we made it very scalable. Unfortunately we cannot show it to anyone, let alone make a video on it.

Lastly, we insisted on developing strong and competent distributors who will not only serve the market but also provide warranty services, RMA, and maintenance needs. We identified distributors who possess a strong technical background and understanding of control systems and electrical systems and trained them to understand what brings out the best of induction lighting – what makes it a truly environmental and eco-friendly light. They are also well funded and well resourced to bring our product and service to the different ends of the world, closing the gap between the end users and an overseas manufacturer like us.

We are fortunate to have a global company like Havells Sylvania become our distributor for Amko SOLARA. Likewise we are very lucky to have regional distributors in Latin America, North America, and Europe promoting our technology and providing services to the end users locally.

Together with JK, we did 12 million USD on induction lighting alone in 2008 (on 187 million SGD, or 128 million USD). We are looking at 60 million USD in 2009 and we already recorded 21 million USD in the first quarter. We will continue to work with the best distributors that are committed to our product and have the resources to serve those interested in our product.

What about those new induction companies in China? Do you foresee some of them rising to capture some of your market share?

Yes and no. They are doing very well domestically in China, but not in a commercial sense. They are seeking capital funding to bring their prototypes to the next level, and have found several Taiwanese and Hong Kong merchants to do so. Most of these companies are opened by engineers that were under the employment of HongYuan (LVD), in essence depleting HongYuan’s pool of R&D talent. These companies do not even have small production line and most are struggling to make their lamps operate at the lower frequency of 210-250 kHz. I don’t see any decent products from any of these companies because they are too small and they don’t have enough R&D and knowhow to really bring their product to the market.

One company however, ZhengShin, is well funded by its parent company, and has invested considerably into induction lighting. They also lured some of my best employees over, and tried to copy both our marketing materials, including our website and our second generation induction lamp designs. Nonetheless, I have high expectations for them and we shall see if their efforts come true at the end of 2009.

That said, I don’t think any of the Chinese competitors are positioned to take any significant market share from us in the short term. They are still years behind us in too many aspects.

What makes induction lighting so suitable with sensor controls?

Sadly we did not discover this ourselves, but rather learned from our customer who was looking for a better solution to employ motion sensors. They were unsatisfied with the delayed on/off limits with mercury vapor and metal halide lamps, at the same time they are very upset that fluorescent lamps and CFL’s experience shortened lifespan when you frequently turn the lamp on and off in a high traffic zone. Induction lamp on the other hand delivered on both problems they are currently facing and became the obvious choice for sensor equipped controls.

I think the point that we learned here is not to be caught up in selling what we want to deliver from our range of products. The key here is to listen to the problems and let the problem (high temperature, high failure rates, maintenance difficulties, energy costs, etc.) tell us what to do. In this particular case, the customer was heard and they got to know our product and the problem solved itself.

Then what makes induction lighting so suitable with alternative energy sources like solar and wind?

Induction lighting is an efficient source of light, and it is very suitable for renewable energy because it brings the costs down associated with solar panels and wind turbines. We use nearly half as much energy as CFL’s and our lamps overpower LED’s. Therefore our panels and batteries are smaller and our costs are lower. The extremely long and proven lifespan of induction lighting makes it a very environmental product by cutting down waste in replacement bulbs, packaging material, and shipping costs. Amko’s range of induction lighting is unique that it is the only induction lamp that is dimmable via an open source 0-10V control, and we also will be offer a wired PLC and a wireless 2.4 GHz control system (ECLIPSE) to compliment our system. Both are highly reliable and flexible to be integrated into existing control systems, making it easy to monitor and inspect on the new installations of street lamps that have solar panels and wind turbines integrated into the pole.

What makes your induction lighting more competitive than the others?

I think the most distinctive characteristic about Amko SOLARA is our openness to people seeking more information and our candid approach to the advantages and disadvantages of induction lighting. We do not recommend induction lighting to every solution – there are situations where traditional lighting such as T8 and T5 excels induction and there is no point for the customer to switch to induction. There are also areas where LED is the obvious solution, and we always recognized that LED will be a winner down the line. The key to LED though, is in thermal dynamics and material science, and while most US institutes and labs know what that means, manufacturers and integrators in Asian countries have yet to understand that because they lack space / missile (more specifically, intercontinental ballistic missiles) technology.

We generally find our customers divided into two focused interests. The first wishes to replace high pressure sodium lamps (street and tunnel) with our lamps (400W HPS -> 150W SOLARA) to save energy and maintenance costs (10,000 hrs -> 50,000 hrs).

The second group is interested in new alternative lighting sources – LED or induction. They tend to be new installs or replacements of T8/T12 or CFL installations. Most chose induction in the end because our prices are more competitive, our products are more stable and do not burn out after 5,000 hrs. We are working on positioning induction directly against LED to replace them – and also at the lowest end of the pricing spectrum.

For instance, one of our customers made the following comparison of 600mm x 600mm indoor luminaires for offices:

LUNARA 40W gives an output of 2667 lumens – nearly 67lm/W. In our luminaire, we used a brushed reflector and installed a 2mm diffuser to reduce the glare – hence the 53% efficiency. Without the diffuser it is nearly 70%. Without revealing too much, the Korean LED was quoted 180 USD on average, while the Chinese LED was quoted at 80 USD. Our 40W lamp is priced the same as the Chinese LED.

One thing that we repeatedly told our customer is that induction lighting is a 60,000 hours solution, not 100,000 hours. That is a theoretical lifespan and it completely disregards the CIE recommendation of replacing lamps once they have reached a 30% or greater lumens depreciation. In our marketing material, the luminances that we use in our data are all initial lumens, after 100 hours. With induction lighting you should expect no less than maintenance of 82% of the initial lumens after 10,000 hours. Yes, the lifespan of the bulb is theoretically longer, but we warranty our lamps for 5 years, not 10, which in my opinion is just reckless. They should have a useful lifespan of 60,000 hours when lumen maintenance drops to 70%. Our ballasts are warranted for 3 years, but we are working on a new ballast design for 5 years.

Induction lamps are shaped uniquely and therefore new fixtures had to be designed to accommodate and maximize the performance of induction lighting. There is a lot to design and enhance on induction lighting such as more efficient fixtures and control systems. 50% of Amko SOLARA’s fixtures are unique to us and you can’t find that in the market. They are completely redesigned to maximize the fixture efficiency for induction lamps, from the reflectors to the lens coating and filters. Our customers come back to us after they’ve tested our competitor’s fixtures because they find our fixture and lamps are of higher quality and consistency.

Again, Amko’s range of induction lighting is unique that it is the only induction lamp that is dimmable via an open source 0-10V control. The wired PLC and a wireless 2.4 GHz control system (ECLIPSE) compliment our system. Both are highly reliable and flexible to be integrated into existing control systems. Furthermore, the control units can also be retrofitted into any existing Amko SOLARA’s 0-10V or simple on/off ballasts.

We are an ISO 9000 rated company and factory, and nearly all of our products have received UL certification. Most of our products have CE and CB. We also have CNS and product safety marks (Taiwan), and our explosion proof line also adheres to North American, Japan, and European standards. For instance, our AF7-801 and AF7-802 are certifiable to JIS d2G4 standards and meet with NEC Class 1 Div. 1 and European Exd (flameproof), Group II (any gas group) and Temperature classification T3. We have one of the best equipped explosion proof testing laboratories in Taiwan for both the European and Japanese standards.

How well does induction lamps operate in cold temperatures?

There is no loss in the lumens output in freezing conditions – the start up time is lengthened to 20 minutes as the bulb needs to heat up. There is also no loss in the lifespan. But lamps designed to operate below -25 will be produced in a special batch to make sure the start up time is not longer than 20 minutes. For 0 to -25 our normal induction lamp will do the job.

What about ECLIPSE? What is that and what role does it play with your lamps?

ECLIPSE is a control gear unit at the side of the lamp ballast, directly wired to the power line to provide communication back to a router unit that can be mounted up to 50 meters away. Each control gear unit is also a signal repeater, allowing daisy chaining up to 255 units per router. The router stores all the programmed information such as zoning, timing and dimming setting on a flash chip that retains all programming even after a power failure. The router communicates back to the main computer via GPRS, broadband, RJ-45, USB or serial (RJ-232) connection. The computer or a hosted website synchronizes all the times for the routers. The control gears are synchronized via the router by power line communication and high quality narrow band, and can be set to different timings and dimming individually or in an assigned group. The user interface of the programming is HTML and FLASH based so it is extremely user friendly. Distance does cause signal degradation, and the routers have a maximum radius of 1 kilometer to the control units. ECLIPSE will also be available in a wireless solution by the end of 2009, operating at 2.4 GHz.

The units and routers are all IP65 rated, and can be encased in IP67 rating if required – making it suitable for various missions and locations. It may be mounted inside most of Amko SOLARA’s fixtures but will be externally mounted for our high/low bay fixtures.

Temperature, voltage, and wattages are reported back to the computer in real time to provide continuous monitoring and recording. Notifications or alerts such as failures, maintenance updates, or temperature alerts can be communicated through email or SMS. Total system wattage or group wattages (ie, energy consumption) is recorded, as well as an integrated timer that records the total operating time of each lamp – hence easing the maintenance work.

Induction lighting is still more expensive than traditional lighting, so where are the segments that find induction lighting a suitable replacement and the numbers work out?

Actually induction lighting can realize returns on investments as soon as 2 years. We have found that street lighting and tunnel lighting are the two most expensive areas of lighting where maintenance costs and operating costs far outstrips the initial cost of the lamps themselves. Induction lighting not only reduces energy usage to just a half, but also reduces maintenance costs to just a fifth of traditional high pressure sodium lighting.

Below is a table to compares the costs of operating different lighting sources against induction lighting over 10 years.

Many people ask if we could make a replacement chart for induction lighting versus traditional lighting so below is a direct comparison chart. The most difficult comparison for us is with LED lighting because LED’s do not give enough luminance as required by the national standards for street lighting and are often underpowered to make the case that they are energy efficient. In reality, at high wattages (above 40W) they are no more efficient than metal halides. For our comparison, we have to first provide a comparable induction lamp wattage that is similar to the LED solution and then suggest a second wattage that is appropriate and more realistic for the job intended.

Advantages of induction over LED:
1. More lumens output and higher lux levels on the ground
2. Less energy consumption required at wattages above LED 20W
3. Reduces overall costs by reducing the costs of higher wattage solar panels and batteries
4. Has a better “real world” lifespan due to better design and less sensitivity to heat
5. Induction lighting solutions are 1/3 to 1/5 of the cost of comparable LED solutions

There are talks of 3rd and 4th generation designs down the pipeline, what are they?

The 3rd and 4th generation SOLARA induction lamps are new designs and they completely revamp the current induction lighting – Philips’ design was the 1st generation, and Osram came up with the 2nd generation, improving upon that and getting around Philips’ patent. Our 3rd generation will be unique to Amko SOLARA only and will be a mass market product – low cost, easy to install, and small size. We are looking at the middle of the 2009 to have a working unit ready, and released no later than 2010. The 4th generation design is still in the works but is very much advanced in the process and we should have a production model by the end of 2009, while the roll out is scheduled for the middle of 2010. It is also a complete structural redesign to make induction lighting even more flexible for interior lighting and next generation lighting design. There is actually a 5th generation in the plan, again a mass market product, but designed to replace T5 and T8 lamps.

So what does the different generations of induction lighting rank against other lighting sources from a luminous efficacy stand point?

Luminous efficacy literally looks at the raw energy numbers: thermal v. light energy. That is the question that people never really ask – LED manufacturers also don’t want to admit this. In fact, all existing lighting sources are still terribly inefficient – the best solutions we have are low pressure sodium lamps which are 30% efficient.

Here is a table that lists various light sources to compare luminous efficiency. In theory, the maximum luminous output is 683 lumens per watt of energy – that is 100% all light energy. The natural sunlight is 93 lm/W which is 14% efficient. Induction lamp is between 9% to 14% efficient, similar to that of other fluorescent lamps.

There are questions about health concerns regarding the harmful effects of induction lighting, could you elaborate on that?

We’ve also heard people suggesting that induction lighting, with its magnetic field generation, poses EMI and EMC concerns. While these are true, as it is the fundamental working theory of induction lighting, it is also a fact that we already live in a world full of radio frequencies and magnetic waves.

Mobile phones operate at 900 MHz, Wi-Fi networks and cordless phones operate at 2.4 GHz; these consumer electronic devices that we use everywhere is transmitting more EMI than induction lighting, which in Amko’s SOLARA and LUNARA ranges, operate at 250 kHz. Modern fluorescent lamps also operate at close to 30 kHz.

There is no way that with the resources we have that we can prove and document definitively that EMI’s of 250 kHz is harmless to human beings, just as the mobile phones and high tech industries do not produce any documents saying their devices are safe for human contact – especially concerning that we keep mobile phones even closer to our bodies than any other electronic devices. All we can do is to stand on the basis that we have fulfilled the safety requirements that are designated by each governing body of the certifications we have (UL, CE, CB, CCC, CNS, CSA) obtained, through Amko’s name or our subsidiaries, over the past twelve years of induction lighting research.

So what is next for you? You’ve mentioned briefly on the 3rd generation design and coupling that with solar energy. Could you tell us more?

The idea with solar is simple really - we are working with US based JA Solar and Prefersolar together to offer our 12W LUNARA lamps with a 20W solar panel, charge/discharge controller and battery to the emerging markets at a target price of USD$100 with the help from micro-financiers (loans) in African countries, India, China, Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia. I think it has vast potentials for the end users because they will have a complete system that is guaranteed to last 5 years with no electricity bills and no hidden fees. It is clean, pollution free and does not add stress to the power grid. It is cheaper than LED solutions and even kerosene over the lifespan while giving off a better quality light, and needless to say it is also exponentially better for the children’s education and their health.

Our target price is our cost at the moment and this will be a strictly non-for-profit organization. We have a lot of good people and partners helping us on this project to bring the product to the market and distribute it as well as bringing it to the attention of NGO’s and institutions that can bolster our efforts to get this product to the hands of those who need it the most.