October 2006

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EMAIL INTERVIEW  Robert LeFort & Ken Sinclair

Robert LeFort was appointed as CEO of Ember in April 2006. Most recently, he was the President of Infineon Technologies North America Corp. in June 2002, with responsibility for all headquarters business activity and key customers. Earlier, he was Vice President Infineon's Automotive & Industrial business, managing business development and relationships with companies using Infineon chips for dynamic vehicle management, engine control, automotive safety systems and related applications. Before joining Infineon in 2000, LeFort was Customer Manager at Delphi Corporation, a Tier One automotive electronics supplier, and held positions at Cherry Semiconductor (now part of ON Semiconductor), Unitrode Corporation and Analog Devices. He holds an MBA from Boston University and a BSEE from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

ZigBee for Eco-Friendly Buildings

Embedding wireless ZigBee sensors and controls in building automation networks has huge potential for enabling cleaner, safer, greener buildings through reduced energy consumption, more efficient building utilization, better security, etc.

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Sinclair:  I’ve notice that Ember is focusing much of its efforts lately on the building and home automation markets. Why those markets in particular?

LeFort:  Two reasons: First, Ember has more than 120 customers in a variety of markets currently shipping or developing ZigBee-based products using our embedded wireless networking technology. But building and integrated home automation is where a majority of our customers are gaining the most traction.

Secondly, building automation holds the greatest promise for using our technology for the public good. Embedding wireless ZigBee sensors and controls in building automation networks has huge potential for enabling cleaner, safer, greener buildings through reduced energy consumption, more efficient building utilization, better security, etc.

So it just made sense to focus on this market segment. It’s also where the money is. Since energy costs are significant ad directly impact property owners, building owners are first investing in automating the functions that have the greatest impact on energy consumption. Lighting and HVAC subsystems, in particular, consume more than 50 percent of a building’s total energy use. And with energy costs continuing to rise, the case for automating these functions becomes even more attractive.

But cost savings isn’t the only driver. Building owners, particularly corporations who own their own facilities, are beginning to pride themselves on social responsibility by adopting eco-friendly technologies. And government regulations are also beginning to mandate energy consumption limits. ASHRAE 90.1-2004, for example, has imposed much tougher standards on commercial building energy usage.

Sinclair:  How does embedding ZigBee networking into lights, HVAC systems and other building controls help create eco-friendly buildings?

LeFort:  Consider the simple example of a room that senses when you leave, automatically turning down the heat, lights, air conditioner and other energy-consuming devices. Now multiply that single-room energy savings across a large hotel, condominium or office building with hundreds to thousands of occupants.

ZigBee makes possible new kinds of wireless sensor networks in which these building and home devices can suddenly communicate and work together, without the cost or headaches of installing wiring and retrofitting wired control systems. Equipment OEMs can easily embedded wireless intelligence into their products with our chips and software. These products self-organize into wireless mesh networks that can scale to tens of thousands of networked devices, each which can run for years on off the shelf batteries. Wireless ZigBee devices are easy to install, reducing installation costs by up to 75% of a conventional wired control system.

Sinclair:  Can you give me some examples of Ember customers developing energy-efficient building automation products?

LeFort:  Sure. This year Philips Lighting won the Technical Innovations Award at Lightfair 2006 for its Equos wireless lighting control system. It uses Ember technology to create a network of wireless controlled lighting ballasts to help large buildings save energy costs.

Siemens’s new APOGEE wireless commercial building automation system uses our technology to help facility managers save money and increase occupant comfort through more efficient control of HVAC systems.

And last month we announced that Hitachi WirelessInfo developed a new real-time monitoring system that lets companies create controlled environments where temperature, humidity and airborne particles can be managed to maintain ideal working conditions.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Sinclair:  Are there security concerns for wireless building automation networks?

LeFort:  A building that is wirelessly automated is vulnerable to malicious security hacks and threats over the air. That’s why choosing a wireless system with strong security mechanisms is critical as the technology expands throughout the building automation industry.

Security-wise, ZigBee has an enormous advantage. The ZigBee standard requires a security policy to be designed into all ZigBee devices, with encryption activated by default. Other technologies such as Z-Wave, by comparison, do not have encryption built into its current generation of chips. ZigBee provides simple, yet strong, network security. It is based on a 128-bit AES algorithm using the strong security elements of the IEEE 802.15.4 standard.

Sinclair:  I noticed that you specified a focus on “integrated home automation” earlier. How does Ember delineate the market?

LeFort:  The home automation market has languished due largely to the lack of practical communications technologies. Hard-wiring devices is too hard and expensive, and the earlier wiring alternatives like the X-10 powerline standard has been “kludgy” and functionally underwhelming at best.

New technologies like Z-wave and Insteon have stepped in to provide a low-end wireless alternative. For the average do-it-yourself homeowner who may, for example, want to buy a wireless lightswitch from the local Radio Shack and install it themselves, these technologies are fine. But for integrated, critical whole-house automation systems that require high levels of security, scalability and interoperability between different vendors’ products, ZigBee is an ideal platform. Like the whole-house audio/video system market, our technology is geared for professional-grade systems.


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