Cutting the last cord

March 26, 2010
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“For our customers, it’s really the last wire,” said Maryln Walton, ideation business insight manager with Herman Miller Inc. “I can remember several years ago talking to customers and some had wireless Internet connections. People were slowly starting to adopt (wireless) and now most buildings have wireless connection, but we’re still tethered with our power.”

Walton is referring to the wireless power technology called eCoupled coming out of Fulton Innovation, a subsidiary of Alticor Corp. that focuses on commercializing new technologies.

“If you think about it from a user experience, human-centered design and providing the best experience we can in the workplace, wireless power would solve a lot of problems workers have today.”

The technology behind the wireless power system initially wasn’t intended to be a commercial product, but Fulton Innovation saw its potential and started the process of bringing it to market.

“We’ve been into this wireless power thing for 13 or 14 years,” said Dave Baarman, director of advanced technologies for Fulton Innovation. “It’s been in our water treatment system and has literally made (Amway) billions of dollars in that configuration. We turned some of the cost savings and some of the background on wireless power into a means of being able to take the technology much further than the original products we put it into.”

Wireless power with eCoupled can take a variety of forms. Right now the company is perfecting powering smaller mobile electronics such as cell phones and MP3 players. It works by simply setting a device on an eCoupled surface for charging. Herman Miller is one of several companies that has partnered with Fulton Innovation on eCoupled; during a Consumer Electronics Show in January, Herman Miller incorporated eCoupled into a workstation and conference table.

Baarman’s favorite application is in the console of a car.

“It gives these manufacturers a very dynamic and robust power supply that will deliver exactly what their present power supply delivers — and do that in a very effective way,” said Baarman.

“We’ve put this in sculpted wood. We’ve buried it in furniture. We’ve put it into (airplane) seatback trays or tables for first class. We’ve put it into automotive consoles. There are not many limitations. If it’s built into my car … when I set my phone down, it just charges. My kids can’t steal my adaptor, my wife can’t borrow it because she lost hers. I set my phone down in a specific place and it just charges.”

Not needing a wire and the ability to be melded into many application settings are impressive, but eCoupled’s biggest advantage is its intelligence. It is able to differentiate the power needs of each device that is set on it and charge that device accordingly.

“What happens when you put a device on one of our surfaces … when you make contact between a transmitter and a receiver, all the information from the receiver that it needs to tell the transmitter what it requires is transferred. It says, ‘I’m this voltage, I need this type of power, I have these types of requirements,’ and it transfers that information to the transmitter. Then the transmitter literally adapts itself to give the receiver exactly what it needs.”

The technology is ready, but standardization now must be put in place for it to be widely adaptable to many different products. That’s where the Wireless Power Consortium comes in.

“What the consortium is doing is getting a standard. The idea with the Qi standard (is) anyone who wants a low-power standard has a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi-like interoperability with wireless power,” said Baarman. “We’re not doing this in a vacuum. When you look at the market space and you talk about Samsung and Nokia and the volume of devices these companies make, it takes that kind of involvement in order to get to standardization.”

Baarman said the technology is something many people and manufacturers want, but the price is still too high. Standardizing the technology will bring the cost down.

The technology is currently best suited for low-power devices but also works for medium-power devices such as laptops. Adapting it to high-power devices is also in the works. Currently, these devices would include vehicles like golf carts, but eventually would move toward full-sized automobiles. Another partner of Fulton Innovation, Grand Rapids-based manufacturer Gill Industries, focuses specifically on these high-power applications.

“We’re utilizing (eCoupled) for small electric vehicles — neighborhood vehicles, industrial vehicles, golf carts — and that’s really what we’re doing with (Fulton Innovation),” said Brad Miller, director of advanced product development for Gill Industries. “We’re putting a whole lot of smarts into it. Things like, if the vehicle couples with the power source, it sees what time it is and says, ‘The battery is half full, I’m going to wait until 1 a.m. to recharge when energy is at its cheapest.’ If you look at charging entire fleets of golf carts and how much energy that uses, especially on the East and West Coast where electricity isn’t as inexpensive, that’s a huge amount of savings.”

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