Just last week, Apple introduced wireless charging in its new iPhone, which has major repercussions in many industries including mobile, consumer electronics, automotive, hospitality and infrastructure. Having been involved with the wireless power industry since before the first mobile phone adopted wireless charging and before the Qi or AirFuel standards existed, here I hope to provide some clarity and tips to companies looking to capitalize on the opportunity that Apple is magnifying.
The iPhone is a receiver device; where are all the transmitters going to be?
Coffee shops, bars, hotels, offices, cars, and airport lounges are all places where wireless power transmitters already exist to support Samsung, LG, Motorola, and Google phones that have had wireless charging starting as early as 2012. The convenience of being able to charge on the run without having to carry a cord is valuable to consumers. A Wireless Power Consortium study of over 2,000 consumers in the United States, EU, and South Korea reveals that 93% of users that do not yet have a wireless charging device would find it very/somewhat appealing to have wireless charging in their next device.
Apple’s adoption of wireless power in the new iPhone will amplify the demand for public charging points. Most consumers will now be carrying a mobile phone that can benefit from wireless charging. Consumers will come to expect public and quasi-public spaces (coffee shops, hotels) to have wireless charging transmitters just as they’ve come to expect Wi-Fi, printers, and power outlets. Some companies like Chargifi and AirCharge are providing mobile apps that show people where their nearest wireless charging stations are located. Chargifi has found that the average charging session on their network is 43 minutes and 17 seconds. That’s an unprecedented opportunity for hospitality or other venues to engage customers via a premium experience while they are on location.
As of February 2016, 34 car models offered wireless charging as either standard-equipment or a factory option and all but one of the top auto makers worldwide had at least one car model available with wireless charging. However, there has been some apprehension for a wide-scale rollout due to uncertainty over wireless power standards. Apple’s decision to join the Qi standard ends the debate. Wireless power adds safety, convenience, and one-handed drop-and-go charging versus two-handed plug and un-plug operation. Wireless charging removes potentially dangerous cords from the car’s cabin and it lends naturally to consumer behavior to place phones in the center console or cup holder—now with the benefit of charging their device while doing so. I believe that wireless power will become nearly as ubiquitous as cup holders inside of vehicles.
How to develop iPhone-compatible transmitters into your products
Remember all those speakers that can be used to charge iPhones? There is a new wave of accessories that will double as wireless charging stations for iPhones, Samsung Galaxy phones, and more. One thing I’m thankful for is that the industrial design of the wireless charging accessories will be much prettier thanks to removal of the “charging nub” required in traditional chargers.
If you are making a consumer electronics device that can provide unique value to your customer by combining wireless charging, here are a few things to keep in mind when designing in the functionality:
- Standards compliance is essential for interoperability. You must make sure your product adheres to the appropriate wireless charging and regulatory standards to work with all intended devices. Beyond industry and regulatory standards, some companies will require device-specific interoperability criteria. For example, Apple’s MFi (“Made For i-products”) Program guarantees minimum required performance for Apple-certified products.
- Standards compliance is a starting point for design, but you shouldn’t stop there. Your device may be greatly impacted by:
- Thermal performance (if your system is low efficiency or “low Q”)
- Form factor of your wireless charging sub-system and components
- Electromagnetic compatibility and electromagnetic interference issues related to other features of your product
- Durability of your wireless charging sub-system and components.
- Getting wireless power to work in a lab environment is relatively easy. Integrating wireless power into a product that is scalable, repeatable and reliable is where the pretenders are separated from the contenders. In my more than eight years in wireless power, I have seen dozens of companies (some of whom are amongst the most prestigious engineering organizations in the world) gain confidence on wireless power in the prototype phase only to pull the feature from the product due to unforeseen integration issues late in the program. What a waste of money and time! It doesn’t need to be that way with the proper planning, technology and expertise.
The launch of wireless charging for Apple’s iPhone will undoubtedly create a network effect of opportunities for consumer electronics companies to add the wireless charging feature into their products to add user value. The companies that succeed in this category will have the right blend of speed-to-market, quality design, and smooth integration.
Now that transmitters are everywhere, what does that mean for other consumer devices?
Thanks to the demand created by wirelessly rechargeable mobile phones, there will be a wide variety of infrastructure available for other devices to leverage. To understand the breadth of opportunity available to non-mobile phone device companies, look in your own ‘retired’ charging cords drawer at home to see the devices that can also benefit from the ability to charge at Starbucks; in a Ford vehicle during a commute; at a Hilton while on vacation; on the treadmill while at the gym; or while waiting for an airplane in a lounge. A few obvious examples include: wireless headphones, media players, cameras, tablets and charging cases for small devices like earbuds, hearing aids, e-cigarettes, Bluetooth speakers, etc. If you make portable devices that have a rechargeable battery, wireless power needs to be on your roadmap.
How to design devices that leverage public infrastructure for wireless charging
Imagine you are a product manager, business unit leader or engineering manager that sees an opportunity to wow your customers with wireless power just like Apple, Samsung, Motorola, LG or Google. It’s highly unlikely that you have the design resources and breadth that these companies have. Utilizing information available on LinkedIn, Apple appears to have over 50 engineers that are directly involved in wireless power design; Samsung has even more. Disciplines required for wireless power design include Power Electronics Systems, RF Systems, Magnetic components and shielding design, mechanical design, and embedded systems, to name a few. While you may not have the in-house expertise to execute your vision, here are some things to keep in mind when you talk to your friendly wireless power experts with over 30-years of combined wireless power experience, 60+ patents pending/granted, automation tools to improve your time-to-market, and a team of unparalleled industry experts (shameless plug for my company, NuCurrent)
- It starts with Standards. To interoperate with public infrastructure, you must be on the same industry standard. This includes mastering several variables including proper operating frequency, magnetics design, software, housing materials, and user interface.
- Receiver devices tend to be more compact than transmitter devices. This requires more attention to form factor of the wireless power sub-system and components. It also requires a closer understanding of inter-operability and interference with other components nearby. Particularly sensitive components often found in receiver devices can include screens, RF radios and antennas, batteries, metals and magnets.
- Receiver devices are also more sensitive to thermal rise due to the presence of a battery and the smaller volume in which to dissipate the heat. Higher Q components and systems are necessary to minimize the introduction of heat into the receiver system, and heat mitigation techniques may also be necessary to ensure optimal operation of the receiver device. Wireless power expert Dr. Vinit Singh speaks to some of the thermal design challenges you will face.
- Depending on the price point of your device and the brand you perpetuate with your customers, you may also care about durability, weight, ease of use, reliability and a host of other issues which are impacted by wireless power design, technology and integration.
Apple’s decision to include wireless power in its upcoming iPhone marks a definitive move towards a future where many devices re-charge (or deliver charge) wirelessly. In this new wireless frontier, device companies and brands can capitalize and create a competitive advantage through good planning, speed to market, and execution.
Wireless charging will have a profound impact on devices worldwide. If you are a company with battery-powered devices or devices that plug into the wall, I recommend having a plan for how they will look in the near future without cords so that your competitors don’t do it for you.