LED INSIDER
Tipping point

LEDs are now accepted in many markets, but has the time come for the solid state source?

As you read this you’ve probably packed away the 20,000 LED lights from your roof, deflated the large Father Christmas and consigned Rudolf to the attic for another year. Most Christmas lighting is now LED, and we can say that the tipping point has been reached, such that LED technology dominates this market.

The tipping point of technology is an interesting subject. At the highest level, investors and market watchers want to know when LED technology will be widely adopted in the lighting market. Nearer the coal face, we know that life is not so simple and that adoption happens niche by niche, when the market and technology conditions are right.

Why is the Christmas market dominated by LED? Energy efficiency is probably well down the list, because the cost of the energy is easily outweighed by Mrs Routledge when she arrives home with yet another cute overpriced squirrel-like decoration for the tree.

No, the salient benefits are the drivers behind conversion.

  • Long life. No more rooting through a string of bulbs to find a blown one, no more searching the shops to find the right replacement bulb, which cost nearly as much as the incandescent string of misery in the first place.
  • Robustness.You can throw LED strings around without breaking them, flash then in any one of 22 annoying patterns.
  • Colours. You can blight your street with an impressive array of monochromatic and alien autopsy whites. From a manufacturer’s perspective, the advent of LED has probably resulted in a sizeable market growth and higher margins.

A blessing and a curse

The tipping point of technology can be a blessing or a curse. In consumer electronics if you don’t follow the trends you will be out of business. What happened to makers of traditional-style televisions or portable CD players? Interestingly, a major driver for the adoption of LCD TV screens, which arguably have a poorer picture quality than the CRTs they replace, is the fact that they occupy less space. In Asia, where the vast majority of the urban population lives in smaller apartments but loves TV, removing a huge, deep TV and hanging a thin LCD on the wall is almost equivalent to adding another room.

The scales have been tipped for some time in entertainment lighting, where LED technology dominates. Take a look at The X Factor set. LED technology forms the bulk of the lighting from high-resolution LED screens to low-resolution LED tubes and projection lights. Energy is part of the story, but low heat, controllable light and the extra applications and design opportunities all add up to drive the market and make traditional techniques seem archaic. I’m sure the lighting budget of a typical TV set such as this is significantly higher than it was 10 years ago.

As the cost of technology continues to fall, the size of the markets capable of passing the tipping point continues to grow. Today the cost per lumen of the LED source is still probably a factor of 10 higher than that of fluorescent lighting. Five years ago it was more like 100 times higher.

Although a factor of 10 sounds high, in the overall cost of a lighting fixture it can easily be swallowed up in areas where the cost of the fixture is high compared with that of the light source – especially where the salient benefits of the technology shine through to create unique features and benefits. Rising energy costs, the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and ever tighter Building Regulations mean the scales are being tipped daily.

It will still be a long time before the cost of LED sources is equal to that of traditional lamps technologies – or it may never happen. But the added value may mean that, as in the other markets that have already tipped, absolute cost becomes increasingly irrelevant. The new technology may increase the size of the market and manufacturers’ margins.

Birmingham is set to become the first large city to fully adopt LED technology for residential roads. LED street lighting has moved beyond small trial installations and is well on the way to passing the tipping point. Lower energy, less light pollution, more pleasing light, long life and wider pole spacings all add up to create a value proposition capable of justifying the moderate price increase. What’s next? LED downlights are selling by the ton, industrial high bays are on the increase. Who knows?

You know when a market has tipped when the old technology comes back as retro. Last month I was at the Kings of Leon gig in Manchester. The backdrop to the stage was made up of hundreds of incandescent stage lights, a novel refreshing look in a world of digital LED – positively analogue. Well done guys!

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