Controlling Light at LightFair

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LightFairOver the past week we’ve spoken to a number of distributors, reps and manufacturers who attended LightFair.  From listening to all it appears that LightFair, which euphemistically was called LEDFair a few years ago by many when LEDs first started entering the market has completed the lighting evolution as essentially all booths were focused on LEDs.  This year’s show, according to many, could have been called ControlFair as lighting controls and connectivity were the topics of the moment.

We’ve solicited input from a few people who attended and are sharing their observations:

First, this year it should have been called “

Connected LightFair”. Connectivity was the topic/product that manufacturers wanted to discuss. You had residential interior systems, commercial interior systems, commercial exterior systems, commercial interior and exterior systems and a variety of street/area lighting systems. Many of them are branded (Acuity’s A Plus springs to mind) and seem to focus on providing a brand specific solution. Some of them are 3rd party systems that say they will work with any/most fixture set-ups. Some, notably those for street lighting, are compatible with many/most products but may lock you into a proprietary software system. 

All-in-all, it was fascinating, illustrative and confusing. Many of the systems are feature rich and provide the user a slew of data and (usually) and easily understood and usable interface. These systems represent a significant step forward, but there are still a lot of questions. The DOE even did a presentation that was focused on “the growing threat of turf wars are creating a barrier to the development and deployment of connected lighting…..”. So, clearly, the proliferation of brands, systems, and technology is confusing more than just me. 

No one I spoke to had a clear idea of how this was going to shake-out, mostly because there isn’t a clear market force that will drive change. For lighting, ENERGY STAR and DLC are the de-factor standard setters and while DLC has a connected lighting program, it is broad enough to allow multiple competing technologies and seems to lack the market influence its SSL qualified product list has.

Second, this was the year of the off-shore manufacturer! I don’t go to LFI every year, but this year there were far more off-shore manufacturers than I have ever seen. I spent the better part of a day meeting many of them, and they fall into one of three areas: has on-shore sales and infrastructure but is looking to grow/expand; has on-shore sales but no on-shore infrastructure (warehouse, distribution, complete sales force); and, has no on-shore sales or infrastructure but are looking to enter the US market. These firms generally have similar products – edge lighting panels, troffers, TLEDs, a variety of lamps – and are competing on price. They have gotten their DLC or ENERGY STAR qualification, so they meet the general market specs. The firms in one of the two latter camps were actively searching for manufacturer reps; sales support; and/or, distributors. But, many of them said they are looking to actively bypass the existing distributor system because it is so hard to penetrate. They cited on-line sales and direct sales as their primary tactics to gain a foothold in the US. 

Finally, there were – as always – a lot of innovative and interesting products. There were several there that focused on human health/response to lighting. These were, to me, fascinating, as they are designed for workspaces and make almost overt claims about productivity (using words like awake, alert, focused). I wonder, will this bring the FDA sniffing around about these claims?

  • Rick Regan is president of Lights Go!, a distributor in Raleigh, NC

Maybe it was just me that felt flat and uninspired last week at Lighfair. In my previous post I had commented that I was expecting to be amazed by “over the horizon” wizardry and innovation. But what I saw were some really nice LED fixtures, lamps and networked systems. Not much wizardry.

There were highlights and Rick’s Award winners though and we will get to that.

In many ways though it was lighting business as usual. I met with manufacturers who were looking for reps. I met with reps who are disappointed at distribution for not “selling harder.” And I met with distributors who are trying to balance what the customers are asking for and what the manufacturers are pushing.

This morning the always-useful ElectricalTrends column showed up in my inbox. David Gordon wrote about the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED) annual meeting in Boston earlier this month. You can & should read the whole thing here but in it he notes:

  • Historically the meeting has been referred to as a “top-to-top” meeting with senior manufacturer and distributor meeting getting together with manufacturers “sharing their vision”, “reinforcing their commitment” to the channel/specific distributors and seeking to “strengthen relationships”. All noble causes.
  • Some insights: The energy of the meeting, according to a number of people during the meeting and afterwards, was “okay.” Not as energetic, upbeat and optimistic as the regionals (meetings) earlier in the year.

(from ElectricalTrends.com May 15, 2017 – note: emphasis mine /Rick)

That’s about how I would put Lightfair this year: not as energetic. Some booths had teams that seemed to be mailing-it-in. Others had unclear messaging about what they were all about, which contrasts with past years where booths had messaging that was challenging to the point of abrasive. I did not sense any feeling of revolution or barbarians-at-the-gates. There were newcomers to be sure but in my head was a long list of no-shows. Of course the Big Guys were there and showing off the latest and greatest but nothing seemed very far different than what we saw last year in San Diego.

One thing is resolved though:

the networking platforms will be ZigBee/Zwave (900MHz) to BlueTooth to WiFi/Ethernet TCP/IP to the Cloud. (and Amazon seems to be winning the Cloud)

Over the last several years manufacturers have been wrangling to figure out how/if to add communication layers to their products and I think now the matter is settled. For room-and-zone level, the 900Mhz is solid and reliable. For apps to talk to fixtures and gateways: BlueTooth. And WiFi/Ethernet to move data up/down to the BMS/cloud. DMX is not dead but seems to live only in the entertainment lighting space.

So who was there:
The Big Three Awards:

Rick’s 2017 Grand Champion Award for Outstanding Technology:

Enlighted: for their IoT-to-Cloud platform that is designed to be robust, secure, flexible, scalable and powerful. That’s a lot. Their platform is not designed as a “lighting” technology but understanding devices like lights to be the front end of a cloud system that can ultimately use Artificial Intelligence to deliver actionable information about maintenance, service issues, traffic, hazardous conditions and so much more.

Think of Star Trek when the Captain shouts at the ceiling:

“Computer, what is the percent of oxygen in the atmosphere on the planet below us? Can it support human life?”

“Yes, captain. I detect towns and cities below and I have I identified one that looks to be the capital.”

“Computer! Beam me down!”

“Yes, captain.”

– it’s that kind of stuff, but real.

Rick’s “Best Booth of 2017” Award:

Maxlite: broad array of products, helpful & friendly booth staff and fun booth. Good job, ladies & fellows!

Rick’s “Best Show Catalog” Award:

AlumiLux: very stylish LED fixtures with sleek, minimalist style in a beautiful compact book.

And the rest of the somewhat dubious award categories:

Rick’s “Milled from Billet” Award: Hevi-Lite: outdoor fixtures machined from blocks of metal. These are more than fixtures, these are light machines.

Rick’s “This is how you do it!” Award: LumenPulse for their LumenTalk system of data-over-powerline controls. They understand that nobody needs to re-invent the wheel but they put some really good technology together to make smart, flexible lighting systems that leverage what is already in place. And yes, they support DMX.

Rick’s “This is supposed to be Fun!” Award: Spectrum Lighting for their colorful fixtures with whimsical flair. I like ‘em. And cool booth staff.

Rick’s “Wow!” Award: BlackJack Lighting: these guys make new kinds of fixtures in new kinds of ways. I was blown away by how the fixture designs really use the LED ability to do totally new things. Take a look. Wow!

Rick’s “Designers’ Dreams” Award: vode: these guys make fixtures so hidden that I often couldn’t figure out where the light was coming from. Designers love to “see the light, not the fixture.” This is them.

Rick’s “Solid Show Performance” Award: DMF: nice products, slick booth and hard working booth staff.

Rick’s “Very Cool Products” Award: Sonneman: very arty LED fixtures that expand what the shape of “sculptural” fixtures can be.

Rick’s “You are over my head, guys.” Award: Petra Systems: showing off fully integrated “smart mesh” solar & lighting systems.

Rick’s “You guys are from Apple, right?” Award for excellent UI: Enno: for their Panno S smart home AppleWorks/Homekit panel

Rick’s “We’re making them but we don’t know why” Award: Crestron: these guys had a great booth and lots of networking and controls products. But I got the feeling they don’t exactly know why people will want all the technology because they are basically fancy switches and dimmers. But it’s OK because they are doing Zwave, BlueTooth & WiFi so they will be ready to connect to the smart world when it shows up. To do… whatever it is that they do…

Rick’s “I still like you guys!” Award: Cree: their stock is getting demolished. Walls Street is calling for Mr. Swoboda’s head. Staff “reductions” and people jumping ship. And yet… Very solid products, very solid booth and a pretty good showing in Philadelphia. However, contrasting it with the last time we were in Philly this felt like a chastened and humbled bunch. But I still like you guys!

Rick’s “All your light bulbs will be mine!” Award: SATCO: along with Feit and Ushio, the message is “Lamps! Lamps! Lamps!” These guys have every style, color shape and base you could ask for, at savage margin prices.

Rick’s “Good to see you guys again!” Award: Verbatim Lighting: leveraging Mitsubishi Chemical’s materials and phosphor prowess, Verbatim continues to introduce well-made, good lighting fixtures. Other companies are gone but VB keeps the light on at Lightfair.

Rick’s “OK, OK already!” Award: Synapse Wireless: clearly Synapse wanted to get a lot of attention this year, so they bought some kind of ad platform for the Lightfair mobile app, which meant that every time I wanted to look at the very useful event appfor a booth location or schedule information, etc. I got a full-screen ad for Synapse that I had to x-out to get to the screen behind it. Every single time. For three days. Too much. Oh yeah, they make IoT hardware gateways and equipment. Looked pretty good.

Rick’s “I’d like to figure out how to work with you guys.” Award: LED Dynamics: the booth wasn’t much and they were stuck in the basement but talking to Bill McGrath, the CTO, and his guys shows how much experience, imagination and relationships are worth in taking on projects. These guys from Vermont have their own lighting think tank. Check em out.

Rick’s “How come I’ve never heard of you guys?” Award: Shanghai Moons’ Automation: these guys now make LED drivers but they are an industrial automation company underneath. Servos, steppers, power supplies, drivers and probably some SCADA-type data collection and alarming software. I had never seen or heard of them but they are here and they are big!

Finally,

Rick’s “It’s all about the babes!” Award: MaxiLume/Elite: Once again, Elite staffed their booth with beautiful young women in tight, low cut dresses. They were beautiful, friendly and very helpful. And they got a lot of attention. But I wouldn’t want my wife to see me in that booth. Lots of nice lighting products too.

There were many other vendors and many other products at LightFair 2017.

Other input we received
  • Spoke to a number of distributors who commented regarding the array of lighting control systems that were displayed.  The word used was “dizzying”.  Some also commented about
    • There is an opportunity within the lighting control space.
    • They questioned their sales organization’s ability to recommend / sell the more advanced applications and features.  This then leaves the question of how manufacturers will go to market with some of their systems.  Will it be a direct sales organization selling the marquee, more sophisticated systems? Will they deploy application specialists and work with distributors (and will they have a selective or saturation strategy), leaving them bidding for the equipment sale (at lower margins and without the ability to profit from the software / subscription / data analysis sale)?
    • How can they train their salespeople to think in terms of customer business challenges that lighting control systems can support (or new value-added services customers can offer) rather than “selling them a lighting control system.”
  • There were also a number of manufacturer reps (NEMRA reps) at LightFair which highlights that the lighting business is no longer the sole domain of lighting agents.
  • Manufacturers expect LED pricing to continue to erode
  • Lot’s of “cheap” product still flooding the market.
  • The IoT Ready Alliance was launched.  Good concept. Question becomes “can a band of small manufacturers develop a standard or will it continue to be a battle of proprietary systems?”
  • Current (GE Lighting) appears to want to be a platform company, not a lighting company.  More focused on providing connectivity for other services versus focused on lighting.
  • Philips appears to be evolving their business model with a segment moving to a monthly fee to “manage” lighting systems rather than customers paying for the initial installation.  This begs the question of “how will distributors be involved?” Will a Philips distributor generate ongoing revenue or is this a Philips sale?

And reportedly many had blisters from all of the walking!

If you attended LightFair, or others from your company attended, what was your / their observations?

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