Complexity is the Nature of Technology Growth – Part Two: The SSL Perspective

Posted: December 12, 2013 in Art and Design, Energy, General Commentary, General SSL Commentary
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To set things off on the proper foot – I do not like complexity when it is not necessary. I’ve noted many times that if energy were free and maintenance was not a consideration, the perfect light source is the tungsten halogen lamp. This technology delivers a very attractive white light, is very easy to control, provides optical focus, and is as simple as it can get. The low voltage versions of this technology are equally attractive, accepting that transformers were a horrible thing to tag onto an otherwise neat little light source. I have made hundreds of lights using halogen lamps, mainly 12V versions, starting back in 1985. It was my go-to light source. I still have boxes of transformers and sockets, acquired over years of making lights for myself and others.

Applying LEDs in efficient lighting designs is no more complex than use of any other source, just more productive.

Applying LEDs in efficient lighting designs is no more complex than use of any other source, just more productive, and attractive than CFL or other conventional “efficiency” improving sources.

That said, there is no escaping that energy is an issue, and maintenance is a pain. The cost of operating halogen technologies is simply impossible to bear. This is why we have HID sources with all their ugly liabilities, and the fluorescent lamp.  While I get HID technology as a giant super-power halogen device, it has always been a clumsy, heavy, messy engineering gadget that sets aside the art of lighting for raw lumen energy. Fluorescent lamps have are a source you are forced to live with, in an uninspired, just-get-lumens-in -the-box sort of way. There is very little to love about their scale, lack of focus-ability, ballast hardware, delicate tubes, and ghastly glow. I’ve specified millions of these lamps into existence, wishing every time there was a better way. I never made a single art light using fluorescent lamps, not because itsn’t possible, but because I never liked them enough to give them that part of my time.

The emergence of solid-state lighting, specifically LEDs, hit me in two ways. One, I get the small controllable source I had with 12V halogen. Second, I get the efficiency and raw lumen potential of fluorescent that made it indispensable. Because of this, the last time I made a light using halogen technology was in 2004, and that product was converted to an LED sources in 2006. For my own use, every halogen light I made from 1993 to 2004 still in use around the house, has been converted to LED. Every new fixture made since 2005 has incorporated an LED light source, without exception. I do not use retrofit lamps. I either tear down and rebuild products to utilize LEDs properly, or design them around LEDs in the first place.For many, LEDs presents complexity they are not accustomed to. Does this mean LED technology is more complex? Or, is it just different. After nearly a decade designing around this new source, I can say that the technology itself is not any more complex than a low voltage halogen product, or fluorescent fixture. The core components are the same – light source + some form of driver/ballast/transformer. A rose by any other name is but a rose. Those who do  not understand how an LED works are just as unlikely to understand how a fluorescent or halogen lamp works, beyond the perfunctory description they read in some marketing farf on the topic. This is not a dig at anyone, you do not need to understand how a technology works to put it to best use. An example of this is simple: Most winning race-car drivers have no idea what makes their cars work, few construction workers know why concrete hardens, and  few lighting design professionals can describe the details of any light source technology they employ every day. So, regardless of the desire of the LED technology providers to have us all understand why their patents are so unique and critical to our lives… we really don’t have to give that much though to that level of detail. That said, what designers of product and end use decision makers must understand is how the technology is best applied, and what features of products differentiate good design from bad. For LED technology, this boils down to very simple issues: Thermal control, and proper electronics application. Use the right driver, attach the LED to a thermal path that keeps it within its recommended temperature range, job done. All other aspect of optics, mechanics, and protection from environmental conditions apply just like they do with any other source.

Building efficient LED products is not any more complex than creating efficient products using other sources.

Building efficient LED products is not any more complex than creating efficient products using other sources.

So, there is nothing complex about LED technology and its use at all. Any confusion, lack of comfort, perceptions of complexity are simply founded on a lack of familiarity? Well, if only life were so simple. In fact, designing products around LED technology can be a huge pain in the seat. First, there is the painful insistence of manufacturers to make up their own voltage/current characteristics for operating their LEDs. Adding to this is the further lack of agreement on a common footprint. Add to this the irritating propensity of each provider issuing data in whatever form they feel fit, confounding simple selection and comparison. Round this out with the driver market being so confused and fragmented, that it is often the case that only one manufacturer can meet a specification for the desired drive current and voltage range necessary to support a given end product design. Now, we layer on top of this the thermal profiles of small packages, COB arrays, low and mid power packages and arrays, and the effect of thermal interfaces, dimming controls, and wiring issues… This is where the technology not just falls on its face, it smashes its nose into the curbing and comes up a screaming bloody mess of complexity – for no other reason than to support the whim of marketing to hold a proprietary high ground. To make this an even uglier mess, manufacturers have in their mind that they can discontinue part numbers and product packages at will. This leaves product makers with useless UL listings, products with no sources, inventories of useless components, and wasted time assembling products and sourcing the related components, only to start all over again. This applies to changing voltages mid-stream in package designs, to creating new part numbering schemes that turn the supply chain upside down. I personally spend as much as 25% of my time for customers updating, revising, and recovering from the actions of LED providers, and driver producers. The level of customer service and lack of concern for the downstream effects of corporate decisions impacting their customers, is singly the most aggravating part of employing this technology.  For these reasons alone, LED technology could be considered more complex, but this is not the whole story.

Adding to the complexity formula of any technology is its ease of application. This is an area where LED technology has suffered. On one side of the issue is the flexibility of LED technology to create any form of light one can imagine. Arrangements of LEDs, selected from the vast pool of form factors and energy levels means that one can create light forms of any shape or size, making this technology superior to any other form before it. The problem is, the infrastructure has no capacity to support this approach. If an array or layout requires a specific drive current and voltage range that is not available, then either a customer driver must be created (expensive), or a compromise is made (sub-optimized) to fit what is available. Further, if the space to fit the driver puts any constraints on driver dimensions, the issues of matching a desired voltage/current formula becomes more difficult. None of this, in isolation is a big deal. The work involved is relatively easy to describe and accomplish. What makes this complex is that when you are building a range of products, or addressing an entire company’s product line, the need to find some level of standardized parts usage to keep inventories of unique one-use items from swelling beyond manageable levels grows exponentially. This is significantly more complex than the conventional lamp-ballast relationships pre-dating LED technology.

So, after addressing the issues of the technology and its sources, the application of the forms LED come in, the related component inventories required, one would think all is well. This ignores one more layer of complexity that LED brings to the table – the emphasis on efficiency, demand for efficacy, and compliance with approvals layers. LED products are considered with greater scrutiny than any conventionally lamped product before them. Few actually question the efficacy of a CFL downlight, but will wring hands over it when LED sources are employed. This applies to decorative products as well as general illumination, in an odd distortion of concern that increases the complexity of product design. To add to this complexity is the markets new desire for verification, caused by the unscrupulous early marketers of LED products lying about performance, and the lack of familiarity of decision makers. Demands for LM-80 tests by individuals who have no idea what they contain, and requirements for LM-79 testing, Lighting Facts Labels, DLC listing, et al, all add layers to product development and deployment that make LED technology far more complex. Behind the scenes, UL has taken this opportunity to increase the testing and investigation procedures for LED products, which at a minimum must pass through two standards (the fixture standard and the LED standard), on top of more stringent test requirements in regard to application of alternative component use. Where an incandescent product under 60 watts sails through in a few weeks, under a single standard, and LED products takes weeks longer and costs considerably more to complete. While CFL products are readily listed with simple “equivalent” ballast tables, LED products must be tested with each driver listed, at greater cost over more time still. When this is coupled with the aggravating tendency of driver and LED producers to change specifications mid-stream without prior notice, it is not unusual for a product to be obsolete before its reach any level of market success at all.

The underlying technology is not the issue, deploying and maintaining it is.

The underlying technology is not the issue, deploying and maintaining it is.

All of this complexity compounds the efforts of those attempting to deploy LED products to meet customer demand. Make no mistake about it, the customer demand exists, even when it makes little or no sense to use LED technology. This makes the process of product management and marketing more complex, as their is frequently little practical rationale behind customer demand, beyond them wanting LEDs. Then, it is more common than ever that after all the hoops are jumped through, the products are designed, developed, listed, sourced and marketed… sales absorption is slower than anticipated, while conventional products remain strong. While lighting has always been a market of customer demands resulting in low sales response, LED technology creates a schizophrenic dynamic to it. Customers demand LED products they have no appetite to pay for, then buy expensive products in large quantities, that seem irrational. Many marketers today are at a loss as to just what they are supposed to make, as any time they ask customers, the response is “everything”, while the sales reaction seems to be for retrofit light bulbs and expensive versions of commodities that have been under price pressure for decades. The market is a buzz of social media, conferences, shows, education seminars, publications, and general discussion over drinks everywhere… yet the market remains dull. Their is a great deal of emotional discussion around putting LED to work in all new ways, yet when the check books are pried open, the checks are paying for the same old crap – just with LEDs inside.

Solid-state technology is not complex. I can put together a nice light fixture using a COB array and off-shelf driver to create usable task lighting in less than a day. This includes covering the thermal aspects, and even creating a functional optic, either from scratch or off-shelf parts. I’ve made products off-hand that deliver from 300 lumens all the way up to 12,000 lumens, UV LED curing systems, photography lights, decorative accents, and task work lights. The technology is as readily applied as halogen, perhaps more-so, since the issues of short life and dangerous bulb temperatures is not a factor. After a little time to familiarize oneself with the nuances of drivers, current, volts, form factors, wiring, and new components used, there really is nothing that new here beyond the flexibility to create (which most customers are not interested in). It’s not the technology that creates issues here, its the system of deploying it that is. As I’ve covered here, the process of creating a product line, getting it listed, and maintaining it as it matures, is what is complex. Realizing success from the much greater up-front investment of time and resources, in a market that is simultaneously demanding price rationalization (paybacks, etc.), dysfunctional in communicating real needs, and demanding of standards compliance beyond precedent set around far less efficient technologies… is where the complexity really lives.

Unfortunately, history shows that to resolve this requires decades of constant erosion of proprietary posturing, standardization, and customer acclimation. It will get better, but over many years. In the meantime, those who participate in the movement forward will experience a complex blend of success and failure, steps forward and reverse, expenses that are not always rational, and frustration that cannot be helped. That’s the cost being in the middle of an innovation battle ground. There will be casualties, there will be heros, and there will be surprises… I’d offer in further explanation only that… it’s complicated.

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