New technologies have transformed both the marketplace for lighting products and the factories behind them. Manufacturers, large and small, have retooled their operations, hired new staff, and changed their workflow in response to changing demands, both real and anticipated. Two major shifts in particular have rocked the lighting industry over the past decade. The first is the rise of solid-state lighting (SSL), which relies more heavily on electronics than do legacy sources. The second is the advent of digital manufacturing techniques. It’s no coincidence that the age of the LED is also the age of CNC milling and 3D printing. “The process couldn’t be any more different,” says Joe Cenin, supply chain general manager of GE Lighting. “There’s been a significant shift in technology, mindset, and skills.”
Retooling for an LED World
Lighting companies have been formed to operate specifically within this new technological and market context. For example, Montreal-based Lumenpulse was founded in 2006 as a “pure-play LED company, with no baggage to manage the transition from traditional sources,” says Greg Campbell, the company’s senior vice president and chief technology officer. What differentiates LED manufacturing, he says, is a dependence on electronics, including circuit boards, microcontrollers, and software; these components add new complexities to the supply chain and the assembly process.
Longstanding legacy companies have been faced with a choice: Modernize or become obsolete. Edison Price Lighting, a family-owned design and manufacturing firm founded in 1952 by lighting pioneer and inventor Edison Price, chose to revamp its production techniques. In the mid-2000s, the company, based in Long Island City, N.Y., began to retrofit its “work cells,” or product areas on the factory floor, says George Closs, executive vice president for engineering and operations at Edison Price. These updates have allowed the company to develop new LED luminaires while also making LED versions of their existing incandescent, fluorescent, and halogen fixtures, many of which have become industry standards.
The gamble on LED technology was made even more risky because of its timing—the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 had just begun cutting into overall business. “I made a decision that we would go for it on the LED front and revamp our whole factory,” says company owner Emma Price. “Getting through a recession is hard enough, and switching over your company is hard enough. Doing them at the same time is really stressful.”
But the investment proved to be a smart move. By 2013, as LED orders were eclipsing sales of other luminaire types, Edison Price had dedicated 75 percent of their total production area to LED fixtures. “We made a clean slate and started totally from scratch on the shop floor,” Closs says.
Changes On the Factory Floor
In the past, lighting manufacturers used hard tool and die sets, with punch and brake presses specifically designed for each given product. But in 2009, Edison Price bought its first fully automatic CNC punching center, an enormous machine that can punch patterns into sheet metal all day and night, unattended. To this, the company added other digitally controlled tools: a vertical machining center, a turning center, a press brake, and a laser fabrication center. In a typical workday, technicians circulate among the different machines, monitoring or adjusting them as needed.
The CNC tools aren’t inexpensive, but they afford a flexibility that was previously inconceivable. Edison Price, which assembles luminaires to order—no inventory sits on shelves—can now update a product line without building a new set of hard tooling. Instead, they simply update a virtual model in Solidworks 3D CAD, which sends the new instructions directly to the CNC fabrication machines. But that doesn’t mean carte blanche for the company’s design and engineering team, which is made up of 11 of the company’s total staff of 85.
“We don’t just think up a product and build it,” says Richard Shaver, executive vice president of research and development at Edison Price. The design engineers still work with colleagues in sales, manufacturing, and sourcing to develop products grounded in the realities of both the market and the factory floor. “A lot of it is understanding what the factory can do and can’t do,” Shaver says.
Kelley Brooks, advanced manufacturing leader at GE Lighting, describes a reversal between the custom and generic aspects of production. Lighting manufacturers formerly used “completely custom-built equipment to make a relatively generic product,” he says. “Now, the equipment is much more generic—press brakes, presses, paint systems, plastic injection molding—but it enables us to make various iterations or customize a product.” A modern lighting factory must be able to meet the demands of today—and tomorrow.
CNC equipment may not always be the right choice for a high-volume product, Brooks says. He cites the case of an indoor pendant in which the first iteration was manufactured in CNC turret presses and press brakes. For the fixture’s second generation, GE simplified its geometry while improving its performance. Anticipating higher sales volume, they moved to hard-press tooling. “The projected volumes are important to us in deciding how to make a given part,” Brooks says.
Similarly, Edison Price has maintained its traditional punch presses for making legacy parts that do not need to change, such as junction boxes and mounting brackets.
Not all lighting manufacturers, however, have had to start from scratch to integrate new technology. Bartco Lighting, a family-owned designer and fabricator of linear fixtures based in Huntington Beach, Calif., has been using CNC tools since its founding in 1995. The company’s sheet-forming and extrusion techniques haven’t changed significantly in the past two decades, despite the increasing number of LED fixtures that they produce, says Dennis McKee, Bartco’s vice president of special projects and corporate affairs.
Early-generation LEDs were so large and ungainly that the company developed proprietary LED boards and driver components to work with their fixtures. But the newer, smaller LED components on the market today are similar to a fluorescent ballast in terms of profile and footprint, McKee says, and can fit more easily within the company’s sleek fixture designs. “There is a little more interchangeability now,” he says.
Although manufacturing is increasingly mediated by computers and robots, workers still have to be highly trained. “Every piece of that LED fixture today requires a little bit different knowledge: benders, brakes, tooling to punch it out, or sophisticated, automated painting equipment,” GE Lighting’s Cenin says. “Instead of a highly automated machine run by a mechanic, there are a lot of different skills involved.”
Advances in Assembly
As the processes of forming and punching metal have become automated, assembly—the final step of manufacturing—has become more intricate. This largely results from the increasingly sophisticated electronics that make up LEDs. Unlike the days of manufacturing legacy light sources, in which vendor-supplied ballasts or sockets could be popped into a freshly formed piece of metal, workers at Hubbell Lighting’s assembly facilities, for example, now populate circuit boards using a surface mount machine, and check the final color temperature and output with spectrometers and power meters—“things we never used to worry about,” says Steve Arriola, director of operations for the Greenville, S.C–based company. “As far as assembly methods, we were more of an electrical company before. Now we’re more of an electronics company.”
And manual labor still plays a bigger role than meets the eye. The dexterity required to assemble electronics, which can involve many small parts, should not be underestimated. “We found that we needed to hire skilled labor, where they had experience with electronics manufacturing,” Arriola says.
As the assembly process for light fixtures becomes more like that for cellphones and televisions, the path to obsolescence is also shorter. “A product might get changed after five or six months,” Arriola says. “The technology is just much quicker.” Drivers that are more programmable and LEDs with higher efficiencies rapidly translate into more advanced luminaires.
Lumenpulse, in contrast to a company like Hubbell, doesn’t manufacture its drivers’ electronics—or even its own metal or plastic components. But Campbell says that his company is nevertheless modeled on the electronics industry in the sense that “we are a finished goods assembly house.” Many of the electronics in a luminaire are not unique to the lighting industry. “We’re buying components that are also used in automobiles and medical equipment,” he says. Foregoing vertical integration, the company sources its components from outside vendors and completes final assembly at its facilities.
Sourcing electronics externally can pose logistical challenges, Campbell says. Customers expect orders to ship within two to six weeks, but it may take up to 26 weeks to obtain a shipment of semiconductors from a vendor. Even the most efficient assembly facility will stand still if the components don’t arrive in time. So Lumenpulse has to forecast what components it will need months in advance. At the same time, the company wants to maintain a flexible, demand-driven approach to manufacturing. To reconcile these competing factors, Lumenpulse designs parts that can be used in different combinations, in different products, to meet customer demands. The more universal the parts, the more the company can streamline its sourcing and avoid either a shortage or a backlog of specialized parts.
Like a computer manufacturer—think Dell or Samsung—Lumenpulse offers a number of options that can be customized in a product: fixture configuration, color temperature, optics, controller specifications, and others. The luminaire is therefore conceived not as an inviolable whole, but as part of an ever-changing family of related products that share common components.
3D Printing and Prototyping
The necessity to design universal parts runs counter to another increasingly common technology: 3D printing. Additive manufacturing techniques are yielding interesting luminaires and lighting systems, but in the world of high-volume manufacturing, they are mostly relegated to the limited, albeit important, role of prototyping. “A picture’s worth a thousand words, but the real object is worth a thousand pictures,” GE Lighting’s Brooks says. “I can immediately start looking at how will this go together, what would it look like, and what would I do differently from a manufacturing standpoint.”
Edison Price uses the technology in much the same way. Its research and development department makes experimental parts “almost every morning” using both 3D printing and CNC machines, Closs says.
As for the next innovation in lighting production, several manufacturers predict that the most significant changes will arrive in the form of more sophisticated ways for users to control output. This could include dimming, color changing, and integration with computers and apps, Closs says. On May 14, as part of a neighborhood arts festival, Edison Price will be opening a gallery in its New York factory where they can show customers how different fixtures can create different effects, while displaying the work of local artists.
Meanwhile, Hubbell’s Arriola looks forward to a simulation software that will allow customers to test their desired specifications and receive custom-tailored products from the factory.
While many of today’s successful lighting manufacturers enjoy a long and rich history, none of them can afford to be nostalgic. “Nobody cares that much for the history,” Emma Price says. “What people want to know is what you can do for them right now.” Consequently, she says, what is worth preserving is “the integrity of the product.”