A New Design Model

Posted: June 4, 2017 in General Commentary

Early Days

As a young lighting designer for an electrical engineer, fresh out of the USAF, I was quickly introduced to wide range of customers from very frugal to mega wealthy. From small retailers to chain grocery stores, or retirement homes to massive custom homes, single office lease space improvement to multi-story office complex, beverage warehouse to manufacturing plant – the range of customer experiences was exciting. Every job was a learning experience.

Like any other design entity, serving customers required meeting customer needs with designs utilizing standard products. Thirty years ago, this frequently led to compromising a design to accommodate available product, or  pursuing an expensive custom option. Since many could not afford customs, we improvised by designing housings to enclose standard product, or modified fixtures in the field.

Every fixture in this image was created by modifying incandescent fixtures to accept new 120V LED light modules that were so new to the market that no standard product was available to meet the needs of the customer. The end result was realization of 72% energy savings over CFL product alternative, delivered on time.

Over the years, I found it easier to bring specialty products into a shop space and modify them myself to avoid field issues. This included reworking antique fixtures, adapting European products to mount to US standard boxes, refinishing fixtures to match some other project detail finish, and creating custom face-plates, diffusers or covers to realize a custom looking product from standard parts. We also purchased hard to source products on behalf of customers to avoid delays and games played with pricing.

My interest in product development led to my pursuing product design for some time. This started as consultant to manufacturers, then in-house designer and manager, which included involvement in marketing. Then, in 2006 – a return to a consultant role as solid-state technology emerged. Today, we now once again offer application lighting design, where we put everything learned to work.

Lessons Applied

Most designers isolate themselves from the supply side of the market, resulting in a minimal understanding of the manufacturing side of the industry. I’ve never been satisfied with that approach.

The emergence of solid-state lighting introduces technology that differs significantly from conventional product. With this, the demands of UL are significantly greater than conventional product that has throttled availability of custom product options. Meanwhile, the number of custom manufacturers today is a small fraction of what existed three decades ago, so meeting unique requirements has become more difficult than ever, putting a great deal of the potential of the new technology out of practical reach. I want to help others avoid this issue.

A New Business Model

My business model has evolved into a combo-pack of lighting design, product development, custom adaptation of off-shelf product, and custom pre-engineering to optimize a desired applied effect. This provides customers designs with fewer compromises, and products they need in less time, at the most reasonable cost. This is a departure from the isolating approach that walls design from product fulfillment. Most lighting consultant firms have no capacity to test or evaluate products in a lab environment. Fewer still (if any) are able to modify or fabricate components necessary to bring their designs to fruition.  However, unlike manufacturers who provide application design assistance (directly or through rep agencies), we are designers first – with the added capacity to deliver product solutions when needed. In fact, we are frequently hired by manufacturers to assist them in designing an application and product solution to suit a customer request, backing application designs with study models and prototypes.

Designers with little or no solid-state technical expertise can certainly create design concepts for others to engineer and execute. We do that if that’s all that’s asked for. However, most manufacturers are not interested in small custom or modification orders, leaving small projects wanting. We avoid this by using proven core products with customized details to suit a custom requirement.

The Model Applied

Many design assignments do not include a need for specialty products, custom solutions, or modifications. The availability of standard product in solid-state lighting is now so prolific, that most regular projects can be accomplished using available product. For those projects, we employ the typical process of design and evaluation, with no product involvement. We do weed through products to select those that deliver the best value the customer, which can include testing and evaluating products for performance, interaction with dimmer equipment, and installation details that effect thermal and optical performance. Finding problems before they are installed is far less costly than field problem surprises.

Our real strength is serving a projects that includes areas that benefit most from a special touches. Hotel lobbies, corporate entries, display spaces, lighted art and art installations, retail feature displays, restaurants, custom homes, comfort/child care spaces in health care environments, library reading spaces, trade show displays, industrial work stations, and any number of other feature spaces that can benefit from creative application of light beyond the typical general illumination application are where we deliver our greatest value to architects, interior designers, rep agencies, and end use customers.

We also resolve issues with application of universal products, such as tape light, lighting film, cove, under-cabinet and furniture mounted lighting, and low voltage effects products. We create integrated systems kits with pre-wiring, matched to pre-tested components. We also make special brackets and clips that facilitate easy installation. We do this for our design customers, and offer the service to anyone else interested – with a sense of the design intent behind everything we do. We also solve other application specific mounting problems, make brackets, hanging systems, and adapters to fit products to architecture and surfaces better than generic manufacturer-provided solutions, without violating any applied UL listing.

This is model of design practice breaks with the traditional isolation of specification from direct product involvement. It is our competitive advantage, as there are few with the same combination of experience we’ve accumulated, especially in solid-state lighting design and integration.

This approach works particularly well for small and mid-scale projects that struggle to find manufacturer support. When a project can afford a full custom solution, our approach is to model, test, and qualify the design before having it quoted for production. This provides the manufacturer a level of detail and clarity that results in faster delivery and reduced cost – while giving the customer a working model for the approval. We also use our facility to assist designers in other model making projects, including 3D printing, fiberglass and metal fabrication. Finally, all of these services, from basic design work to modified or custom product solutions, are a la carte. We are here to serve in whatever capacity we might add value in servicing customers who value design. We are evolving constantly, adding capabilities to meet un-filled needs created by a rapidly changing market.

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