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Why LEDs Matter

July 1, 2009
The worst of times are sometimes the best time to explore a new market.

An industry friend recently asked me if I ever get bored by “just” writing about the electrical industry. We joked a bit about how articles I had written 20 years ago about some topics such as value-added selling and building customer relationships could probably run again almost unedited because their basic business tenets hadn't changed much.

But he was shocked when I insisted I wasn't bored by covering today's electrical market because I thought right now is one of the most interesting times to be in — and to cover — this industry. If you are a regular reader of EW, you have probably figured out by now that we believe the sale of electrical products for alternative energy applications and the green market is a great sales opportunity by the thousands of barrels of ink we have pumped into articles on photovoltaics, wind energy and energy-efficient lighting retrofits. Any one of these topics gets a good journalist's blood pumping because of all the story lines, but to have all of them as legitimate topics to cover is truly an editorial bonanza.

The sale of LEDs, the topic of this month's cover story, is one of those rare market opportunities that only come along every so often in the electrical industry. As you will read in the article on page 20, LEDs are not a slam dunk (yet) for electrical distributors because right now relatively few applications exist where they pencil out as cost-effective options.

But what mind-blowing potential they have! They can easily last two to three times as long as the lamp technologies they will one day replace, don't emit heat on the workspaces they light and can be programmed by lighting designers with an ever-changing pallet of colors to light building facades, architectural elements, and to set a virtually infinite number of lighting scenes in interior applications.

That's where LEDs are going. As far as market maturity, where they are right now is somewhere between early childhood and puberty. Because they now can cost $100 per fixture for applications now serviced by lamp/fixture combinations easily selling for less than a quarter of that price, their cost must come down. Fixture manufacturers also must learn how to design the fixtures that work best with LEDs, which are very susceptible to heat-related loss of life if their thermals aren't managed properly. Their growth may also be stunted by a flood of inferior product already flooding the market, and the fact that the development of basic lighting performance standards is well underway but not quite complete.

These challenges are all part of the maturation process and are not insurmountable. A senior executive who has survived the lamp wars for 30 years says it's an “exhilarating” time to be in the LED industry because of how quickly the technology is coming along and the opportunities that exist for real growth.

The situation with LEDs reminds me of a day I spent not too long ago with one of my sons watching all of the ship activity in New York Harbor. He reports this month to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in King's Point, N.Y., and I thought it would be worthwhile to take him to the harbor to show him a little bit of the maritime world he would soon enter (we don't see much of it in Kansas).

Standing on the banks of the Hudson River on a beautiful winter morning, we saw boats and ships of all sizes on their appointed missions: passenger ferries scurrying to and from Staten Island and New Jersey; the Circle Line loaded with tourists taking their first trip around Manhattan Island; Coast Guard cutters patrolling the busy waters; and hulking oil tankers docked near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

One ship made a big impression on me. It wasn't some zillionaire's glimmering yacht or a souped-up cigarette boat. It was a cargo barge being slowly guided by a tugboat south past the Statue of Liberty to the open sea. A huge ship, it was obviously designed to weather the storms it might encounter on the North Atlantic and it looked a bit out of its element on this peaceful Sunday morning on the Hudson River, being towed by a small tugboat a fraction of its size.

That ship is a lot like the LED market right now in the electrical business. It's loaded with potential and is ready for big things on the high seas. But right now it's so early in its voyage that it needs to be carefully guided by the early implementers and dreamers in the lighting market. Once the LED market hits the open sea for which it's designed, it will do just fine on its own.