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Intercom systems: Intensifying R&D to build up demand

Renewed interest in the property sector has prompted suppliers to expand selection.

China suppliers of video door phones and intercom systems are ramping up product development to stimulate sales in coming months. Exports in the line dropped 30 percent during the past year but companies are confident that the industry will regain momentum. One of the factors that will make this possible is the real estate sector, which is showing signs of recovery from the economic challenges.

  
Intercom system
  Xiamen Leelen's model V-III door station has a camera and keypad.

The National Association of Realtors in the US, for example, has recorded a significant gain in existing-property purchases in 3Q09, with first-time buyers contributing substantially to business. China manufacturers expect this to drive consumption of access control and communication devices such as video door phones and intercoms.

This has prompted companies to release more advanced products suitable for modern structures. While basic models still dominate supply, IP-based and home automation solutions are enhancing the selection.

The latter leads R&D in the high-end category. Major players such as Xiamen Leelen Technology Co. Ltd and Xiamen Genway Security Technology are concentrating on this line. Most makers create modular designs that connect to various wired or wireless devices.

Home security kits that include a camera, intruder alarm, and gas and smoke detectors are also popular. Systems that control lighting, curtains, HVAC and home appliances are available from China companies as well. Mainstream models operate through embedded Linux or Windows CE and TCP/IP transmission, enabling these to be managed remotely via the Internet or mobile phone network.

Large suppliers with strong R&D capability are focusing on IP network-enabled systems. Unlike the traditional analog communication setup, IP models use encoded digital signals that reduce wiring expense by as much as 50 percent and maintenance outlay by 80 percent. But even with these cost savings, such products are still quite expensive, enabling companies to target the high end and avoid price competition in the low end and midrange.

To give buyers flexibility, some manufacturers are releasing semidigital systems, which is a hybrid product compatible with analog and digital units. Models have a digital trunk network but provide interoperability among analog or digital devices in the subsystem.

For example, units allow users to maintain low-priced analog indoor phones and door stations while realizing the benefits of a digital installation, such as easy management and information release.

Companies are also investing in cosmetic design improvements, particularly in color, materials, patterns and user interface for indoor phones and door stations. Simple appearances in black, gray and white are still the popular.

Low-end and midrange products use ABS panels to save on costs, but handsfree designs and LCD screens are gradually easing out conventional constructions.

Door station trends include stainless steel, aluminum alloy and tempered glass panels, and LCDs. Custom designs are available.

Meanwhile, the more expensive units are made of metal or acrylic-textured panels with large built-in LCD monitors. Wall-mount devices with handsfree function are also a favorite in the high-end line.

Products & prices
Industry composition
Production hubs
Hong Kong: Product diversity underscored
Taiwan: Domestic-oriented industry backed by system integrators

Products & prices

China suppliers offer both villa- and apartment-type video door phones. Stand-alone and networked products are also available.

Basic models have a CMOS sensor and a monochrome or color CRT screen. They support A/V communication and unlocking functions, and display images in 380 TVL.

Midrange types are installed with CCD sensors with 420 TVL or higher resolutions. Most have LCD screens and night vision. Many have basic alarm functions and include SOS buttons. Door stations are usually designed with keypads or RFID card readers for access control.

Upscale units provide more advanced features, including information release, home security, water or gas meter remote reading, and home automation.

Villa-type models are usually shipped to overseas markets. Many companies create kits for DIY users and distributors. These video door phone sets are plug-and-play systems that require no additional debugging and are, therefore, easier to install.

A typical kit contains several door stations and indoor phones. Optional accessories are power supplies, door station switchers, unlocking controllers and wires. Specific phone and station styles and accessories are available on request. Some wireless villa-type door phones are based on 1.8 or 2.4GHz RF band.

China makers are also developing apartment-style models, which are targeted at domestic buyers. Several large and midsize companies, in fact, have strong capability in producing high-capacity systems.

Apartment types can accommodate hundreds of indoor phones and door stations. Networked versions are connected to a central management system using RS-485, CAN bus and Lonworks.

Although RS-485 is currently the mainstream solution thanks to its mature technology and low cost, interviewed makers expect Lonworks to gain popularity in coming months. Aside from its flexibility, reliability and easy installation and maintenance, the technology was ratified as the country's national controls standard in 2006.

Standardization, meanwhile, remains an issue in other aspects of video door phone and intercom systems. Because of compatibility problems among products of different manufacturers, some leading companies in the line have started drafting a standard, which is expected to be released this year.

Overall, prices of video door phones will remain the same in coming months. Suppliers are not considering further reductions, particularly in the low-end segment.

Industry composition

About 1,000 companies in China turn out video door phones. The 10 large factories, including Shenzhen Shidean Legrand Electronic Products Co. Ltd, Xiamen Leelen and Xiamen Genway, sell more than $10 million worth of such units each year. They have 50 R&D engineers and a monthly capacity of 50,000 sets.

Workers in midsize operations exceed 200. These suppliers have 20 R&D personnel and can release more than 10,000 sets every month.

Small enterprises focus on assembly or offer video door phones as a secondary line, turn out less than $1 million worth of these devices.

The financial slowdown has taken its toll on small and midsize makers that are more vulnerable to price rivalry, forcing many to exit the line.

Meanwhile, larger suppliers had a different fate. Xiamen Genway's sales grew 25 percent in 1H09. Xiamen Leelen said export business more than doubled during the first three quarters of last year. Both companies implemented strategies to maintain their foothold on key markets, such as expanding channels, reducing management costs, enhancing communication with customers, providing comprehensive service, and continuing product improvements.

Production hubs

Guangdong and Fujian are the two major manufacturing centers of video door phones and intercoms in China. The two provinces account for 55 and 30 percent, respectively, of the country's total output.

The former's leading position in both the electronic manufacturing and security industries is fueling video door phone development and manufacturing.

Fujian's advantage is reflected in its clustering of video door phone makers and providers of related parts and components, including lenses, cameras and display modules. Similar to Guangdong, the province hosts at least 10 midsize and large companies. The transfer of technology and skills among suppliers and their technical partners is promoting video door phone development.

  
Intercom system
Hong Kong: Product diversity underscored

Under efforts to differentiate selections and remain competitive, Hong Kong suppliers of video door phones and intercoms are developing multifunction and visually attractive designs, lowering prices and enhancing aftersales services.

Lelux Electronics Ltd's model 721 2-channel FM wireless intercom comes with optional FM radio. Lower-priced versions such as Venture Global Ltd's ICW-133 intercom with PTT communication circuit remain among the bestsellers.

Metallic units, meanwhile, account for the majority of releases as most makers want to increase shipments of midrange and high-end models.

Hong Kong's selection of wired and wireless single- and multiuse video door phones and intercoms includes 4 and 2-wire models with color or b/w CRT and LCD screens. The best resolution is delivered by color TFT displays up to 7in, but even 3in b/w CRT versions provide satisfactory resolutions.

Sun Fu Cheong Electronics Co. Ltd's WIC-738TFT-RR model, for example, is a wireless video door phone system with a 3.5in TFT monitor and recordable intercom. The indoor monitor usually has a plastic outer shell, while the door station has a steel front panel. Upscale versions with aluminum and stainless steel housings for the indoor monitor and door station are also available. Units come in stamped and die-cast styles, with the latter boasting superior durability.

The door lock release is a standard feature in video door phones. Night vision, still image and video recording, temperature sensors, event-triggered alarm against intrusion or tampering, and weather station functions are among the host of optional features. Models have handsfree or handset communication, or both.

For video recording, the latest units come with external video storage using SD cards to supplement the built-in memory.

Functions that were added in recent years have helped boost video door phones' role in home security and monitoring. A/V input/output ports can also be added to the systems for TV monitoring or recording on a VCR.

For the door station, standard sized or pinhole CMOS or CCD cameras can be used, with the smaller unit more popular because it is discreet and less susceptible to vandalism. Most makers prescribe low-light cameras, and IR LEDs can be added for night vision function.

A motion, window or door and gas or smoke detector, remote control and siren can be attached for a more integrated home security package.

Taiwan: Domestic-oriented industry backed by system integrators

Taiwan's video door phone and intercom suppliers are conservative in security R&D and are targeting the domestic market. Since intercom systems are usually preinstalled in buildings and houses, hardware vendors work with contractors to introduce video door phones in certain communities. The systems are therefore largely customized and often require on-site technical support.

With only about 10 manufacturers in the island, video door phone and intercom turnout is limited. Exporters focus on stand-alone units that come with simple functions to avoid system failure and save on maintenance costs.

Companies that produce solely video door phones and intercoms are small and midsize operations and cannot provide technical support to foreign buyers, thereby hampering exports.

There are, however, 30 to 40 security system integrators that offer complete intercom solutions for smart home applications, including security, safety and automation.

The local home security industry, in fact, has been in existence for decades. Makers in this segment release a range of products, including video door phones, intrusion alarm systems, motion sensors and gas or fire detectors. These system integrators are driving consolidation in the security industry.

For example, i-Mac Automation Control partners with hardware manufacturers to create software platforms and turn out smart home intercom systems to building constructors.

Such systems are usually powerful and multifunctional, combining video door phone, home surveillance, community information bulletin or public information broadcasting, and home automation control functions. Nevertheless, because such products require a long period of testing, verification and tuning, these are seldom exported.

A few hardware providers, including Hometek Electronics Co., also cooperate with system integrators. The supplier specializes in video intercom and security systems, especially for complexes with indoor phones, door stations or panels, and entrance or concierge panels. Its solutions are running in at least 200 buildings. The company's R&D focus is system stability.

This article "Intercom systems: Intensifying R&D to build up demand" is originally posted in Global Sources.

Note: All price quotes in this report are in US dollars unless otherwise specified. FOB prices were provided by the companies interviewed only as reference prices at the time of interview and may have changed.

Disclaimer: All product images are provided by the companies interviewed and are for reference purposes only. Those product images featuring products with trademarks, brand names or logos are not intended for sale. We, our affiliates, and our affiliates' respective directors, officers, employees, representatives, agents or contractors, do not accept and will not have any responsibility or liability for product images (or any part thereof) which infringe on any intellectual property or other rights of a third party.

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