LED retrofit lamps meant to replace existing, traditional lamps directly, constitute an important part of the LED lighting market. These lamps differ fundamentally from traditional lamps which are replaced frequently; this is not the case for LED lamps because of their long lifetimes.
Once a traditional lamp is replaced by an LED lamp (i.e. once the socket is “occupied” by an LED lamp) the LED lamp will likely not be replaced when it reaches end-of-life. Instead, the whole fixture or lighting installation will be replaced.
As a consequence, it is crucial for LED lamp suppliers to be the first to “occupy the socket” and we can therefore call the LED lamp business the “race for the socket”.
With the first LED retrofit lamps entering the market circa 2008, this race has been running for about six years now. Looking back at this time period, we see that the race is becoming more competitive due to a number of factors.
Faster pace of developments
The main focus in LED retrofit development is “performance up, cost down”. This focus ensures that, in the end, the vast majority of sockets will be occupied by LED lamps. Performance is mainly characterised by lamp efficacy – each new generation of LED lamps shows reduced power consumption and improved lm/W ratios. Another area of improvement is light quality and, specifically, colour consistency.
The price of LED lamps has fallen substantially over these six years, driven by lower LED chip costs and improved economies of scale. LED chips’ improved efficacy also contributes as fewer LEDs are needed to design LED lamps.
The prices of LED lamps are expected to continue falling, although they may never match the prices of traditional lamps. For the South-African end-user, the price erosion will be slower due to the impact of the exchange rate.
Another development is that LED lamps can replace higher-wattage conventional lamps. Towards the end of 2011, Philips won the L prize in the USA. It was the first company offering a high-performance LED lamp to replace 60 W incandescent lamps. Some two years later, the company introduced an LED lamp able to replace 100 W incandescents. This was possible due to the ever-increasing efficacy of LEDs and to technological advances made in terms of heat management.
LED lamps are also becoming available for replacement of more and more conventional lamps such as mercury vapour, non-integrated compact fluorescent and even T5 narrow diameter fluorescent lamps.
One should, however, be skeptical of some of these developments. One of the advantages of the LED is that it provides directional light so that little light is lost in the reflector. When LEDs are used in lamps to replace 18 or 26 W compact fluorescent lamps, this advantage is forfeited as the light from the LED is lost in the luminaire’s reflector.
A better solution from an efficiency point of view is to replace the entire luminaire with an LED luminaire. Some conventional lamps such as higher-wattage halogen capsule lamps, remain difficult to replace. Developing LED alternatives to these lamps remains a huge challenge due to their very compact sizes.
Another development is the introduction of new technologies aimed at making LED lamps perform at the same levels as traditional lamps. The colour temperature of halogen lamps, for example, is reduced when dimming. This is sometimes used to create a warm, cosy atmosphere. Several manufacturers have LED lamps available which mimic this behaviour (e.g. the Philips Dimtone).
Candle lamps are used for decoration and the sparkling effect they create in chandeliers, for instance, is important. Most LED candles cannot match the effect of incandescent lamps, creating an obstacle to the use of LED candles. Philips’ recently-introduced Diamond Spark LED candle can, however, generate the same sparkling effect as incandescent lamps.
Another LED development is the addition of functionality to these lamps. As LEDs are digital technology, other digital technologies can be integrated with them. An example is the integration of movement sensors, which is now being done with LED tubes.
Another example is the Philips Hue lamp, a colour-changing LED bulb which can be be controlled via smartphone or tablet.
Well-known Asian electronics companies, companies from other industries and hundreds, if not thousands of manufacturers from the Far East are joining established traditional lamp suppliers in this race.
With all these players vying for business, many are tempted to ignore the rules of the game by exaggerating the specifications of their product or by forcing LEDs into applications not suited to them. As a consequence, some end-users become disillusioned with LED technology and this slows down the conversion from traditional lamps.
Suppliers who did not adhere to the rules of the game were abetted by the fact that there were no rules for a long time in the absence of standards for LED lamps. Standards such as IEC 52560 were introduced only recently, and local standards are also on the cards.
These contenders faced some technical obstacles soon after the race started. Issues such as transformer and dimmer compatibility arose. LED lamps (12 V) have integrated circuits and these electronics must be compatible with the existing electronic transformer. Sometimes, “electronics don’t not work with electronics”. LED lamp suppliers have responded by adapting the internal LED driver. The Transformax intelligent circuit used by Philips makes its 12 V lamps compatible with 99% of electronic transformers.
Another compatibility issue, between the LED circuits in both 230 and 12 V LED lamps and existing dimmers for incandescent and halogen lamps, is rather complex and dimmers specifically compatible with LED lamps have become available only recently. It is important to use dimmers recommended by the LED lamp supplier only.
The race is becoming increasingly risky. The very short development cycles do not allow suppliers to conduct the same extensive lifetime testing as that done with traditional lamps, so design flaws will become visible in the field only. This poses a huge risk for suppliers due to the growing volumes. At the same time, growing competition and price erosion force suppliers to look at material costs and product specifications carefully.
Finally, the race is shifting. In the early days, the GU10/GU5.3 sockets for halogen downlights were the main goal. Now that a substantial number of those sockets have been occupied, the race is shifting to the E27/B22 and G12 sockets, so the talk now is of bulbs and tubes. Those are the most relevant categories for Africa and are currently the main “prize” for LED lamp suppliers.
In summary, the race for the socket is fast-paced and very dynamic, offering increasing benefits for end-users and business opportunities for players in the lighting market.