(Photo credit: ©Jasper Sanidad Photography / Gensler)
The lighting system Zumtobel developed for Genslerrsquos new office in Oakland Calif took special care with conference room illumination To play in the new lighting market distributors will need to do much more than just warehouse and sell offtheshelf lighting products They will need to understand the relationship between lighting HVAC and other building systems and the control systems that link them

The End of Lighting As We Know It?

April 1, 2016
Wiedenbach-Brown’s Chris Brown likes to stir the pot in the lighting market with his sometimes-controversial posts on what it will take for distributors to survive an onslaught of new lighting technology. He’s at it again in this article.

Last year I introduced a new word — “Illumigeddon,” referring to the end of the traditional lighting industry as we have known it (See “Lighting’s Coming Storm,”  EW, March 2015). Now it’s time to introduce this year’s new word, to better reflect the state of the industry today. Illumigeddon probably started quietly in 1999, when Dr. Roland Haitz and Jeff Tsao presented their white paper on semiconductor lighting. They predicted that with proper funding rapid improvements in brightness were possible that would ultimately create the ideal light source.

Now that we have broad end-user acceptance of solid-state lighting (SSL), what is next? Illumigeddon is so yesterday, and actually even so last month. It literally was last month when Cisco and Philips announced their lighting partnership, and Cisco announced its Digital Ceiling and alliances with a growing number of traditional lighting manufacturers. In my humble opinion, Cisco’s Digital Ceiling and PoE (Power over Ethernet) in general might be the personification of Illumigeddon — truly the end of the traditional lighting industry as we have known it.

Since I get to make up words, here’s my new word for this year — “Illumitunity.” It means amazing new opportunities in lighting. But, and a very, very big but — opportunities for whom?  I’m not convinced that most lighting distributors are prepared or committed to making the emotional and financial investments necessary to transform into 21st century technology and solution providers. And, with the Internet of Everything (IoE), the game changes. Lighting isn’t just about light anymore. Channel players must find ways to provide measurable, appreciable value to the end-user, beyond just providing product.

To succeed in the new world of lighting, Chris Brown says electrical distributors will need to be just as comfortable selling switches and routers and electronics as they are selling lamps and luminaires and lighting controls. (Philips Lighting and RAU-Architecten A’dam/Thomas Rau)

The question is, who plays in the IoE game and who do they play with? What are the rules, hurdles and rewards? And when tech gorillas and lighting manufacturers align, who drives the bus? Lighting has been talked about as the Trojan Horse of the Internet of Everything, because lighting is ubiquitous, it’s connected, and it’s the perfect vehicle for the data-collecting sensors that will drive the Internet of Everything.

The appearance of Cisco as a keynote speaker at last year’s Strategies in Light (SiL) conference was a hint of what was to come. Now Cisco and Philips announce their PoE alliance. Then we hear about the Cisco Digital Ceiling and that Cree, Eaton, Molex, Orion Systems and others are also Cisco Partners. More alliances are sure to come. Here’s the $64,000 question: How will the products and systems developed in these alliances get into the ceiling? Do traditional distributors offer any value in the new selling equation, other than their critical existing customer relationships?

As PoE gains traction with the Digital Ceiling alliances and with startups like Platformatics, NuLeds and Innovative Lighting’s Genisys, how and with whom will the PoE companies come to market? Now, in this new solid-state lighting industry, we are not just selling lumens, but connectivity and sensing devices, accumulating data and needing to analyze it and figure out how to use it. Solar and energy storage and net zero energy are becoming legit contenders for end user attention. Are all the players in the existing lighting food chain nimble enough to maneuver to new 21st century business models to stay relevant and necessary?

Back to PoE for a minute, and the Cisco/Philips alliance and then the Cisco Digital Ceiling and its alliances, and questions about who’s driving the bus. As a lighting distributor now trying to sell not just lumens but also connectivity, have I trained myself, or been trained by my manufacturers, to speak intelligently about the new alliance of lighting and connectivity? Can I sell switches and routers and electronics as comfortably as I now sell lamps and luminaires and lighting controls? If the answer isn’t a resounding “Yes,” I’m going to be in trouble, and I deserve to be. My last resort to ensure I don’t get disintermediated is to become so invaluable to my clients that they must keep me in the selling, service and solutions equation. In this new age of lighting combined with technology, lighting distribution may not be so often disintermediated as simply replaced by the tech gorillas, existing electronics distribution partners and VARs (value-added resellers). It’s one more worry to keep lighting distributors awake at night.

State-of-the-art lighting systems blend daylighting with lighting color, and change that color with the time of the day. (Philips Lighting and RAU-Architecten A’dam/Thomas Rau)

Earlier I said lighting isn’t just about light anymore, but fundamentally it will always be about light, and about quality of light and benefits of good and great lighting. We can’t let the market forget that. Illumitunity is reserved for the brave, the risk takers, the innovators, the aware, the thinkers, the doers. Twenty-first century businesses that run like they were run way back in the 20th century are likely to be out of business already, they just don’t know it yet. At the recent Strategies in Light Investment Forum, leading lighting industry analyst Jed Dorscheimer of Canaccord Genuity, said, “Things are not okay in this industry, they’re ugly. The traditional lighting business will go the way of the dinosaurs.”

If you want an example of the type of dramatic changes we may see, think of the traditional lighting distributor whose only business was selling light bulbs. Can you say, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over?”

Finally, as Jack Welch said, “If the rate of change outside is greater than the rate of change inside then the end is near.” For many of us in the traditional lighting industry, I’m afraid the end may be near — unless, folks answer the call of Illumitunity! If they are willing to. If they are able to. If they even want to.

Chris Brown is the CEO of Wiedenbach-Brown, Hawthorne, N.Y. , a provider of lighting and electrical solutions since 1913 and a regular contributor to Bill Attardi’s energywatchnews.com blog. Despite some differences of opinion on where traditional distributors may fit into the lighting market in the future, they usually play nice together and actually get along quite well. You can reach Chris at [email protected].

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