From LEDs to Smart Lighting

From LEDs to Smart Lighting

As LEDs become commoditized, suppliers re-vamp their strategies toward smart lighting solutions that help customers create more advanced, efficient products and systems.

These days, the rate of adoption for LEDs has never been higher. Shelves in the big box home improvement stores devote more space to LED bulbs than “old fashioned” incandescent bulbs, as just one example.

The effect and use of LEDs is growing far beyond the lights in your hallway or bedroom, though, as buyers, designers, and suppliers throughout the electronics supply chain can affirm. In fact, as prices decline, many working in the lighting industries view LEDs as close to being a commodity these days.

“We are changing our strategy quite a bit—moving away from these discrete LEDs to more value-added products [such as] modules, smart lighting, and other things,” says Digi-Key’s Robbie Paul.

“The downward trend [in price] is accelerating. To me, it is almost a fully commoditized product,” says Robbie Paul, director of lighting sales at global distributor Digi-Key Electronics. “There is an oversupply right now. It’s a similar situation to what we’re seeing in oil. It is not a demand issue. Demand is always there and people are always making newer LED light fixtures. But the supply is … a glut. We have too many players and so many LEDs to choose from and the price points have come down.”

Yet this is hardly the death knell for LEDs. Quite the contrary, as many companies are focused on so-called smart lighting. As LED usage itself has become widespread, its ongoing popularity will continue due to various apps and value-added features such as dimmers and controls.

“Control capabilities set LED apart, especially with what is on the horizon with the Internet of Things, the IoT. We have yet to witness what the IoT will mean to the lighting industry.  It’s going to shake things up all over again, just like the introduction of LED,” explains Lara Cordell, director of technology at Wiedenbach Brown, a smart lighting and electrical solutions specialist. “[LED] gives you the flexibility to do what you need to do. There are more color temperature and color rendering options. There are more optical configurations.  There are more dimming and control options.”

Digi-Key’s Paul anticipates that smart lighting will affect all areas of lighting and related industries.

“That is one of the things [Digi-Key is] focusing on. It is one of my goals to try to figure out how we can best play in the smart lighting market,” he says. “That is what you are going to hear about a lot.”

“We have yet to witness what the IoT will mean to the lighting industry,” says Lara Cordell, director of technology at Wiedenbach Brown, a smart lighting and electrical solutions specialist.

Some smart lighting controls may do far more than simply turn lights on or off as needed. Chenell York is a new product development engineer for one of Digi-Key’s manufacturer partners, Eaton Corp., in Peachtree City, Ga. As an example, she refers to a large floor space or large room and the potential for energy savings.

“For the indoor space, wouldn’t it be great if your lighting could sense not just when somebody walks into a room but what part of the room are they in? How many people are inside that room? What is the temperature in that room?” she explains. “All of those things can lead to savings.”

The remote controls—and how best to connect all this lighting—is now an increasingly important issue.

“What we’re seeing is that we can’t just sell smart lighting in isolation. It has to be connected to the rest of the house or the main building and on and on into the Internet of Things,” Paul explains. “The whole connectivity thing is not an easy thing to solve because if you want to get your garage door, your thermostat, and your lights to work together—those are three different industries with different players and different incentives. To get some kind of a common standard is a big challenge.”

The push to innovate and get customers to invest in controls will become increasingly important in the next couple of years—primarily because some observers believe that LED adoption could peak as early as 2018.

“The old traditional model was that you used to replace your bulbs at least once a year. Well, LED bulbs are going to last 20 years,” explains Paul. “So the replacement cycle has completely disappeared. Right now it is all about [LED] adoption by 2018. They say that once 50% to 60% of the market adopts a product, then it just slows down. So the peak is 2018 for LED bulbs in terms of sales.”

It means companies such as Digi-Key need to come up with new strategies and game plans.

“We are changing our strategy quite a bit—moving away from these discrete LEDs to more value-added products [such as] modules, smart lighting, and other things,” Paul explains.

York and her colleagues at Eaton work with municipalities on their highway and street lighting, she says, where controls have also become more in demand.

“Working with Georgia Power, they tend to be one of the leading utilities. They do a lot of controls with dollies and that kind of thing. It is not only dimming, it is daylight sensing. If you have a streetlight on the highway, there is no need for it to burn during the middle of the day,” she says. “So we want a sensor that is smart and can sense that it is noon and the light doesn’t have to be on. That is a power savings and an energy savings.”

Controls and the overall quality of lighting are big selling points right now in some offices and large work spaces. When lighting designers visit customers’ offices, they often find that everyone wants to share their thoughts about their own lighting.

“People all have an opinion. It’s almost like the temperature in the room,” Cordell explains. “Some want it colder, some want it hotter … [For example] some people who are working on computers, especially in the IT world, want the ambient lighting much darker than typical and you have to balance that against other lighting preferences in the same office space.”

Paul admits there may be a tendency to offer some customers too much of a good thing as far as modules and apps are concerned.

“You can talk about the residential environment. Everything is controlled by your phone, by apps,” says Paul. “It is great to have lights that you can control but … [some say] ‘I don’t want a separate app for my light. I have one for my garage door. I have one for my camera, one for my thermostat. Now you're going to give me another app for my lights?’”

With an eye toward minimizing a potential app overload, heavyweights such as Apple and Google have become involved in the connectivity end of things. Apple has its HomeKit, which enables users to connect to their homes from their iPhones. Likewise, the Thread Group—which is backed by Google—allows homeowners to connect to their homes. It describes itself as a “non-profit group … focused on making Thread the foundation for the Internet of Things in the home …”

And Apple and Google are far from alone in this. As York explains, Eaton is also working a similar set of features.

“We are in the process of creating our own interface to go with our lights,” she says. “This is an interface that is going to be based off of existing platforms so that you may have a house that has an app for your garage door, another app for this and that. Our interface will actually be on the same platform as them so that you can have one app that does it all. So you won’t be saying, ‘I have to close this app and open this other one to do this one little thing that I want to do.’ It will be all in one.”

This involvement by the likes of Apple and Google reaffirms to many that the controls and connectivity market is the next phase in LEDs.

“And [Apple and Google] are big enough or they can create their own de facto standards … So these big guys are coming in now to try to change the game as well,” adds Paul. “Plus you have Lutron and GE who are already in the home automation area that are also trying to step it up and get more app-based controls. It is going to be very interesting.”

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