Designer enlightens on collaboration between manufacturers and lighting design community

Oct. 31, 2013
Eoin Billings, director and founding partner of Billings Jackson Design and a speaker at the upcoming Strategies in Light Europe conference, tells Katya Evstratyeva that the foundation of successful lighting involves close cooperation among architects, designers, and lighting manufacturers at every level — from product development to project completion.

Solid-state lighting (SSL) technology continues to steadily penetrate different segments of the general illumination market. The forecasts of different analytical agencies (including Strategies Unlimited) project optimistic growth shares for LED-based lighting in years to come, yet reports from installations projects sometimes bring different viewpoints on the potential as well as the limitations of LED lighting systems.

As multiple replacement products are making their way into existing sockets worldwide and lighting is becoming a material that can be customized to better address customer needs, the collaboration among product manufacturers (LED components, optics, driver technology, and luminaire manufacturers) and design community continues to play a critical role.

To get an insider perspective on how the collaboration can be both enabled and nurtured for Illumination in Focus, we interviewed Eoin Billings, partner of BillingsJackson — an industrial design firm that is known for creating lighting products as well as designing architectural sites — and also a speaker at Strategies in Light Europe (November 19–21, 2013, in Munich, Germany).

Illumination in Focus: What level of development (components, materials vs. luminaires) should lighting designers be involved with?
Eoin Billings: LED is a disruptive technology: Light is now digital with a new horizon of opportunities for function, performance, and control. Manufacturers are unsure about how to exploit these opportunities and are wary of compromising their existing routes to market or seeking new ones, mainly because they don't know what products they should be developing.

Architects and designers should be working together with lighting manufacturers at every level, driving change and giving them the confidence to invest in developing unique products. They should be working from design inception to lighting controls.

The market is looking for efficiencies and it is looking for more environmentally-friendly solutions but these features are not going separate one manufacturer from another. It will not be the lumens per watt or the carbon footprint that wins the contract: Low energy and low carbon will be expected as a minimum.

Instead, differentiation will be based on the nature of the illuminance, the environment it creates, how wellbeing is considered, the level of control, and, importantly, the level of access allowed to control the light. Today's digital generation has very high expectations and, while the lighting industry has not really been under pressure up to now, we can expect increasing impatience with the complexity of building control systems and their inflexibility. There will be a demand for interfaces and light outputs that are as accessible and that can respond as well as our phones or laptops.

This is a new paradigm in lighting design and manufacture. There is a need for a more intuitive approach to development; a wider and deeper approach. Designers are well placed to play a pivotal role in this transition. Manufacturers need to embrace the change and engage more with users and designers can help with this dialogue. Most importantly, designers need to roll their sleeves up and get involved. The wholesale shift to digital represents an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

IIF: Should we expect unorthodox players in lighting that have the potential to accelerate the transition to LEDs, and can you give some examples?
Billings: They are already coming, from several directions. Prime LED technology manufacturers are beginning to appreciate the value of the lighting market, and they are opening up new development directions. Their technology partners further downstream are beginning to follow.

Light is now a digital technology, so software companies will no doubt lead the way in developing new levels and sophistication of control. There are already sophisticated lighting control apps you can download to your phone, and software available on the Internet, etc. More immediately, we can see players like LG and Samsung, for example, becoming forces in lighting.

There are former NASA engineers working on concepts of light that take the medium right back to its source and they are generating ideas that will redefine how light is delivered. It is only the start of a new era.

The Far East has considerable resource and expertise in software and digital technology. There will be new geographies for the market as well as new players. Borders will be broken down.

SSL offers new and exciting opportunities for integrating lighting into ceilings, walls, and furniture, so the manufacturers of these and other building products will assume a new role in the lighting industry dynamic. If it's just seen as a replacement product, we will miss a real opportunity…in particular with OLED, which has a fabulous quality of light.

IIF: Is it tough to convince clients to go for novel approaches, and what percentage of the budget is set aside for lighting?
Billings: It's tough to change an industry standard, but LED is a complete game-changer. In the private sector, there is greater acceptance of new technology but much depends on how a building is being procured, and, importantly, how it is to be sold. Most commercial developments are created to be lettable spaces and so specifications are driven by the real estate agents who advise the developer on the requirements to sell a lease. If the agent is not convinced of the value in LED, the developer will not specify. Innovation is stifled by the procurement method.

Normally buildings in Europe use 2% of the build cost as a guide for the lighting budget. With new technologies this has to change and life costs must be taken into account. It is tough for an architectural team to push this type of change through.

On major infrastructure projects, change is also difficult. On Crossrail we spent quite a bit of time educating the team on how LED is changing the industry, and one interesting outcome came from the tunneling team. They had studied the subject and wanted to try an LED solution. In their work they expected to have to apply for a major budget change to specify LED. But as they went deeper, they realized that the lower demand on copper in the supply cables meant the LED solution was cheaper than a fluorescent option. New technology requires new thinking, and wider study beyond the fitting itself.

IIF: Standardization could impede innovation. What kind of standards should and should not be implemented?
Billings: Standards are important, naturally: They provide an essential platform on which to base lighting specifications and surety for clients.

There is no reason why they need to be restrictive. LED is capable of providing myriad products, innovative or otherwise, based on a few standardized variables (controls, light engines, drivers).

The danger is that we develop standards based on old lighting technology. This has the potential to be unnecessarily restrictive. We see LED products that are a certain size or shape simply because they used to house a fluorescent tube of a certain length, for example.

In partnership with other players in the building industry (ceiling manufacturers, etc.) we need to get away from this and develop standards which will allow us to exploit LED to its fullest potential.

IIF: Where is collaboration happening most and where is it happening least? Any suggestions about how we improve collaboration between manufacturers and architects / designers?
Billings: Collaboration is happening between manufacturers and suppliers to the building industry, not least because it offers new and more secure routes to market.

We can see already new products from building suppliers who are working with lighting manufacturers to integrate lighting and control into their products to deliver new functionality and reduce install times.

Collaboration with manufacturers from the design/architecture community is not so strong, but it needs to be. This lies at the heart of our central tenet: Lighting manufacturers need to be informed of what is desirable/practical/specifiable from the architecture end of the industry. Architects and designers, in turn, need themselves to be informed by manufacturers as to the art of the possible, the technically and commercially feasible.

BJD's business model is based on catalyzing knowledge transfer between architects, designers, and manufacturers. We have been very successful in doing that, and maybe our success will encourage others to work the same way.

Innovation requires investment. Manufacturers bear most of the cost and risk associated with new product development and they are savvy about the role of IP in facilitating their investment and minimizing their risk.

Knowledge and understanding of how you can use IP as a strategic tool to build and exploit partnerships with manufacturers is not widespread within the building industry downstream. This presents a real problem, a big challenge but also a great opportunity to improve the industry's innovative capacity.

IIF: The creative process… Do you start with new materials and see what you can do with them, or start with an idea and look for the right materials?

The point of what we have said above is that manufacturers can inform architects and vice versa. Technology push and market pull.

It's a fluid process which should be acting simultaneously from both ends. The 15th-century Venetians (Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael) who, incidentally developed the first official system of IP, called it a process of "mutual enrichment." They were pretty good.

IIF: Geographical preferences for light: Are there differences, and who is leading the way?
Billings: Depends on what you mean by leadership. The changes are so fundamental in the field that every nation is being affected in different ways.

Is it leadership in terms of creativity, technology, or carbon emissions? Or leadership in terms of sales and distribution or brand strength? Or is it leader in terms of potential? In such a fast-changing area, I would say the leaders are those with the greatest potential, not the strongest balance sheet. If you have a good balance sheet, you are probably not investing enough. Those charging ahead with the technology development are the leaders in our eyes.

Geographically I would head "upstream" where are the latest solid-state technologies are being born. Generally that means East. If manufacturers such as Samsung and LG were to direct more of their attention to lighting (at present they focus on screens), we would experience a massive shift.

Closer to home, creative leadership resides in UK.

IIF: Role of government: Should LEDs be subsidized?
Billings: That’s a matter for government. If subsidizing the use of LED can be shown to be beneficial in terms of saving energy, natural resources, and money, then governments may wish to make the political decision to subsidize it.

There is no commercial imperative to subsidize LED: The technology can fight (and win) its corner in the marketplace without the help of government. Ultimately, markets decide what will and won't succeed. Every example of government intervention to try and buck that fact has ended in failure.

In China, the use of energy is the top domestic political priority so it's not surprising that they subsidize LED (it is, of course, in itself a big opportunity for China commercially).

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