As we do each spring, a team of Groom Energy engineers made the pilgrimage to Lightfair this week in search of “the next big thing” in lighting.  We went to training sessions, walked the exhibit floor and talked with smart folks to develop a collective view of what’s going on, what’s hot and what’s not.

As it’s now year five since LEDs took over Lightfair, we were already anticipating an overwhelming number of new LED products. Showing that anyone with a brand name needs to get in the game, this year’s winner was Whirlpool, a name not otherwise associated with LED lighting.

But beyond sheer volume, three sub-themes emerged.


Warmer colors

Better LED price performance now gives vendors the chance to show off products that come in warmer color temperatures (2700K and 3000K).

In the past, manufacturers prioritized high lumen output over producing warmer colors (which also takes chip performance). First- and second-generation LED lamps and fixtures were often cold, operating at 5000K to 6500K.

Today they can do both. Booth marketing teams this year talked about CRI, color blending and warmer colors instead of bragging about how long LEDs last.

One vendor took us into a dark booth to show off two side-by-side LED retail displays, both with high CRI and warm color. Evidently, 97 percent of the retailers surveyed at a prior conference had picked one over the other. Our team had a blank stare -- through our energy-efficiency lens, both looked great.


Smarts are in (literally)

Lighting control for digital LEDs is happening and it’s moving from add-on systems to embedded.

Vendors are showing off their integration with third-party controls and more booths have LCDs showing fancy software screens with lighting control graphics. Maybe CA’s Title 24, which requires lighting controls and is set to go live January 1, 2014, is helping?

Up-and-coming players all had their announcements: Enlighted raised another fund worth $20 million and Digital Lumens demonstrated integration of its platform into other LED fixtures.

Last year, Lutron announced a plan to embed its controls widget into CREE fixtures; this year the move is to add capabilities directly into LED drivers and ballasts.  Marvel’s partnership with Daintree moves in this direction. And it's even happening with smart, connected street lighting like Echelon’s deal to be embed its technology directly into Osram ballasts.

While the embedded wave generally doesn’t add new control capabilities, it does attack costs -- which is the real sign of a maturing market.


Lamps and fixtures look the same, now they just have LEDs inside

A few years ago, manufacturers were struggling with how to replace round and tubular HID and fluorescent lamps with flat LED chips inside “traditional” lamp housings. This year we saw a noticeable number of lamps and fixtures that didn't look like they had LEDs inside.

Part of this is a result of LED performance increases, which now allow manufacturers to add glare-reducing diffusers to cover the point source chips.  Where lots of bright dots used to give away the fact that it was an LED fixture, now lighting distribution is more even. In an effort to get more configurability out of one lamp or fixture, manufacturers like Soraa and Amerlux showed a set of clip-on lenses which can be used to shape light as needed even after installation.

This move was most evident at the CREE booth. Previously, it had introduced a new LED A lamp, which looks virtually identical to a traditional incandescent bulb.  This year, the company showed off a T8 retrofit look-alike, which replaces the linear fluorescent bulbs in a traditional 2×2 or 2×4 office troffer fixture. The color was great, the shape was identical and you could keep your existing fixture in place.  Looking up, you could not tell the difference; looking down at your utility bill, you likely will.


Jon Guerster is the CEO of Groom Energy Solutions. This piece was originally published on Groom's blog.