Use your key card to access a hotel room. Tap in a code to open the door of a rented condo. Or even, when you suddenly remember that you left the lights on at home, just before your plane takes off on an overseas trip, use your phone to flip off the houselights.
They’re all actions made possible by CentraLite Systems Inc., a small company in Mobile focused on the future.
CentraLite started in 1997 developing products like lighting control devices that reduced energy consumption.
It has since grown and morphed into a business with about 110 employees that develops and monitors connective devices — devices that link the automated system with a control that can access it from anywhere in the world.
“The point of connective devices is to make people’s lives simpler, ” says Sean Bryant, director of sales and marketing.
It’s called the Internet of Things — a network of physical objects, such as devices, vehicles, buildings, that are embedded with software and sensors to connect them to a larger network.
John Calagaz, vice president and chief technology officer, offers his cell phone as an example of varied applications. A list pops up of home applications: lights, temp, locks and so forth. He can prompt a call from his wife by turning the house lights off and on with his phone.
Since its beginning, CentraLite has designed and built hardware lighting devices. Now the company is enabling others to program and access their own automated devices.
Today, the company has a three-pronged business. Its Jilia platform enables more people to access automation devices. Its Original Equipment Manufacturer division builds devices for other companies’ brand product. And it has a new consumer brand line being introduced this spring. “It’s an exciting time — to pivot so quickly between those things, ” Calagaz says.
The possibilities for the company are endless, says President and CEO Jimmy Busby. CentraLite experienced a 200 percent growth in 2015 over 2014 and did $36 million in business last year. They shipped 1 million products out the door.
With its Jilia platform, CentraLite makes the process easier for other companies to get automated systems up and running.
“We’re enabling a company to create their own application devices the way they feel it meets their needs, ” Calagaz says.
Companies — whether property rental management or hotel chains or even Roto-Rooter plumbers — can customize their automation systems and CentraLite makes it possible for that device to communicate with remote operators.
Jilia throws the doors wide open.
“It’s taking all that expertise and opening it up so anyone can use that, ” Busby says. “It simplifies the process.”
And it minimizes the upfront investment for other companies that don’t have their own engineers and software developers, Bryant points out.
CentraLite engineers design and build prototypes in the Mobile headquarters. An in-house 3-D printer has significantly cut costs and time.
Employees also produce devices for small orders at an adjacent manufacturing facility.
CentraLite is agile and quick; whereas, it can take a year or more for a large company to develop a device and build it. “With a product life cycle so short, it’s obsolete by the time it comes out, ” Calagaz says.
CentraLite can design and launch a product in six to eight months, as it recently did for the Iris line sold at Lowe’s stores nationwide.
The company also builds devices sold under a different brand name by Samsung.
In 2010, Schneider Electric branded CentraLite’s energy management product under the brand name Cassia, and Schneider currently markets and sells Cassia to its worldwide hotel group. In addition, CentraLite has contracted with top U.S. and international cable companies to provide its ZigBee wireless lighting systems, as well as energy management devices. The company also works with U.S. cable companies, such as Comcast, Time Warner, Cox and Comporium, and with international cable partners including Rogers in Canada and SwissCom in the European and Middle Eastern markets.
In fact, the company now sells to distributors in almost 50 countries around the world.
For larger orders, CentraLite contracts with manufacturers.
They build about 30 different connective devices. Smart devices such as door locks or temperature controls don’t have to be a CentraLite product for CentraLite’s connectivity to work on it.
“It runs behind the scenes and ties it all together, ” Calagaz explains.
It’s an important distinction. CentraLite builds the connectivity devices, not the smart devices.
Water sensors are another important automated element, particularly for condos where a leak in an unoccupied unit can cause tens of thousands of dollars in damages in multiple units.
When CentraLite started almost 20 years ago, only new construction utilized such automated systems. “We only could attract a small percentage of the market, ” Busby says. Now, automated devices are installed in a variety of residences and businesses, opening up the potential customer base.
“We can sell to fewer numbers of companies but have a much larger number of customers, ” he says, mentioning cable companies as an example.
Of course, as with any technology company that uses the cloud, security is a priority. Calagaz says there is an initial encryption line of security, as well as a second line of protection placed in its products. And customers have their own security codes and passwords to ensure privacy.
And for the future?
Busby says CentraLite is poised to be a leader in the IOT market, using its experiences to “allow many, many more customers to use our devices, ” he says. “We want to be a much bigger player in the IOT. We want to just keep growing at this accelerated rate.”
Eventually, says Bryant, CentraLite “envisions a world where products can communicate with other products.”
A vehicle’s smart device, for example, will alert residential lighting and temperature controls that you are close to home and turn those on for you without your communicating with the device.
They would also like to see the Jilia platform taught in tech schools and show up as a tool known by software engineers, as Java or Tomcat is now.
It’s a new world, and CentraLite officials say they plan to continue to make it simpler and more efficient to navigate.
Tammy Leytham and Mike Kittrell are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Fairhope and he in Mobile.
By TAMMY LEYTHAM • Photos by MIKE KITTRELL