Insights into the forces shaping our industry.




by Ted Konnerth

I recently attended Strategies in Light in Santa Clara; CA. Strategies is the largest conference on high- brightness LED. It is largely a technical conference with dozens of PhD’s presenting research and updates on all things LED: epitaxy, thermal efficiency, color, substrate composition, etc. In short, attributes which are well beyond the day to day conversation of ‘electrical’ guys like me; or most of our clients. I was invited to speak at the conference on the topic of “The Future of Lighting” (you can find the presentation on our web, or my LinkedIn profile). The topic is certainly over-reaching, but a large part of my presentation was dedicated to the impacts of new technology on design. The design community will largely re-set the electrical industry over the next few years. Most of the technology is already viable and financially justifiable. Let’s summarize the key issues:

  • Lighting is generally estimated to be 10-12% of the overall electrical industry. That represents $10-12B annually in the US. Those dollars have traditionally been generated throughout electrical distribution, electrical contractors, lighting reps, lighting showrooms and 100’s of lighting manufacturers.
  • Lighting impacts the electrical industry significantly through the upstream and downstream products it requires: steel boxes, wire, conduit, transformers, panels, breakers, switches, wiring devices, dimmers, occupancy sensors, connectors and the installation and repair of all of those devices.
  • Solid state lighting has ready-now technology that will transform a complete lighting design into the following ‘package’:
    • Each LED fixture can be an IP-addressable node on a wireless or VoIP control system
    • Each LED fixture can be powered by a low voltage cable and connected via Cat6 or USB connectors
    • Each LED fixture can be controlled via wireless commands from a central software system
    • LED lighting systems will require ‘commissioning’ to ensure they communicate within the overall building automation system
    • An LED ‘fixture’ consists of a PC-board with a power supply and heat sink

There was an interesting presentation from the US executive of IKEA stores that commented that lighting is a large part of their commitment to sustainability. She asked a question: if we started designing lighting fixtures today; would we really need lampshades? And hence began my ‘rant’ on the state of lighting design…

LED is currently being designed and repackaged into the same fixture bodies of the past: 2X2’s, Wallpacks, Troffers, Downlights, Floodlights, etc. There is no rational or functional reason for jamming LED packages into assemblies that are designed for large, bulbous, spherically luminous ‘bulbs’. The most logical reason for doing this is simply because the tooling is already done; and the mental energy required to overcome the inertia of 100+ years of traditional lighting is too great.

LED technology has completed Phase 1; the efficiency of LED’s as a lumen package is now sufficient to supplant most of the traditional light sources. As the efficiency rises even more, the cost of LED systems will easily be within reach as the most logical light source for future design. With sufficient lumen firepower, the next challenge in the industry is to develop innovative designs that allow for lighting to integrate into complete building design systems: cross-linked into HVAC, daylighting, security, sound, datacom and motion detection systems. You can buy a wi-fi enabled light bulb; today. You will soon be able to buy a lighting system that will track the flow of goods within your plant and ensure accuracy; tied to RFID control devices and integrated with sensors that will light only those areas that require a seeing task. You can buy a street lighting system that raises or lowers the brightness dependent upon traffic patterns; today. Same for parking garage lighting… available now. Your street lighting can be specified optically to light a rectangular or curved pattern. The need for a Type 2 is moot; that exists because street lighting was created around a large, bulbous lamp that was mounted horizontally, where most of the lumens fell uncontrollably below the fixture.

The implications for the transition of lighting are enormous. With SSL, there will be very little need for conduit and steel boxes; and the IBEW labor to install those. Lighting consumes around 40% of the nation’s energy supplied to commercial buildings. That also means that lighting design requires electrical design for that consumption of power; and the HVAC design to cool that amount of heat.  So panel sizes, transformer sizes, refrigerant loads, number of circuits, wire sizes… they all drop proportional to the lowered power demands of SSL.

Design of the future will drastically change the size, look, feel and installation features of lighting equipment. “Fixture” may be obsolete and replaced with lighting node. The need for a close interchange of ideas between fixture designers and lighting designers is critical. As lighting will interface within the overall electronic control systems of buildings, the migration of lighting and all things ‘informational’ will be essential. A potential merger or alliance between CEDIA and IES would be desirable, as CEDIA members are trained to install sound, data and communication systems. I think the electrical contractor and most electrical distributors will see the end of lighting as a revenue stream for them. The next generation of ‘lighting guys’ may well be network interface people, who bundle lighting into their purview; likely to the demise of good lighting design.

SSL is the new name for ‘lighting’. And the fact that solid state is the majority of the acronym…’s appropriate. What is needed now is for the design community to step up and recognize that lighting has changed forever. Let’s reinstate the definitions of quality lighting design, based upon the seeing task and integrate those requirements into appropriate and novel fixture designs. There is no longer any reason for lighting to pierce a ceiling, so plenum sizes can shrink and the requirement of adherence to a 2X4 or 2X2 size restriction is so yesterday.

And that brings us to talent. Name a company that currently has the talent to grasp the nuances of SSL integration into designing the building of the future. I can’t name one, either. But it will take a consortium of leadership skills to manage the lighting industry going forward. That’s good for our firm, but it represents an enormous investment in emotional, cultural and financial resources to admit the changes needed to happen inside either a legacy lighting company or a startup LED company. This will require a careful blend of old and new ideas. We are all witnesses to a renaissance. Many will not survive the change, but for those that do… it is an exciting time to be alive.