Product specification has always been a complex process. One of its most challenging aspects is the amount of time that it takes from when a project is initially designed and the product selections are made to when those products are purchased and installed. Depending on myriad factors, that gap can be as short as a few months or as long as years. During that time, product technology can evolve significantly.

This is happening more than ever, as lighting moves from traditional sources to LEDs. And as a result, it is complicating the specification process in a way that could compromise the designer–client relationship and discourage people from adopting new technology.

How then should the lighting industry approach this issue, in which multiple systems are at play and trying to catch up to one another? First let’s start with luminaires and related lighting components. Not so long ago, manufacturers could issue lamp and ballast catalogs knowing they would remain relevant longer than a single product season. If manufacturers knew they were going to cease making a luminaire or a light source, they had time to announce it to their customers. Today, with so many new companies entering the lighting industry, the main problem isn’t whether a manufacturer will post announcements of product availability, but whether or not the company will even still exist in six months.

As the lighting industry tries to keep pace with the march of technology, do manufacturers need to change the time frame during which they have to guarantee a product’s availability? This is about the short and the long term. Perhaps a new, more-transparent reporting process should be introduced, one that mandates that manufacturers provide quarterly product updates via dedicated areas on their websites. That way, lighting designers could reference these lists on a regular basis and have fair warning if a fixture or a lamp that they have used for some time is on, or at risk of being on, the product endangered species list. This type of information should also be made readily available as part of a manufacturer’s display at major lighting trade shows such as Lightfair, where there is the greatest opportunity for manufacturers to communicate directly with the lighting specifier.

The dilemma of product availability over the long term challenges the fundamental aspects of the design–construction process as currently practiced. If, over the course of a project’s bidding process, it is discovered that a specified product is no longer available or might be taken out of production, the system should allow time for the lighting designer to weigh in on an alternative, instead of the decision defaulting to the contractor or client. And if the ripple effect of the change is significant, shouldn’t the designer, for the sake of the project’s integrity, get a chance to submit a redesign? How you do all of this without affecting the cost of the project and the length of the schedule certainly would not be easy. Still, knowing that there is a time delay between original design concept and completed structure, you’d think there would be greater acknowledgment by all parties involved that the process does not always allow for the latest products—despite everyone’s best efforts.

One thing that might help would be for the industry to set product generation time frames that correlate to the actual purchase and installation date instead of the original specification date. Unlike consumer electronics, where planned obsolescence is an unwritten understanding between consumer and manufacturer, buildings and their systems need to last more than just a few years. If a building owner wishes to switch to a newer generation of products, the manufacturer could offer a replacement incentive in the form of a new purchase discount.

For now, until the industry re-imagines the specification process to match technology cycles, the process must become more transparent. Otherwise, future lighting achievements and solid-state lighting’s continued progress will continue to be at risk.

Elizabeth Donoff