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How a Canadian company is lighting up the roadways of the world

LED Roadway Lighting founder and CEO Charles Cartmill shows one of the company's products


If you get homesick during your next visit to Adelaide or Reykjavik or Aruba, just look up, way up. LED Roadway Lighting (LRL) has installed energy-efficient street lights in nearly 40 countries – and most of them are manufactured at its plant in Amherst, Nova Scotia.

The plant has the look of a high-tech laboratory. Its 150 employees wear blue smocks and special shoes that are grounded to prevent electrostatic discharges that could damage the lights' delicate components (which include computer chips). The old assembly line is gone; the factory recently switched to so-called cellular production, which means LRL's fabricators now assemble the lights at a series of small workstations–all the better to deliver the various product iterations demanded by its global clients.

Founder and CEO Charles Cartmill–everyone around here calls him Chuck–has big plans for this place. If he has his way, the orange glow of high-pressure sodium lights that line most of the world's streets will be a distant memory. Not only power-hungry, those orange orbs also contain dangerous metals like mercury or lead. Switching them over to LED has massive potential: There are an estimated 280 million street lights in the world. And though the upfront cost of LED bulbs is higher, so are the electricity savings–60 per cent. Plus, maintenance costs are far lower (LRL's latest version boasts a 20-year, maintenance-free life cycle, in contrast to conventional sodium lights, which require changing after five years).

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Cartmill started out in 1974, travelling across the four Atlantic provinces selling lighting for clients like Philips. It wasn't until 2002 that he bought the 55,000-square-foot facility in Amherst. His plan: Well, he didn't have one. As Cartmill admits: "I bought an empty building. No government money. No customers. No employees."

It wasn't empty for long. Cartmill became a manufacturer for hire, serving various electronics companies, who would send him orders for a wide range of components. Industry insiders had their doubts about whether Cartmill understood what he was up against. One asked him point blank, "What the hell do you know about contract manufacturing, anyway?" Cartmill paused and replied, "I know how to bring the business in the door. That's a good place to start. I'll figure out the rest."

One of his early jobs was making LED traffic indicators. Cartmill was hooked; his ultimate goal was to start designing his own version–but not until the bulbs were efficient enough to power street lights. Unlike almost every other type of illumination, street lights aren't sold through distributors; Cartmill figured that if he could talk directly with municipalities and utility companies, he'd be able to compete with major players like General Electric and his old client, Philips.

By late 2006, LED technology was finally ready for the spotlight, and LRL had its first fixtures on poles two years later, thanks to an initial $2.1-million loan from the Atlantic Innovation Fund. The following year, LRL received another $3-million cash infusion, all of which was plowed into R&D. It has paid off: Over the past three years, LRL has averaged a 48 per cent revenue increase year-over-year.

Cartmill, 66, has racked up a slew of frequent flier miles in that time, travelling to Mexico, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Central America and the U.K. to broker deals. During his first trade mission to Brazil, he insisted on taking his bulky LED lights–grey cast aluminum fixtures roughly two feet by one that weigh more than eight kilograms–to every function, including a breakfast meeting. Local officials gently chided him, but his tenacity paid off: LRL is now in the middle of a bidding to replace all of São Paulo's street lights.

To an outsider, designing street lights might appear to be no more complicated than building an oversized, waterproof floor lamp. But as Ken Kovachik, LRL's director of marketing, puts it: "You want to be able to deliver the most amount of light, to the right place, using the least amount of energy." But existing lighting systems, even within Canada, have different voltage requirements. Add in country-specific certifications and regulations, plus variations in testing and wiring, not to mention a multitude of brightness and colour options, and things get complicated fast.

All these variables help explain the need for heavy R&D spending. LRL's latest innovation is a modular system. Inside the light's housing, known in the industry as the "tin can," is an LED light engine–a collection of lamps attached to a circuit board. Then there's the power supply (the "driver") and thermal management system. Going modular means that if LED efficiency improves considerably–and Kovachik says it's just a matter of time–LRL's fixtures can be upgraded in less than 60 seconds.

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Manufacturing in Canada can be expensive, but Cartmill describes his Amherst workforce as "competitively priced." And, as Kovachik notes, "In markets like the Caribbean, Canada has a very high profile for quality products and engineering." But given the expense involved in shipping metal casings halfway around the world–not to mention the time it takes, along with high tariffs in certain markets–LRL now has manufacturing capabilities in Wales and Brazil, and is setting up in Australia. The only roadblock to success has been the 2009 U.S. stimulus bill and its "Buy American" clause.

Still, the future for LRL looks, well, bright. Canada alone has four million street lights, and municipalities that switch to LED typically enjoy average energy savings of 60 per cent. Edmonton, for instance, recently installed 18,000 new LED street lights (from LRL, of course), a move that is expected to save the city $18-million over 20 years.

And LEDs are just the beginning. The next innovation involves embedding wireless controls, networked to allow for geographic-specific dimming schedules and improved monitoring. In 2011, to bolster the LRL's capabilities in this area, Cartmill bought Streetlight Intelligence, a Vancouver-based company that had gone into receivership. A year ago, lighting controls represented 2 per cent or 3 per cent of prospective LRL clients. Now, it's closer to 50 per cent. Which means that soon, no smart city will be without an LED night light.

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