Cutting Edge: The light connection

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 11, 2019 - February 17, 2019.
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Philips has always been known as the lighting company. Established in 1891, it has produced light bulbs for more than a century. But just because a company is venerable and well established, it does not mean that it is immune to disruption.

Facing this threat head-on, Philips Lighting rebranded itself as Signify in the middle of last year to focus on connecting lighting to networks, software and the cloud, to deliver value beyond illumination.

Signify CEO Alok Ghose, who covers Southeast Asia, says that being one of the most well-known brands in the world does not mean that the company does not need to keep up with the rapid development in technology and shifts in consumer behaviour. “Philips has been at the forefront of the industry for the last 127 years. It has not been easy as customers expect more out of the brands they trust the most,” he says.

So, how can Signify deliver value beyond illumination? The answer is data, says Ghose. Light has the ability to carry data, although it has not been used for this purpose until about a decade ago, when consumers started shifting from conventional lighting fixtures, such as incandescent bulbs and compact fluorescent lamps, to light-emitting diodes (LED).

An LED is a semiconductor device that emits visible light when a current passes through it. This means it can be switched on and off very quickly, which is not possible with conventional lighting modalities. An incandescent bulb lights up when electricity flows through the filament in the bulb and it heats up while a compact fluorescent lamp works by ionising mercury in a glass tube.

Because of the way they have been designed, LEDs can be used to transmit large amounts of data at a rapid rate. This enables “smart” lighting.

Signify did not start out with huge, cutting-edge projects straightaway. Its first foray into smart lighting was pretty simple — basically, lights that could be remotely controlled. However, because the company chose to plough as much as 5% of its revenue into R&D, its technological capability evolved rapidly.

Not only did it start putting intelligence into lighting fixtures, Signify also tried developing the whole system, working with elements such as sensors, transceivers and dashboards. This is achieved by collaborating with like-minded partners and alliances, says Ghose.

“From there, we started coming out with some new propositions. The first was called CityTouch, which was designed for street lighting. In every country, there are millions of streetlights, which is essential for a country’s social fabric,” he adds.

The company started putting sensors on streetlights so that town or city councils would not have to go around checking which were not working. They could simply refer to a dashboard on which each light can be monitored. Gradually, CityTouch enabled remote maintenance, followed by features such as scheduling and dimming.

“Later, we realised that if the light is integrated with other Internet of Things (IoT) appliances — for instance, closed-circuit television or noise detection sensors — we could help provide better security. This led us to the realisation that integration will benefit in plenty of other situations,” says Ghose.

“Hotels, for instance, will definitely benefit from it. The light can be integrated with heating, ventilation and air conditioning to provide customers with a personalised experience. For example, after the light detects the customer, it will remember his previous stay and automatically set the air conditioning temperature to his liking.”


Creating an IoT platform

One thing became very clear to Signify. It wanted to create the backbone that would make IoT integration possible. It knew that customers were not looking for multiple vendors with multiple solutions as each vendor was working on different protocols that would make it very difficult to configure solutions.

So, Signify started doing a lot of research to come up with a platform approach beyond the standard application programming interface (API). The platform, known as Interact, is a secure, scalable IoT platform that collects insights from customer’s connected LED lighting, embedded sensors and devices over an IoT-ready connected lighting system. “With this integration, the possibilities are endless,” says Ghose.

The company has developed a technology called Indoor Positioning, which works like an indoor GPS. “Let’s say a warehouse employee has a list of things he needs to pick up. Indoor Positioning will guide him to the exact location where the things are stored, which enhances productivity,” says Ghose.

“We also have Interact Industry, which combines industrial lighting with sensors and channels the information to a dashboard. When the lights sense that there is no human traffic at a certain location, they will go dim. So, warehouse owners save up to 20% on electricity, on top of the 60% they already save using LED instead of conventional lights.”

Interact Industry also has other things to offer, including lighting asset management, which alerts employees about faults and outages via a remote diagnostics dashboard, he says. The platform can perform predictive maintenance based on real-time performance data and automatically deploy firmware and software updates.

Interact has six other solutions — Interact Pro, Interact City, Interact Retail, Interact Landmark, Interact Sports and Interact Hospitality.


Challenges and new opportunities

Ghose says he understands that it may be difficult to get small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to adopt Interact due to several challenges. First, there is capital expenditure involved. Second, it may be incompatible with their existing legacy systems. And third is simply the sheer complexity of it all. It may not be easy for end-users, and even Signify’s partners, to wrap their heads around what Interact can bring to the table.

But he is confident that gradually, there will be more acceptance. “Cost-wise, we believe it will not be too big of a challenge. We have to bear in mind that even switching from conventional to LED lighting allows them to save up to 60% [on their electricity bills]. So, we think it is all about whether they invest in the technology straightaway or do so more gradually,” he says.

“Different solutions provide different paybacks. But even the most basic solution, Interact Pro, an intuitive cloud-based software, would make sense to them returns-wise. It is kind of a do-it-yourself thing with basic LED tube lights equipped with sensors. This allows remote management via a dashboard, which helps to enhance productivity.”

Ghose is positive that Malaysian SMEs will be open to adopting IoT solutions like Interact as soon as they understand how these can benefit their businesses. “It was probably difficult five years ago to talk about these technologies because it was not making much sense. But as we have seen many of times before, advancement in technologies reduces cost. A simple example is the fairly dumb LED bulb, which used to cost RM50 about three years ago. Now, it is RM10. That is the kind of cost erosion that has happened, thanks to economies of scale,” he says.

“Today, we see a lot less reluctance among SMEs to adopt new technologies. We did our own research and found that a quarter to half of local SMEs are already exploring the benefits of IoT. They are probably focusing more on manufacturing automation and fleet management, but the important thing is that they are aware and very keen. It is just a matter of time before they start adopting these technologies.”

Signify is also looking to offer Light Fidelity (LiFi), a technology in which high-quality LED lighting provides a broadband internet connection through light waves. It is the first global lighting company to offer LiFi-enabled luminaires from its existing office lighting portfolio. The company has three LiFi projects in Malaysia thus far.

LiFi is a two-way, high-speed wireless technology similar to WiFi, but uses light waves instead of radio waves to transmit data, explains Ghose. “WiFi’s radio spectrum is extremely crowded by thousands of telecoms players and others trying to grab a certain frequency. Compared with this, LiFi is not crowded and can be up to 10 times faster than WiFi.”

LiFi can be used in places where radio frequencies may interfere with equipment or where WiFi signals are weak, such as hospitals or underground. It can also be used in environments that demand high security as LiFi only provides connection to devices within its beam, says Ghose.

As light cannot pass through solid walls, LiFi adds an extra layer of security. “WiFi can pass through walls, so it is possible for you to be hacked. LiFi, however, only works in the beam of that particular light. Thus, you cannot be hacked unless the hacker is sitting right next to you,” he says.