I’m always pushing the frontiers of innovation in architectural lighting and technology systems. Over the course of my career, I’ve had countless projects make it far into design and prototyping that then unfortunately, for one reason or another, never saw the commercial light of day.
Back in 2009-2011, I joined Micron, one of the world’s largest producers of memory chips. Micron was trying to diversify by reusing an enormous mothballed semiconductor fab in Boise and pursued entering the LED lighting market. At the time, their strategy was largely mimicking Cree, pursuing vertical integration from LED die to modules to fixtures. Which is why I joined as a Senior Product Marketing Manager for LED Systems, where I identified new product categories; drove design and prototyping efforts; proved market validity; managed product roadmap for the architectural lines. I also represented Micron in the nascent Zhaga global standards program for LED components and modules.
There were three products I held near and dear that would have been groundbreaking at the time (and frankly, they still might be considered innovative to this day). I had recruited a talented industrial designer to join our team, Aki Hirota, plus engaged Tom Mollnow, my former colleague from Color Kinetics, as a freelance industrial designer. All three of these product ideas got as far as full working prototypes that we took around to test with various customers/partners.
At the time, mid-power white LEDs, driven by the LCD backlighting industry, were just emerging and promised far lower costs than high power white LEDs (which proved utterly true over time). They would allow for grids of small point sources to be used to create smooth, uniform backlighting in shallow depths, a totally new opportunity back in 2009. So taking my previous experience at Color Kinetics, I realized that a white backlight module would be an incredible new product category for luminous architectural features. I conceived of the tiles as basically like Color Kinetics eW Cove Powercore sticks – unitized with cable connectors between tiles for a variety of creative configurations. The killer idea was developing a 45-degree luminous corner out of an injection-molded diffuser: That allowed for seamless tiling with no gaps or shadows with flat, convex or concave curved walls. And amazingly, it allowed for making 90-degree outer corners that also maintained luminosity.
I think the unfortunate reality is that this product was just ahead of its time. Most people had barely heard of LED lighting at the time – much more had any sense of luminous, embedded lighting for architectural features. Light boxes existed, but they were such clunky fluorescent beasts that architects and interior designers could fathom the potential of sleek LED backlighting. I always envisioned this product line would grow to include RGB and different sizes/proportions of modules.
LED Linear Modules
With the cost advantages seen in early mid-power white LEDs and the ceaseless march of improved efficacy, it was obvious that LEDs would quickly take over even linear lighting applications (in 2009 this was obvious for me at least – but the vast majority of industry insiders didn’t accept that yet). When Zhaga launched around that same time, I saw an immediate opportunity for Micron to jump right in and become an industry leader in LED modules by developing a solution for modular linear LED engines.
So we developed a solution with beautiful snap-in LED lamp modules that fitted on socket bases between each module. The sockets would be designed by BJB and be very much like standard fluorescent “tombstones” at the time, with snap-in fittings for sheet metal or extrusions and a push-in wire terminal for the start of the line. We started with 6″ modules, which at the time also had the ground-breaking ability to do gentle radius curves. We also planned for longer 24″ modules. Most amazingly, we designed these modules to be line voltage with integral AC/DC dimmable drivers in each. No driver was required at the fixture level for typical triac dimming.
We took the daring step of giving the design away to the public, by submitting it as a proposed industry standard to the Zhaga group.
I noticed that years later, BJB actually launched a somewhat similar product concept, called their Linear Flat System. But it didn’t matter – most lighting manufacturers only wanted raw PCB boards that were installed into their products in such a manner that precluded any in-field replaceability (see my conclusion below).
We also proposed our own variant of Zhaga standard that Philips had proposed. Philips Lighting at the time had launched an incredibly innovative Philips Fortimo LED Downlight module that included an integral dimmable line-voltage driver in roughly a “hockey puck” size unit, which mounted to a heatsink via an ingenious twist’n’lock ring socket design (which I believe was developed by BJB).
Philips was using a remote phosphor design at the time, but it was obvious that early COB LED engines would allow the same output with a much smaller diameter light emitting surface – which allowed for compact spot optics. We figured out that we could indeed mount narrow-beam optics with a COB engine – plus the AC/DC dimmable driver – within the enclosure envelope of the Fortimo design.
To me, this was a no-brainer – the ultimate easy-to-use modular solution that solved for probably 50% of the entire downlight, trackspot and decorative OEM modules markets. Photometric distribution ranging from lambertian down to ~15 degree spot optics, easily 1,000+ lumen output (even at that time), watts-to-lumens efficacy that beat any other light source at the time, plus integral dimmable driver.
Manufacturers only had to accommodate for a small ~7-8cm diameter heatsink surface and could use an easy premade socket (from BJB, Stucchi or Ideal) with push-in line-voltage electrical connections – almost identical to how classic incandescent fixtures were made. Plus the modules could be as easily field-replaced as any traditional light bulb, making sure the fixtures were durable and maintainable.
Instead of appreciating the simplicity and common sense design of the module, all we heard were complaints that manufacturers wanted everything separate – module, driver, optic. It was foolishness at the time (see my rant below) and in hindsight, the vast majority of architectural lighting manufacturers had no clue how to approach LED lighting or even what fundamental decisions they should have made at the time. Asking them for product feedback was like asking a farmer from the 1800’s for advice on product features for a flying Delorean.
So what happened?
Too often, leading innovation in an industry makes one feel like the mythical Cassandra: Doomed to accurately forecast a future that no one else believes.
The huge application potential for the Tile product came true, but mostly via LED light boxes coming from the signage and expo worlds. Frankly, the Tile product could be launched today (2023 as I write this) and still be considered revolutionary for constructing luminous architectural features, a far better alternative than laser-etched edge-lit acrylic panels.
As for the modules, the Zhaga standardization process ground on for a long time, but it didn’t really matter. Architectural lighting manufacturers of the era stubbornly refused to accept any common sense industry standards like the LED linear or Fortimo puck formats.
The common excuse prevalent at the time was that “the technology was changing too fast” to standardize it. I say: BULLSHIT! All those manufacturers were jealous of the early patent portfolios by companies like Color Kinetics and thought that somehow they could be the next heroes of the industry by developing their own designs.
As the Fortimo example illustrates, basic physical standards had little to do with the lighting technologies inside. The Zhaga/Fortimo puck standard could have been made with incandescent or fluorescent inside – a fact illustrated when I believe a company called Megaman released a fluorescent Fortimo-socket compatible module.
Later, even IKEA created a proprietary module format almost identical in concept.
In reality, in 2009 lighting manufacturers had no idea how to handle rapidly evolving LED technologies and no vision in selecting or even informing hardware platforms. But the technology was too compelling and across the next decade, LED tech progressed so fast that these manufacturers then were trapped in a race with the twin devils of thermal design and cost, which began to dictate all their product decisions. They raced to the bottom of CHEAP, which was only exacerbated when China strategically targeted the LED industry and Chinese manufacturers entered the industry in mass.
So now, two decades later, the lighting industry leaves behind a toxic wasteland of cheap disposal e-waste garbage luminaires with no chance for maintenance or upkeep via even simple physical standard LED engine formats. Which is what has driven me to address radically different sustainable luminaire concepts.
Well, I tried!