14 May 2008

Is the general lighting industry ready for LEDs?

Reading this post I was wondering if today’s lighting industry is ready to design and produce power LED lighting addressing general users’ needs.

LED technology is something we have been hearing more and more about from television, magazines and news reports. However, very few people understand why this light source is such a powerful alternative. The advantages of LED light sources over traditional lighting sources are numerous but can be simplified into energy efficiency, longevity, power and versatility. Despite these advantages, creating power LEDs based lighting fixtures is challenging because the technology and the associated constraints require a different knowledge from the traditional general lighting know how. To highlight just a few differences, a power LED based lighting fixture generally involves:

  • a number of electronic components which are not usually found in today’s standard lighting fixtures,
  • a thermal management system to ensure the proper functioning temperature of the semi conductor which produces the light,
  • an optical system to propagate and adapt the light for the specific purpose of the lighting fixture.

Beyond these technical differences, I see two major human reasons behind the slow adoption of LED technology in general lighting:

  • the rather feeble interest shown by designers of general lighting fixture for the technology
  • the heavy investments made by the industry in trying to make existing technologies more efficient

First of all, the components of power LED fixtures come in different form factors and present different usages patterns from what many lighting professionals, including designers, are using in their day to day work. In summary, using power LEDs requires a different type of knowledge, which in turn implies a certain learning curve.

Besides, I am under the impression that many interior lighting designers behave as stylists, “kooky kids” who like to do fun, pointless things, being more preoccupied by the actual “look” than by the “function” of the lighting fixture. When a given style becomes “hot”, legions of designers imitate it until it is everywhere, and as a result, most of today’s interior lighting designs boil down to flurries of boring light shades and diffusers stuck around inadequate incandescent, halogen or fluorescent sources.

As to the manufacturers, their weak interest make me believe that they re-iterate a well known incumbent behavior: they dismiss a disruptive technology to “protect” investments made in the previous technology. Furthermore, LED manufacturers only address part of the overall market, forgetting to properly educate other sectors of interest. This is particularly obvious of power LED manufacturing, where a vast majority of today’s production is destined to the automotive industry. Obviously, with the ever increasing amount of electronic in our cars, automotive engineers do not seem afraid of an additional “pile of semiconductor chips” and certainly know how to put them to good use.
Unfortunately, the same does not apply the general lighting industry! There, in view of the substantial investments made over time in studying, designing and using the current range of halogen and fluorescent lighting, everything looks like the adoption of power LED technology will take another century.

Finally, there is a split within the general lighting industry regarding the form LED luminaires should take. Some manufacturers are focusing on producing LED light sources that will accommodate existing lighting infrastructure and resemble existing decorative and task lighting fixtures. In my view doing so is rather short sighted, and wastes the potential of a promising technology. A better approach is, in my opinion, to design new light source formats that will deliver lighting in unexpected and innovative ways that could not be accomplished with previous lighting technologies. The fact that LEDs can be incorporated into just about any material, including fabrics, means that lighting could be made to emanate from the very surfaces and shapes of objects, from architectural elements to furniture.

At the risk of sounding overbearing, I believe some of these attitudes by the industry's actors delays a particularly attractive and efficient technology and limit the opportunity of participating to higher level discussions. In particular, although it is unlikely that incandescent lamps will be banned outright, the lighting efficacy standards under consideration all over the world would set minimums so high that most incandescent lamps would become ineligible for use by 2012 at the earliest. In this context, the lack of traditional sources efficient enough to meet the proposed efficacy standards will leave a huge gap in the market, that could be partially filled by LED lighting fixtures and luminaires.

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Form is the visual shape of mass and volume. Light makes form legible. There is no form without light.


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