Kendall powers ideas for Ada firm's charging technology

August 31, 2009
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The ingenuity and fresh thinking of college students is crucial as Fulton Innovation approaches manufacturers about incorporating its wireless electricity technology into new and existing products, said Dave Baarman.

Baarman is director of advanced technologies for Fulton Innovation, which is part of Alticor Inc.'s Access Business Group. From that vantage point, he has worked with colleges — including Grand Valley State University, Kendall College of Art & Design of Ferris State University, Michigan Technological University and University of Michigan — to tap into fresh perspectives, from engineering to materials science to design to marketing, that sometimes elude long-term professionals.

"We're trying to reach out even further and maybe at a larger magnitude, both in project size and in university outreach," Baarman said. "We've had over 27 different universities from around the world approach us just on wireless power since CES (Consumer Electronics Show) of 2009. We have a lot of requests; it's just a matter of having the resources and the projects lined up to be able to work with these different universities."

Fulton Innovation's product, eCoupled, uses inductive coupling and digital technology to charge electronic devices automatically, without wires and cords. Fulton Innovation first used it for water purification systems sold by Access Business Group.

Now the company is looking for ways to use its proprietary technology by licensing it to all sorts of industries. It has teamed with other companies, including Motorola, Leggett & Platt, Energizer, Bosch, Texas Instruments, Universal Electronics and Herman Miller, and was a co-founder of the Wireless Power Consortium, which is reviewing worldwide standards for wireless power.

The applications could run from cell phones and digital music players to medical devices, power tools and kitchen appliances, according to the company's Web site. June's Neocon in Chicago, the premier event for the office furntiure industry, saw the introduction of desks, tables and chairs integrated with Fulton Innovation's eCoupled technology.

Fulton Innovation benefits from working with college students delving into more ideas for applications of wireless, automatic electrical charging, Baarman said. Each idea from each student serves to inform the entire process, even if that particular idea doesn't cross over into a real-life product.

"It's a whole different time in life that these student are looking at these technologies from," Baarman said. "It's a whole different perspective of technology and technology usage that the students have, versus what professionals would have, in the way that they would view how this technology might be used. It really comes down to perspective and insight from a student's point of view."

Important to working with academia is a professor who sees eCouple's game-changing potential and the possibilities for student input, he said. Then the Fulton Innovation team develops project parameters for the group of students, and presents basic information about the technology. The company tries to identify projects that could add a positive line on their resumes, he said.

"They get to play with it — the basics behind it, the limitations, the freedoms. We seed the prospects of how this might be used in their minds," Baarman said.

Kendall College professor Tom Edwards chairs the industrial design department, which offers four courses in which students work with companies on real-world projects. Over the years, they've worked with Steelcase Inc., Herman Miller, Haworth, Whirlpool Corp., Bissell Co. and Tiara Yachts. During this year's winter term, about 12 students worked with Fulton Innovation on product design concepts, he said.

"We assigned students to go into any environment they wanted to and try to identify applications where this technology could be applied," Edwards said. "(They) started to develop some concepts around how this technology could make a difference in a user's day-to-day life."

Their ideas ranged from aquarium devices to a flashlight integrated into a vehicle's interior lighting system. "There were some very simple things and some very complex concepts," Edwards said. Photos are posted at eCouple Wireless Power on Facebook.

"One of the nice things about this regular sort of project collaboration we do (is) the students get to work very real projects and have credible work in their portfolios at the end of the semester," Edwards added. "They also work with some of the people that develop products professionally in the area. In some cases, there is a reward, like a name on a patent, and in other cases there are competitions."

Kendall has three industrial design professors who teach a dozen different classes, Edwards added.

"Design as a profession is growing," he said. "More and more, companies are realizing design is a way to differentiate their product in the marketplace. Even business schools are teaching design. It's a very growing and hot profession, once the economy turns around."

Meanwhile, Fulton Innovation is preparing to work with even more students as word of eCoupled technology spreads.

"From our perspective, we're looking for more relationships like this," Baarman said. "Obviously, we've got our hands busy in a lot of things, but we're always looking to reach out to the community and reach out to these young students. By no means have we tapped the capabilities yet, and we look to continue to moving that forward."

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