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Smart Lighting: Who's dumb and dumber?

Issue 83 January / February

Within the first ten days of 2015 I was bombarded by three conferences on how smart lighting is going to change the industry forever. This led me to question whether this propensity for ‘smart’ perhaps makes up for the rather poor level of skill throughout the lighting supply chain?

The bare fact is that the lighting industry has seen a seismic shift in the level of understanding on all fronts from lighting designers, engineering consultancies, fixture manufacturers through to ballast manufacturers, controls and installers. Unfortunately, an industry (more accurately the skills within the industry) will take at least ten to twenty years to catch up with the fundamental earthquake and aftershocks of a major technology change. Until new skills sets are firmly embedded within the industry, it is running ‘blind’ and to those that truly understand the technology, business models and markets, the rest of the industry appears ‘dumb’. I am not saying I’m smart and everyone else is dumb but there are many things I get to see in this sector where I comment why are they doing that or do they really believe this?
Here are just a few examples:

Excessive LED lifetimes and warranties

In the early days, LED and fixture manufacturers claimed 50,000 to 100,000 hours of useful life even though they were talking about individual component lifetimes. These ill-conceived claims were designed to convince unsuspecting lighting designers they never needed to re-lamp products compared to traditional filament and fluorescents and so excellent for end-users.

The problem is LED fixtures (even dumb ones) aren’t constructed from single components and thus become significantly more complex than the traditional light sources they replace. As a result they are inherintly less reliable at a system level. If you read back through the years, I have explained that system reliability is only as strong as the weakest component. In terms of LED lighting that is the electrolytic capacitors used to smooth output ripple current to meet EMC standards.

Therefore, why do lighting designers accept a company’s word (no matter what their size or brand) when they say they will guarantee a product for, say, ten years? Is it in the blind belief they can offer their clients such a guarantee and just pass the liability back to the supplier? It’s not really how a responsible supply chain should operate and no other industry operates like this. For example, the IT, telecoms and consumer electronics markets are vastly larger than the lighting industry and offer no more than a one or two year warranty despite the fact they spend £100’s of billions on R&D to deliver quality products each year! Every warranty I’ve read has so many exclusions in them yet everyone still requests them as though it’s a metric of quality – duhhh!

Continued whole life support
LED product lifecycles are incredibly short. This is a major issue moving forward for lighting designers because they should be looking at whole lift support for a building. Just ask yourself how many healthy LED companies have been around for more than a decade - what happens five years into your prestigious lighting scheme when failures occur? Do you say to your client they are under warranty and should speak to the supplier about replacements? The supplier probably isn’t around and even if they were they couldn’t ship you replacements as they stopped making them three years ago! Wow, your client is into an expensive re-lamp or an ugly looking patch!

Lighting Controls
The old controls companies have been a bedrock with reliable technology but they are all based on expensive proprietary systems. These are difficult to maintain or expand, so what do they do now the Internet of Things is coming along? I know, let’s build a gateway and add an app which means we are there! Absolutely wrong. The advantage for the controls industry is to shift to new open platforms with lower costs and a vastly greater skills base leveraged from the IT industry. Why not use Linux, Java and other open source solutions which are commonly used elsewhere? These solutions are truly scalable and are not limited to control protocols developed 20+ years ago.

Security of Lighting
As lighting becomes ‘smarter’ it will become connected so security of the connecting infrastructure will become vital. The lighting industry today has no idea about what security is in a network of devices and as such we will see attacks on lighting and building management systems over the next few years – that’s a guarantee. Therefore, make sure you don’t get caught out like Sony did where hacking teams infiltrated their networks, stole all the information and burned their servers to the ground. The moral of this unfortunate episode is learn to have backup plans and maybe not trust ‘cloud’ based controls but rather something in-between.

I could have written so much more but I would really like your feedback on how dumb or smart the lighting industry really is...

Geoff Archenhold is an active investor in LED driver and fixture manufacturers and a lighting energy consultant.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of mondo*arc.


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