For years, executives at Torrance-based LEDtronics Inc. have been banking on a new revolution in lighting that would see their product light-emitting diodes push out the traditional incandescent bulb.
Light-emitting diodes, which use semiconductor chips instead of heat filaments, consume only about 10 percent of the power of an incandescent bulb filament and can last up to 100 times longer, allowing users to save on both energy and maintenance costs.
Until last year, that revolution had been slow in coming, as the diodes were too weak and cost too much for most people. LEDtronics bided its time, slowly improving its technology and carving out a niche for itself among major industrial customers, chiefly in the aerospace industry.
Then came the state’s power crisis, and suddenly, LEDtronics found itself with a hot commodity. Since last May, LEDtronics’ phone lines have been lit up with companies wanting to find out if they could use light-emitting diodes to reduce their escalating power bills. They were looking for lights that use less energy and last longer.
“A company will call us up and say they want a 60-watt or 100-watt incandescent bulb replaced instantaneously, and they ask us how much one of our light-emitting diodes would save,” said President Pervaiz Lodhie, the Pakistani native who started LEDtronics in his garage 18 years ago.
A light-emitting diode replacement for a 60-watt bulb costs about $95, unless it’s a cheaper-to-produce red diode, which only costs about $30. The energy and maintenance savings can be up to $30 or even $40 a year, with the bulbs lasting several years.
Sometimes, LEDtronics has been able to sell a company some of its off-the-shelf bulbs immediately. Sales of these bulbs increased 25 percent in the second half of 2000, compared with the second half of 1999, pushing company revenues past the $19 million mark last year. (The company employs 300 people, 200 at its Torrance plant and another 100 at a plant in Karachi, Pakistan.)
Other times, Lodhie said, a company’s situation is more complicated.
“There’s still a tremendous amount of misunderstanding out there about how lights should be used in the workplace,” he said. “Many times, replacing one type of bulb with another without making changes in the lighting angles and other variables won’t make much of a difference.”
It doesn’t help that, at present, light-emitting diodes while they’ve come a long way from the weak illuminated watches and calculators of a generation ago are still best suited for only limited applications. These include focused lighting on assembly lines, track lighting on theater floors, and outdoor signs and signals.
“Light-emitting diodes have grown into a $3 billion global business, but they still haven’t made their way into general lighting applications in the home and the workplace,” said Bob Steele, director of optoelectronics at the Bay Area high-tech market research firm Strategies Unlimited. “The diodes are still too weak and the costs are too high and will remain so until more technological breakthroughs occur.”
It was only a couple of years ago that the first diode emitting white light came on the market. Prior to that, diodes glowed in a select number of colors, chiefly red, green, blue and orange.
LEDtronics and scores of rival companies like New Jersey-based Dialight Corp. and Boston-based Color Kinetics Inc. are scrambling to develop products for which the technology is suited.
Perhaps the hottest area now is traffic signals, Steele said. The red and green filters on conventional traffic signals screen out much of the light, which means that much of the energy is wasted. Light-emitting diodes emit specific colors and need no such filters.
“You’re seeing red and green LED traffic signals going up all over the place right now, as cities look for any way to cut down on their power costs,” he said.
(Incandescent yellow signal lights don’t lose much of their illumination to filters, and they are sparingly used in the signal cycle, so there is little incentive to change them.)
LEDtronics is now putting the finishing touches on its light-emitting diode traffic signal that it hopes to sell to cities throughout California, as well as to the California Department of Transportation.
In Los Angeles, LEDtronics is hoping to get its foot in the door by replacing the bulbs in many of the illuminated “No Left Turn” signs that were put up along the Wilshire Corridor and in downtown L.A. about seven or eight years ago. Those signs go on during rush hour. LEDtronics is bidding as part of a team to maintain and upgrade the signs.
Department of Transportation officials are evaluating LEDtronics’ signal and will decide in the next few weeks whether to use it or go with a light-emitting diode signal from a rival company. The contract is small ranging anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $150,000, depending on how many bulbs must be replaced. But it could serve as an entree to a much more lucrative multimillion-dollar contract to “relamp” the city’s traffic signals.
Meanwhile, LEDtronics officials have just struck up a partnership with Southern California Edison’s Customer Technology Application Center in Irwindale to display some of its products there.
“It’s definitely a niche type of lighting that many of our customers will have some use for,” said Greg Sharp, an Edison energy consultant to the building and design industries.
In the longer run, Lodhie and other LEDtronics executives have their eyes on the larger commercial and consumer lighting markets. Steele and other lighting industry experts agree that it will be at least four or five years before the strength and price points of light-emitting diodes become competitive with the fluorescent lights that dominate workplaces today.
Lodhie said that despite the power crisis, the biggest savings for companies may not be on the energy side, but rather on the maintenance side.