This week, over 30 of our field engineers from around the country traveled to LightFair for our annual scavenger hunt -- scouring the exhibit hall for what’s new and what’s wacky.
Within the first few hours on the expo floor, it was clear that LEDs have flattened every other traditional illumination technology. As we noted a few weeks ago, even LED product recalls and failures can’t slow the market adoption now.
The team came up with a few high-level themes.
The internet of LEDs has arrived
The internet of things is so hyped that every LED vendor now needs its own "internet of LEDs" story. Any serious player must show off some form of network connectivity for their LED lamps, fixtures and systems -- either with their own or a partner’s. With so many internet-ready, wireless and wired control interfaces now on display, it’s easy to see why there is growing customer confusion.
GE’s purchase of Daintree last week is evidence that any big player will need its own network lighting system that can be easily connected to a building. We’ll expect more industry efforts like the EnOcean Alliance to push open wireless standards on behalf customers concerned about interoperability.
Our team particularly liked several vendors showing simpler wireless commissioning tools. These enable LED fixtures, rooms and zones to be easily set up using iPhone apps, Bluetooth connectivity and even pulsed light output from an iPhone’s camera flash. Once commissioned, they can self-connect to ZigBee mesh networks using less wiring and fewer gateways.
LED tube costs plummet
The debate over simple twist-in LED tube replacements versus direct-drive LED tubes that require rewiring continues. We continue to help buyers work through their own tradeoff analysis that factors in the remaining lifespan on their existing ballasts and utility incentives in their region. One interesting technical advancement has been the quick shift by many vendors from plastic to glass LED tubes, where performance and lifespan increase as conductive glass provides better heat dissipation.
But the latest market prices were the shocking part. Prices for comparable LED tubes have dropped over 50 percent since last year. This has been easier as chip manufacturers have again delivered a 30 percent to 50 percent boost in LED performance, with LPW ranges now between 130 and 160. Overall, it’s a stunning reflection of how fast volume and competition play out in semiconductor-based products.
Brand players struggle to differentiate themselves
Acuity, Current/GE, Cree, Eaton, Hubbell, Osram Sylvania and Philips all showed off large, fully staffed booths with full LED line cards and new age controls. But their pace of new product intros has slowed and the visual differences between brand products have been marginalized.
Many of them are playing in shifting sands, trying to determine their next-level positioning. GE is building and branding Current on top of older businesses; Eaton is rebranding Cooper; Philips is either selling or having an IPO; and Cree’s recent financial performance has been a bit bumpy.
At LightFair, all these companies were trying to market their broader vision for networked LED lighting. GE showed a Smart City lighting demonstration integrating gunshot detection, motion-sensing traffic flows and parking-space identification. Acuity showed off its LEDs networked with HVAC based on last year’s purchase of Distech Controls.
So what was wacky? The team brought back a range of impressive promotional giveaways, including beach balls, whiskey flasks and LED ice cubes, bracelets and business cards. And they saw plenty of low-end Chinese products that reminded us that the market hasn’t yet totally matured.
Jon Guerster is the CEO of Groom Energy Solutions.