01 June 2008

The incandescent frame of mind

There is one recurrent bias in many writings about the coming of age of LEDs for general lighting: the author always assumes the only allowed form factors for LEDs to become successful have to be similar to those of the other light sources technologies we know today. Or to put it more simply, that LEDs are only going to succeed in the “retrofit” market. I take as example this attempt at describing how LED based fixtures are now able to compete with traditional general lighting fixtures.

Beyond the fact that the post speaks a little too much about one single manufacturer to be exhaustive, and try to draw general conclusions based on this narrow view point, I believe it gives a wrong perception of the issues at stake by providing the wrong examples. This is particularly true of the cost based examples. But I am ready to assume this has been caused by jet lag and "red eyes"…

Let’s examine the "much work remains to be done to get the costs down" example. First of all it sounds based on that ubiquitous chart found all over the web comparing luminous efficacy of light sources that everyone makes its own. Let’s say it makes me suspicious when I see a comparison using a "800 lumens" figure as a basis for calculation… But it is more the peremptory conclusion that "cost" must be driven down that makes me uneasy.

After all it is nor fair nor possible to compare the price of an incandescent bulb with a “15-20 watt LED”. Doing so we are not comparing apples to apples, but rather commodities with luxury goods, and ultimately we only propagate marketing BS.

As a matter of fact, the "cost" of this 15-20 watt LED light source is a retail price. Knowing that at semi-gross prices this same light source is coming out at around $27 (without volume discount), the only valid conclusion one can draw from the example is that the retailer is taking a three fold markup. And this cannot be called the cost of LEDs.

Moving on to the “kitchen cans” example, we can repeat the same calculation. This time taking into account the additional elements necessary to create a retrofit light source, namely a constant current driver ($5), an anodized extruded heat sink ($2), an optic ($3), an outer fascia ($1) and fixtures ($1). We are now approaching the $40 for the bill of material. The resulting product will probably be assembled in China, adding another $5 to the cost. Once again the example only demonstrate the three fold margin applied by the retailer on the product.

However, I agree with the author that “only the most elite pocketbooks will open for LEDs” at this price. Like they did for incandescent bulbs when electricity lighting took over from gas lighting… But what a cumbersome way to say that most retailers are pricing LED retrofit light sources as luxury items! Hasn’t it always be the case with emerging technologies?

Nonetheless, to return where I started, I believe the author missed an important point. Power LEDs are a disruptive innovation and trying to mold them into the previous technologies form factors is flawed. LED general lighting will really take off when designers, writers and customers alike will step out of their “incandescent” frame of mind.

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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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