The greatest challenge facing the solid-state lighting industry is not a technology issue, but a public relations one. Simply put, it's a matter of trust. And there is a significant lack of this coming from the design community these days when it comes to some manufacturers of LEDs, who are trying to rebound from the lingering impact that their false product claims and unreliable goods have made in the marketplace.
Certainly, strides have been made by the LED and lighting industry over the past several years to address these issues. Product testing programs, such as the Department of Energy's CALiPER program, are more robust than ever, and industry protocols, such as the Illuminating Engineering Society's technical guidelines LM-79 and LM-80, have been established to describe the photometry method for LED luminaires and define lumen maintenance issues specific to LED sources.
There also has been a steady increase in dialogue. Lighting designers are asking LED manufacturers some hard-hitting technical questions. Burned more than once by these LED products, lighting designers are no longer willing to play the guinea pig. Compounding the technical difficulties, the present economic conditions leave a slim margin for error.
So what can be done to rebuild this trust? First, a new level of transparency must be established in everything related to the creation and use of LEDs—from the manufacturing process to the creation of accurate specifications documents. A new degree of transparency might entail rethinking how to structure product warranties for LEDs and the various components that also go into the total luminaire package. In addition, manufacturers might be well served by inviting designers to see the production process as well as the binning selection process.
In fact, the binning process might be the very key to establishing new quality assurance levels. If there were a grading system for LEDs, designers could decide to use only the highest quality diodes for architectural luminaires. This grading system could be set up to correspond to the needs of both commercial and residential lighting applications.
But how the lighting industry will end up incorporating, managing, and progressing LED technology goes deeper than the problem of a matter of trust between the design community and manufacturers. It's really the influence of one industry (semiconductors) on another (lighting), and how the two can best find common ground. Companies that have, in the past, focused on lamps and luminaires are now figuring out ways to work with companies that specialize in electronics. This is a necessary next step, as lighting moves from an analog to a digital world.
Figuring out how to deal with the pressures of the marketplace is an always-present issue for any manufacturer. At the moment, the lighting community is feeling the heat, positioned as it is between the design community and the semiconductor industry. One cannot just throw another LED fixture into the pantheon of lighting offerings, especially if it is not going to deliver on the need for technical performance and reliability. Designers won't stand for it; manufacturers shouldn't either. The lighting industry needs to keep a vigilant watch on itself and its competitors to avert the danger of “LED washing,” something akin to the “green washing” problems that have beset the green building industry. Building product manufacturers, eager to jump on the sustainability bandwagon, announce that their products have green characteristics or perform to sustainable standards when they don't.
Fortunately, several recent initiatives indicate that the LED industry is trying to steer clear of these pitfalls. One recent positive development is the formation of Zhaga, a group of companies that has assembled to create industry-wide cooperation for the development of standard specifications for LED light engines. The goal is to define standards for the physical parameters as well as the photometric, electric, and thermal characteristics of LED light engines. The companies who founded the group are Acuity Brands Lighting, Cooper, Osram, Panasonic, Philips, Schréder, Toshiba, Trilux, and Zumtobel. The plan is for the Zhaga consortium to expand and include companies from all sectors of the LED industry, including those who manufacture LED luminaires and suppliers of components such as heat sinks and optics. This is a very important step: Lighting designers should see this as a serious commitment on the part of manufacturers to reestablish their good intentions toward the design community and to build the foundation needed to move forward.
But actions speak louder than words. The most important step that the LED and lighting industry can take right now is to present honest, reliable products and information. With a trustworthy foundation, the rest will fall into place.