Want Solid-State Satisfaction?

Posted: November 20, 2008 in General SSL Commentary
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There is a great deal of consternation about the entry of LEDs and solid-state lighting into the mainstream lighting market. There are four resonate weaknesses cited often. Just how do these stand up to scrutiny? Let’s find out:

Lack of Standards
The combination of unfamiliarity with the core technology and over zealous marketing hype has resulted in a market confused. There is simply too much hype in this market today, from claims of unlimited life to no heat, and fictitious light output. While it would be great to end this, it’s impossible to stop it. Yes, new standards are needed to describe the unique issues of LED technology. Color consistency, life, lumen maintenance, thermal effects, and optical characteristics make LEDs different enough to demand new descriptive data for proper selection. There are also issues of flicker that LEDs seem to exaggerate when operated at low frequencies, that will need to be addressed. However, waiting to adopt LEDs until some magical perfect standard is established is silly. There will always be marketing hype to sort through, disconnects between reality and perception, etc… At the core of the issue is not standards at all, it is thje lack of knowledge on the part of the decision makers. The more you know about the technology, the easier it is to sort the hype chaff from the wheat. At any point of transformation in a market, there is a certain unwritten demand on participants to educate themselves, to dig into the details, and grow understanding. This is not as comfortable as riding on assumptions from experience with incumbent technologies – but is a fact of life. We must all invest the time required to fill the knowledge gap. Without this, no standard will ever have meaning, as the foundation upon which they must be built will be missing.

Not Enough Product
At this early phase, the amount of product available is actually surprisingly large. The issue here may be one of a sales channel that makes gaining visibility very difficult. Also, the solid-state community has failed to recognize the separation of the residential and commercial markets, which is resulting in some really odd communications and comparisons. Referring to the “failure” of CFLs, an obvious residential issue – since the commercial market adopted plug-in CFLs readily, is one area that is becoming very stale. There are indeed a great many copies of the same basic platforms, from linear strips to low power flood lights. These are good applications for LEDs, but are niche applications. The emergence of LED downlighting  is interesting, yet fails to realize that to reach the mass market, the numbers used in every investor presentation, prices will have to be reduced significantly, often by a factor of 1/3 current values, if not more. Without this, the LED downlight market will remain a niche component of the total market, regardless of optimistic projections otherwise.

There is indeed a lack of product. However, the real lack is in imagination. There is a very real need for creative new products that apply LEDs in all new ways, to deliver illumination that capitalize on the unique aspects of LEDs, including compact size, optical capability, and controllability. This will not come from the engineering departments and executive managers pooring over reams of market data and statistics of conventional product sales. This must come from engaging imaginitve designers, from lighting to industrial, to re-think, to re-invent lighting as we know it. We need to review how lighting is done, and why, and separate our illumination design goals from the hardware compromises made over the years. Then, using the new tool of LEDs, design new solutions, new products, that have less compromise. This will result in new products never before seen, or possible. This will also change the rules of comparison, putting LEDs at the forefront, the preferred solution. In every case where this has been applied, from the color changing of Philips CK products, to flat panel displays, there has been rapid growth and success. In every case where LEDs are simply applied as copies to conventional sources, growth is much much slower.

Design professionals at every level should take this opportunity to explore and experiment, and to demand new designs. This is the perfect time to colaborate and work with manufacturers in creating what will become the next generatioin in illumination. This is not now happening on the level it must.  Want more products to suit your vision? Share your thoughts with the manufacturers in a clear strong voice and they will come. Waiting for electronics engineers and marketing gurus to develop what you want by happenstance will never produce the resutls we (as designers) all want.

Costs are Too High
The incandescent lamp costs more than a gas light. In fact, early electrric lighting applications demanded an addition of an electrical system to the building. Most applications did not produce an ROI in purely financial terms. The fluorescent industry has even more examples, from parabolic troffers to linear indirect, where initial cost did not produce a real ROI. The reality is, lighting design has utilized a wide range of products thjat deliver a desirable result, with no hope of payback. In fact, the entire decorative lighting market, the use of coves and architectural accent lighting, and other special effects lighting are all wastes of money and energy in purely subjective terms.

The reason this case is made against LEDs and solid-state is because the products being compared are stubbornly focused on replacing lower cost incumbent sources without adding any value that cannot be equalled. When an LED product offers a new value, such as infinite color changing using software, they win, simply because this cannot be achieved with a cheaper conventional product. When a downlight costs $135, produciung 900 lumens in compact fluorescent lamping, a $600 LED product that offers nothing more than a few watss less energy and longer life is a hard sell in markets that are driven by decisions of initial cost and very short payback cycles. Now, make a downlight with an aperture of 1.5″, generating 900 glare free lumens, and you frustrate the comparison. Decision makers will pay for desirable features, and weigh those decisions heavily against compromising to reduce costs.

Solid-state products are expensive today, yes. However, in a growing number of cases, the extra cost brings tangible value beyond basic ROI rationalization, beyond initial cost sensitivity. This means new products must deliver more than simple performance comparisons to rationalize cost. Deliver desirable new design solutions, new design opportunities, and incomperable products that put convcentional products out of the picture – and the cost issue is substantially diffused. At this time in the market and the technology, we need more effort in this direction, and far less emphasis on trying to commoditize a technology that may or may reach the price thresholds required to overcome incumbent price advantages.

Lack of Replaceable Components
The LED market must face the fact that the idea of replacing the entire luminaire at the end of LED life is a problem. When an LED fixture includes several pounds of aluminum, potted assemblies of a wide range of materials, this becomes more problematic. While we are all aware that aluminum can be recycled, the energy required to generate the first use of the material is higher than can be justified. The fact is, much more effort needs to be put into creating servicable products. Failures happen. Infant mortality in LEDs, electronics, etc.. will happen. Throwing an entire fixture away due to the failure of a single LED die, is simply unacceptable in the long run. For environmental designers, solid-state products present a dilema, and a real concern.

The end goal for solid-state lighting should be to separate the electronics, heat sink, and LED module for easy replacement and repair. These should be separate of the luminaire architecture, to allow luminaires to be upgraded at a later time.

I used to believe that a “transistor radio” model could be made viable, where LED luminaires were made so simply and with little material, that disposal at the end of life would be acceptable. Upon further investigation, I find the concept flawed. The disposal of electronic devices today has not been resolved. Computers, monitors, laptops, entertainment devices… are filling land fills, with a very small percent seeing recylcing. Sending millions of spent LED products into this waste stream a few years from now is an unacceptable solution. LED light engines must be made modular, and servicable.

The only exception I might offer to this are special applications, like linear wall washing, where completely potting a luminaire will reduce failures and extend life. However, for interior downlights, accent, cove, and decorative, the only realistic solution is to produce modular products. Specifiers are concerned over this, and are resisting adoption of the technology. Intuitively, it just seems wrong to throw the whole fixture out at the end of its life.

Other Stuff
There are other issues, from reliability to warranties that don’t seem to match product promises. However, once these four main concerns are addressed, the growth in market acceptance will break out. Ignoring these concerns may result in LEDs being relegated to specialty uses, niche markets, and unfulfilled potential to transform the general illumination market as a whole.

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