The LED Generation

Does a long history designing lighting products really give a manufacturer an edge?

The LED Generation

I recently attended an event where a number of the “traditional” lighting manufacturers were boasting about how long they had been designing luminaires and how this made them a better choice when compared with some of the modern lighting manufacturers.

This got me thinking, does a long history designing lighting products really give a manufacturer an edge? Granted, experience is important, at INDO we have a diverse design team with some members carrying over 40 years of experience, but the younger members also have an equal amount of input into the design of our products. These younger members, who have launched and developed their careers during the LED era, are able to provide a fresh, creative view on new technologies; something which can be difficult for those who have been exposed to the design constraints imposed by older lighting technologies.

By way of an example, let’s consider a brief history of the broad technological developments in lighting. As long as 400,000 years ago man learned to control fire, giving a valuable source of light and heat. Many, many generations later, in the late 1800’s, the carbon filament incandescent bulb was invented, propelling the industry into a new era of clean, effortless lighting. Towards the mid 1900’s another leap in technology was made to gas discharge sources, which have dominated the market (in some form or another) until very recently, and represent the majority of today’s highway lighting infrastructure. Finally, of course, we have had the relatively recent development in the semiconductor industry that has allowed for LED lighting to be used in street lighting applications. These are four very distinct technology areas which understandably require very different design approaches when designing a luminaire.

These transitions between technologies can be extremely disruptive for an incumbent company, the main reason being that years and years of experience in a particular area can become almost meaningless overnight, eliminating what was once a strong selling point. An example of this in the consumer electronics field is with Kodak. Kodak failed to successfully diversify from film to digital cameras in the early 2000s and as such paid the price – a drop from around 80% of US market share prior to 2000 to around 10% in 2007.

New firms entering a market at the transition point will typically possess expertise in the new technology area whereas the incumbent firm must re-train or replace elements of its workforce and infrastructure to catch up, which can be costly and time consuming. Clearly the size of the “leap” between technology areas determines how transferable the knowledge is. Large leaps can present problems for “traditional” firms, allowing fresh entrants to develop innovative products at a faster pace, snapping up market share.

While incumbent firms might be worried about the threat from fresh, innovative companies, what does this potentially disruptive period spell for young lighting professionals? I believe that disruptive technologies present an opportunity for young professionals to excel by embracing the new technology with an unclouded view. Whether part of an older organisation or a new entrant, being part of the LED generation is both simulating and rewarding for the individual, and can offer an exciting career in an industry that is flourishing with innovation.