By Jerry Plank
Many of us old-timers can remember seeing the pachyderms at the circus rising up on each other’s backs while walking around one of the three rings. The sheer size of the animals was inspiring and was sure to bring a smile to everyone young and old. The idea of a circus is now a thing of the past, but the “elephant in the room” metaphor lives on. What elephant is currently in the room? The realization that global supply chains increase the complexity of manufacturing, and the interdependence of nations increases the likelihood of a systemic failure with catastrophic consequences to profits. The report published in 2013 by Messrs. Costinot, Vogel and Yang titled An Elementary Theory of Global Supply Chains goes into great detail about how a global system of production can fail depending on how each link in the chain supports the final goal.
The COVID pandemic has exposed how multiple breaks in the global supply chain can have catastrophic consequences when nations become interdependent. With regards to product safety, the ramifications of global trade become even more precarious. Case in point has to do with critical components that cannot be easily or safely substituted due to the increased risk of fire and/or electrical shock or performance issues.
IF WE LOOK TO THE PAST, fluorescent lamp ballasts were easy to replace with products from multiple manufacturers, as the typical architecture of the circuits delivered similar outputs. For safety, all but reactor ballasts were categorized as Class P (thermally protected), as any short in the insulation system or circuit would trip a resettable overload protector to prevent fires and/or electrical shocks.
Further, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) published standards for fluorescent and then later for HID lamps and ballasts, which standardized operating ratings such that substitutions could be made easily, usually without changing normal operation regardless of the manufacturer of the components and lamps. Generally, using a different fluorescent Class P ballast would not require any further testing, however, HID ballasts had temperature codes and should the replacement HID ballast have a higher temperature code, a temperature test would be required to ensure that the insulation system and adjacent combustible materials would not ignite.
As the supply chain gets constricted, however, LED drivers and the like have not been standardized by architecture types. As an example, architecture types could be created for different power levels, series or parallel circuits, maximum operating temperature, and for intelligent drivers that provide overload protection, if any, for circuitry that will protect the device from an overload, preventing a fire and/or electrical shock. While some Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratories (NRTL) have programs to emulate the fluorescent Class P programs, substituting on the fly is still not possible at the factory level without NRTL involvement.
LEDs and arrays are not so simple to categorize, as many incorporate proprietary shapes and optics, unlike the legacy lamps previously take a concerted effort by the lighting industry to sort out an easy substitution program that is adopted by each of the various NRTLs.
WHILE GOVERNMENTS TRY TO untangle the mess with the global supply chain, it will be the manufacturers who will ultimately coordinate, contemplate and set up ways to adopt systems to allow for easier substitution when supplies become limited. It may also prove viable for lighting manufacturers to explore more in-house capability or rely on sources that are made in the country of origin. If the industry keeps looking for the easy or cheapest way, it will suffer greatly with more fires and electrical shock losses or greater warranty claims due in part to substitutions of critical components that don’t pan out long term.
Until then, fingers will continue to be pointed at no trucks, no drivers, no shipping containers, or whatever deflects the real root causes.