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Illumigeddon and the New Age of Lighting Distribution

By Chris Brown

Several years ago, I started a project to ‘connect the dots’ of the lighting industry… all the new technology, new manufacturers, new business models, new competition and the fact that solid-state lighting (SSL) is a classic disruptive technology, and also a destructive technology to our traditional MRO lamp replacement business. In addition, the advent of smart lighting is bringing new players from the technology industry into our once sleepy, stodgy lighting industry.

Connecting the dots led me to the conclusion that we are experiencing the end of the traditional lighting industry as we had known it. Thus the concept of ‘Illumigeddon’ was born and has been debated for months with Bill Attardi in his EnergyNewsWatch.com blog.

In no particular order, I want to start more conversation on what I think are the most important aspects of the new age of SSL, particularly as it impacts lighting distribution. Among the topics are some obvious, immediate issues:

•  Amazon Business
•  The dying and death of MRO
•  Defining lighting benefits and values
•  Selling light not light bulbs… light as a service
•  Hiring (and selling to) millennials
•  Using social media and technology tools
•  Disintermediation
•  Smart lighting
•  Other issues TBD

Let’s start with smart lighting. However it is defined, it is the ‘next big thing’ in lighting. But it is so much more than just lighting with smarts… intelligence, communication tools, sensing devices, security aspects including video, and Internet of Everything connectivity. Smart lighting is attracting tech gorillas… think Apple, Cisco, Google, Intel, IBM, Oracle, Qualcomm etc. and new alliances between traditional lighting manufacturers and the gorillas… most recently GE and Apple, and GE and Qualcomm, both announced at LIGHTFAIR. Interesting, exciting news, but dig deeper… what does it really mean to and for existing lighting distribution? Will there be room in the new equations for distribution? A better question is, how can distribution stay relevant in, and add value to, these new equations? Staying relevant and adding value to both manufacturers and clients will be a continuing theme of my conversations. Don’t hesitate to suggest additional topics and people you’d like to hear from on the topics.

As I plan to do on all the Illumigeddon topics, I’m going to ask people I consider to be industry experts to comment. First, I asked Dr. Robert Karlicek of the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center to explain his vision of Smart Lighting and its potential impact on lighting distribution, and whether smart lighting is a threat, an opportunity, or both for lighting distribution.

Bob’s response:
At the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center, we try to look out 5 to 10 years ahead of where the lighting industry is today to forge new applications for lighting and for lighting enabled systems and services. We are funded by the National Science Foundation to do basic research on the future of advanced lighting systems that likely won’t become products for some time. We are also supported by about 25 lighting companies across the lighting supply chain that work with us to explore new lighting designs, lighting services and control systems for lighting. We define Smart Lighting as an integration of high quality light sources, advanced light sensors, new robotic control architectures and integrated communications systems that will pretty much work by themselves – always giving the consumer the “right light where and when it is needed”. This sounds pretty futuristic, but changes that we see in the lighting industry today are pointing in this direction. The problem is that getting to that future is going to be messy – for the consumer, the lighting design professional, and for lighting manufacturers and distributors.

Today, there are actually two extremely disruptive technologies impacting lighting product development, with the first one being LED lighting technology and the second being the connected “Internet of Things”. The fact that the LED is an easily controlled electronic component means that it can be combined with inexpensive microprocessors, many kinds of sensors and simple wireless communications to offer a dizzying array of new kinds of lighting systems and services. These new systems and services (healthy lighting, lighting based indoor
GPS, color tunable lighting, and many more) are being developed because they are likely important for the future survival of lighting companies – in part because of long LED lifetimes
(in properly designed products) and in part because of what I could call the “battle for the socket”.

Lighting systems are everywhere and they use power. Sensors (for lighting and building control) also need power. So do wireless communications systems. Companies involved in each of these markets want access to the socket (or where the lighting system connects to power, even if it doesn’t have a socket in the traditional sense) for two reasons – to gather data about people and their environment and to deliver new services. Lighting companies understand illumination and see the socket as their pathway to new markets and services revenue – but they don’t really understand sensing, wireless communications, or the Internet of Things. Communications and internet companies (think Cisco, Qualcomm and Google, among many others), don’t really understand lighting, but want the socket for collecting data and providing new services to a wide variety of information consumers.

As in any battle, the battle for the socket will drive the formation of new business alliances, rapid product development, the formation conflicting rules of engagement (call them competing industry standards) and a certain amount of confusion – confusion for everyone involved the lighting supply chain, including the consumer.

In lighting distribution, there will likely be a future, but it will require agility for managing a rapidly changing product mix, learning a new set of technologies to support customers struggling to understand the rapidly evolving lighting ecosystem, and awareness of rapidly changing business alliances, new lighting market entries and new lighting applications beyond the socket.

— Bob Karlicek, Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center

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