What is the future of general lighting?

Everyone seems to agree that LED technology is the future of general lighting. Yet, there is already a debate in the market about what might come next. Annetta Kelso, Senior Marketing Manager LED Systems at Philips, and Leif Norrby, Product Development Director at Fagerhult, share their professional and personal views on an industry in transformation. Who said that Lighting was a boring industry, where nothing ever happens?

Annetta; what’s happening within the lighting industry right now?

“In the first 20 years of my career in lighting I used to have some difficulty in describing to my friends what I liked about the the lighting industry and why I remained there. And indeed, if you looked at it as a dispassionate outsider then it did not seem a very compelling industry to work in. All those dreary fluorescent tubes, ‘awful’ compact fluorescents and ghostly low pressure sodium lamps. Dreadfully slow, extremely conservative, traditional and dull. No-one envied me. But how different the situation is now. The coming of age of LED light sources for general lighting has shaken the whole industry to its core and dragged it in to the cyclical manufacturing patterns of the semi-conductors world. We have become an industry in the midst of a whirlwind of huge change. But also one that is quickly modernizing and reinventing itself, thereby appealing a lot more to today’s consumers and triggering wider interest.”

What has the impact been on the lighting industry?

“The psychology of a new technology moving in on a 120 year old established, slow and traditional market has been fascinating to observe. I witnessed first-hand the emotions and struggles of the value chain, where huge mental change was taking place, provoking a whole cycle of reactions from denial, anger, scepticism and eventually acceptance. I faced shouting, angry lighting specifiers calling me a liar. I spoke to luminaire manufacturers, loudly denying the rapid advent of LEDs, yet proudly claiming 50 % of their turnover to be in LEDs a few years later. The Lighting industry is maturing fast, but it is also an industry under severe stress. Lighting manufacturers today are heavily preoccupied with managing and mastering the mass penetration of LEDs, and its many new practical challenges and application learnings. There is hardly ever a dull moment.” 

Annetta about oled…

There is a lot of discussion and anticipation about OLED technology, which is attracting large R&D investments and gaining a strong foothold in the display panel market in mobile phones, laptop screens and televisions. 

What place and role might this technology occupy in the lighting world in the future? 

“OLED is a highly adaptive material that produces a very beautiful, soft, uniform light effect, without distressing glare. Yet compared to LED specifications and price points OLED technology is still some years behind. It would be wrong to see OLED as a competitor or the successor of LED lighting, superseding it in the future. It has always seemed quite obvious to me that OLED is a parallel technology, co-existing alongside LEDs, targeting very different applications with a distinct set of benefits. OLED technology is well suited to automotive lighting and also for ships and planes. It is also ideal for embedding in designer, artistic form factors, removing the boundaries of shape and size associated with conventional lighting. Its transparency, slim dimensions and bendable characteristics make it a very flexible light source, ideal for architectural and embedded applications, either in the home or semi-professional applications. Being able to integrate 

light, make glass or mirrors glow, or create a sculptured, curved, diffuse pendant luminaire takes lighting to whole new levels that cannot be achieved with LEDs. It is a different playing field.”

… and laser technology

Another technology that is increasingly being mentioned when considering successors to LED is laser diodes?

“There is research emerging and there are early discussions taking place in the market. BMW has been developing laser based headlamps, which extend the visibility to 600 m, which has grabbed the imagination. Laser light appears to be a good light source for applications where the light needs to be transported or guided over long distances, from one central, remote light source. Very similar to fibre optics which I’m familiar with from my previous experience as a Product manager. 

Laser technology is also being trialed in projector and beamer applications, but not yet in general lighting. From the various sources I have come across on lasers and laser diodes, it seems that there are some quite technical challenges still to be overcome as well, in the areas of efficiency, thermal stability, colour rendering, uniformity of beam and safety.” 

No turning back

How do you see the future of lighting?

“Nowdays it is unthinkable that we would ever turn back the clock towards the old conventional light sources. It seems to me that LED technology is perfectly capable of providing efficient, high quality, white light, and will build up a formidable pedigree in the foreseeable future. 

  And yet there are already those who are looking ahead and voices speaking out at conferences, debating what might come next. It is an interesting question; are there further major technological changes, imminent or already apparent on the horizon?” 

Linked to emotions

Apart from light itself, Annetta continues, “I would look at the future of lighting from another perspective. What if the future is not so much about a new lighting technology, as about the way that light is used and the way we interact with it? What if lighting was to fit into to a larger eco-system and become valuable to end users for other reasons than just providing illumination?” 

You are talking about connected lighting?

“Yes, connected lighting is at the centre of all lighting discussions and speculations right now. And, unlike OLEDs and human centric lighting which are familiar terrain, connected lighting is still relatively unknown, undefined and more intangible. Yet it has the power to throw our current lighting world upside down (again) and change the way we experience and interact with light. Lighting is already joining the  ‘Internet of Things’ in the consumer world. Connected light bulbs, such as the Philips Hue system, allow you to control the colours, ambience and intensity of the lights in your home, via your smart phone, when and where you want, at work, or on holiday. But they can also go beyond mere illumination. Via apps the lamps can alert you to other significant events touching your life; football clubs scoring goals, stock prices rising, your husband about to arrive home (!). These are fun and exciting things that brighten up your everyday life. This is lighting linked to emotions.”

Professional lighting connected

But would this fun element translate to the hard, rational professional lighting market? 

“Not likely! Any form of connected lighting in the professional world will have to be based on rational argumentation and the promise of money saving, or money generating activities. It will be about lighting, as a carrier for providing information about the way people are using a building, moving through a street, or shopping mall. 

Think of intelligent luminaires receiving signals and instructions, sending data and interacting with other systems and databases. It will be about managing lighting assets in a city, simplifying maintenance, gathering data to allow for manufacturers to offer service contracts.”

This happens now

Why should we be so sure that this will happen, and why now? 

“All the market signals are now pointing to viable business cases. The cost per lighting fixture to be connected is predicted to be lower than ever, taking in to account reduced installation time due to quicker, simplified wiring and less commissioning issues. 

The omnipresent, extensive infrastructure of lighting will make it an ideal carrier for connectivity in the professional and commercial world. We should think in terms of value creation through the ‘real estate’ of lighting opportunity. The value of big data collection and analysis on the behaviour of people is recognised as a business opportunity by companies for more direct targeting of customers. And Lighting is everywhere where people are and is therefore an ideal platform to capture and monitor human centric data. 

In the ‘Connected Office’ intelligent lighting systems will not only provide light in a cost effective, efficient manner, but will also interact, via IT systems, with HVAC, blinds and security systems to offer even more savings and flexibility. Knowing how a building is used offers potential for reducing square meters per employee and therefore money savings. 

Similarly in Retail, targeted customer interaction can be greatly enhanced by knowing a person’s exact location in a store at a particular moment. All these connected lighting services will require software support, maintenance and consultancy support, an excellent opportunity for services and value added selling.”

Connected lighting affect products

How do you think connectivity will affect product development? 

“Connected lighting technology will enable multiple application possibilities and the challenge will be to define the winning propositions and their real benefits. The diversity and complexity of options and products will certainly increase. I think we will see a rise in intelligent luminaires, equipped with smart hardware and software components, in the shape of LED Light engines, lamps, radios and sensors. 

Future proof, forwards and backwards compatibility should be key criteria here to facilitate easy upgrades for future applications and solutions unknown today. System solutions should be robust, reliable and intuitive and easy to use. They will also need to address privacy, safety, reliability and system and data security”.

Changed value chain

What other changes do you foresee to make this happen?

“None of this can be achieved by just maintaining the existing value chains and infrastructures. For lighting to be able to talk to different systems in a building or city, and link in to big data collection points, you need new parties such as IT companies, system integrators and software designers to become part of the new eco system. 

So with the Lighting and IT industries set to entwine, new partnerships will arise around the current value chain, focusing on serving the professional end user. Lighting companies will have to learn the language of system integrators, IT networks and software providers. The end user will be increasingly advised by a new breed of specifiers, with new forms of lighting tenders and products specifications.”

So there are plenty of changes and innovation still to look forward to then?

“There are still many steps to take along the road to connected lighting systems and many unanswered questions. Much will change and this will not be an easy transition for lighting manufacturers. But with all the boundary conditions in place, the rewards could be substantial, as a whole new vista of value added service opportunities will open up. We live in exciting lighting times!” 

From the fagerhult perspective

The lighting industry is in the middle of a paradigm shift, experiencing some radical changes. What’s happening Leif?

“We are experiencing the LED-fairy tale, for real. After years of discussions, preparations and product development, the technology is mature for commercial success. The market is booming right now. New products find their way to the market immediately, and the surge is intense. Five years back, the major part of our sales were products older than three years, novelties needed quite a long time to establish themselves on the market. Today, new products are driving the whole deal. In February 2015, LED counted for 60 percent of our monthly turnover. That pretty much says it all.”

What are the challenges in your perspective at Fagerhult?

“Actually, lighting has changed into another industry. Traditionally, lighting was a manufacturing industry focusing on mechanics and light sources. Today, we work with semiconductors, which basically means that we’re part of the electronics industry. This brings new demands on competence and skills development, both right now and in the future. 

As there’s a new, more energy and cost efficient LED-version presented every eight month, we also need to have the strength and capacity to upgrade the existing LED range at regular intervals. Not to forget; innovative product development has to be up and running at all times.”

Fagerhult and connectivity

What about connectivity? Is Fagerhult taking any actions within the field?

“In the story of connectivity, lighting has the opportunity to play a leading role, as it offers an already existing infrastructure – indoors as well as outdoors. 

This infrastructure serves as a central part of the Internet of Things. Though, in my opinion, I think we should be aware that we’re only at the beginning of a long journey. There are many communicating devices to be linked together and it is a complicated process. 

At Fagerhult, we see great opportunities and are following development very closely. It is reasonable to believe that lighting will be an asset when collecting data for the cloud, for example data on occupancy and efficiency. Information can be used for strategic decisions concerning facility management and organisational development. From being a provider of lighting solutions, I think lighting companies in the future will also have the role of consultants.”

LED is here to stay

So, what happens now? 

“From Fagerhult’s perspective, LED is the obvious technology for the foreseeable future. OLED is clearly interesting, but considering efficiency and cost aspects, I see OLED mainly as an alternative for architectural or creative solutions just as Annetta says. 

For professional lighting, LED is the most commercially viable option. And of course, LED will be further developed for new exciting applications. For example, I believe LED will be part of several integrated solutions – in wall modules or different types of store interior. 

In times of technical breakthrough and progression, I would also like to add something about the importance of visual comfort – very Fagerhult, I know…!” Leif says with a smile. 

He continues; “But we must not forget about visual comfort. LED light is incredibly intense and therefore it is more important than ever that we take into account the lighting environment. Glare and colour stability over time cannot be overlooked. Let’s not throw 70 years of acquired knowledge out the window. It might be a brave new world, but technology should always serve people.”