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Sunday, 30 September 2012 13:55

As LED technology enters the ‘sweet spot,’ Light Corp. teams with local designer for new product

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As LED technology enters the ‘sweet spot,’ Light Corp. teams with local designer for new product PHOTO: Joe Boomgaard
GRAND HAVEN — Not long ago, many people scoffed at the thought of buying LED lighting, which was seen as too expensive and not as useful as other lighting technology.

But within the span of a couple of years, customers have shifted their buying strategies significantly, and lighting manufacturers such as Light Corp. have had to adapt.

“We haven’t designed a product that’s not an LED in the last three years,” said R. Bradley Davis, the company’s president.

The Grand Haven-based manufacturer offers a range of office and industrial lighting, as well as wireless lighting controls, and serves as a contract lighting manufacturer for other office furniture companies.

Davis said business at the growing $30 million company that employs 200 people has outpaced the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer’s Association industry performance metrics for the past two years. He attributes part of the company’s better-than-average performance to its new product development efforts.

The company has been on the forefront of developing high-efficiency lighting, which lately has been focused on LEDs for task, personal and ambient office lighting solutions. Thanks to rapid technological advances, Davis said the company often seems to be chasing a moving target.

That’s because as LED performance improves, producers are finding ways to cut the cost of the technology, said Lynne Bosgraaf, vice president of sales and product development at Light Corp. The company’s goal is to stay on top of that trend and find the “sweet spot” between cost and performance that will suit customers’ needs, she said.

“In the office market, it’s almost a given in a project because of the energy reduction,” Bosgraaf said of the demand for LED products. “In the high-bay (facility) market, there still is a hurdle to be overcome in terms of the ROI for any given warehouse or any given assembly plant. But that performance and that cost is coming in line in the high-bay application as it did in the office (application).”

The market share for LED solid state lighting “is currently quite low” but could jump to 52 percent of the commercial lighting market by 2021, according to a November 2011 report from Pike Research, a Boulder, Colo.-based clean technology market analysis firm. The report found costs for LEDs could plummet by 80 percent to 90 percent over the next decade.

“LEDs represent perhaps the most significant breakthrough of the last 130 years in lighting technology,” Eric Bloom, research analyst at Pike Research, stated in the report. “… The transition to this new technology is likely to occur very quickly. Rapidly evolving technologies, such as semiconductors and software, are finding their way into the lighting market, catapulting this traditional, historically slow-moving industry into a new era of high technology.”

Broadly speaking, the way people work is also changing, Bosgraaf said. As office spaces change, lights must adapt to the shifting office landscape, she said.

“We’ve always thought of the legacy of under-bin lighting or personal task lighting, but LEDs can enable spatial illumination unlike we’ve ever experienced before,” Bosgraaf said. “There are significant opportunities with this technology to be integrated and thrown around workspaces to create that end-user experience and to be efficient in doing the work wherever they are.”

One recent Light Corp. collaboration with Grand Rapids-based designer Tom Newhouse, principal of Thomas J. Newhouse Design LLC, incorporated LED technology into a ergonomic personal task light, called Voyage.

The product debuted at this year’s NeoCon, where it won a 2012 Product Innovation Award from Buildings Magazine.

The 7-watt light features 18 LEDs packaged into a proprietary lens system and designed to last for 50,000 hours. The light’s touch-sensing switch acts as a dimmer to regulate output based on user needs. All Voyage models are programmed to shut off automatically after 10 hours, which helps save on energy costs when people in offices forget to turn off their lights overnight. More energy-conscious customers can opt to outfit the lights with an occupancy sensor to turn it off after a shorter time span.

“Smart buildings are in the future and this baby is going to be ready for it,” said Newhouse, noting he thought he could be “daring and modern” in the designing the light. “When you have a West Michigan innovation company that’s on the cutting edge of LED, that makes it exciting. We were able to do stuff with Voyage that is right at the cutting edge.”

Newhouse said task lights — specialized desk lighting products — are a particularly interesting category of products because they’re essentially “a sculpture in your face.” Because of their small size, LEDs offer designers “a whole new scale of sculptural opportunity.”

“(Light Corp.) has the deepest knowledge of lighting in the office industry because that’s what they do. The big OEMs are wonderful and they know their ergonomic chairs, but lighting is not a core competency,” Newhouse said.

The Voyage light, like all new products at the company, came out of Light Corp.’s Light PIPE (Product Innovation Product Execution) process, which has formal procedures for bringing a concept to production. The PIPE process covers all areas of design and engineering, ranging from design for assembly to risk analysis to the supply chain. Once a final “milestone gate” is met, the company puts the product into production and starts building an inventory.

When MiBiz spoke with the company, it was just beginning to ramp up production of Voyage. Bosgraaf said the company hoped to begin shipping the product early this month.

“It’s really the exciting part of finally getting to show it to prospective customers and unveiling it,” Davis said. “The thing I like about working with Tom is that he’s not only innovative and creative, but he’s willing to work with our team to make solutions that make sense for manufacturing.

“Some industrial designers want to put their stamp on a product and don’t necessarily want to change it. Tom is fantastic in working with the rest of the team to develop what we think are the most elegant solutions in the market today.”

Newhouse credited Light Corp. for its “huge investment in tooling” to go the extra mile in preserving his design’s aesthetic. The all-new product uses exclusive parts with unique finishes and hard-to-make technical details, including the heat sinks for LEDs, which are both functional and aesthetic, he said.

Light Corp. worked to maximize the U.S.-sourced content for the product. The company used more than a dozen Michigan-based suppliers to bring Voyage to market, Bosgraaf said.

“It’s hard to do cost-effectively,” Newhouse said of sourcing domestically. “If you want cheap parts, you just go to Asia for them. It doesn’t mean they’re any good.”

Having a domestically built product is key for Light Corp. to help clients get key incentives via the Trade America Act and the Buy America Act.

Davis said the company helps customers take advantage of various lighting rebate programs around the country, incentives that help level the cost for high efficiency lighting.

“There are millions and millions of under-counter fluorescent fixtures that can be swapped out with efficient LED fixtures, whether it’s a desk light or a linear LED product. That hasn’t happened a lot in the furniture market,” Davis said. “There hasn’t been a lot of retrofit. Maybe someone would go out and buy a different chair if their chairs wore out. Historically, we’ve sold into new systems. But the retrofit market for office space is going to become much larger in the future.”

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