Nov 15, 2015

In his November column, LD+A contributor Don Peifer takes a look how the emergence of solid-state lighting may create a new lexicon of job titles in manufacturing companies—one of which being chief technology officer (CTO). An excerpt follows:

Some years back, the job title of CTO was unheard of. These days—given how much the space has changed—it’s not only more commonplace, but necessary. The story of lighting at least from the perspective of the industry is the story of technology change. There’s an established way. Something comes along creating efficiencies, and there’s a transition. How those technologies are proliferated—the venues, the vessels and the pace of expansion—all create the demands for specialists. Solid-state lighting, due to its esoteric nature and the pace of change, begets CTOs. But what’s that say about what came before it?

Let’s take the fluorescent lamp as an example. From a technical standpoint, it could be argued that fluorescent technology is easily as arcane as SSL with its mercury vapor pressure, emissive coatings, discharge regions, non-elastic collisions of electrons, cathode and anode fall voltages. Truly understanding what is happening “under the hood” requires advanced degrees. So, if it’s not the technology, per se, what else could it be?

As an industry we’re still agonizing over the decision to change sockets. A decade into the commercialization of solid-state lighting and we are still straddling the lamp/fixture gulf. Obvious benefits would come from embracing a system-level approach, but with LED adoption rates still in the single digits, the dangers of high-road thinking are real.

Much of it boils down to an issue of common denominators. Science dictated certain tube/length parameters for fluorescent, and the result was a limited number of options: 15, 20 and 30-W in 18, 25 and 36-in. lengths. The 4-ft-40-W T12 was introduced in the 1940s and became the workhorse for general lighting in commercial applications. There weren’t a lot of options, which, in turn, allowed the technology to become familiar and proliferate.

With LEDs, things are different. Our lowest common denominator—typically a 1-W package—is cobbled together into an application-specific solution. Or, it is set to match the specifications of an already existing technology. All the mechanical, electrical, optical and thermal engineering is ad hoc. It varies. There are no hard standards. We can shape this into millions of different permutations. It’s a moving target against a background that is moving rapidly as well.

Enter the CTO.

Today’s CTOs are compilers. They are hunters—scanning the landscape for and managing the rapid evolution of sympathetic technologies (LEDs, drivers, thermal solutions, phosphors, optics.) Where the scientists at GE were fixated on a single problem, the CTO is managing the miasma of multiple configurations in their product lines. They are dealing with a supply chain that is both rapidly evolving and highly fragmented. They are attempting to look ahead technologically while churning out products that, on a six to 12-month cycle, are in constant danger of obsolescence. Today, a CTO at a relevant, competitive fixture player, it could be argued, has more of an operational role than pure R&D. That is a huge disconnect with the device scientists of yesteryear.

From the perspective of an educational and engineering background, the differences between today’s front office CTOs and the early device scientists behind the curtain of a major manufacturer are imperceptible. With the former, however, there is a new set of compulsory skills needed. The CTOs exist in order to manage details and keep a 30,000-ft perspective on all the technological changes happening in real time. As the marketplace and regulatory agencies rev up the demand for cheaper, faster, better—trying to facilitate new flight speed records–the CTO is working to keep the plane aloft. As such, it is a necessary role.

And, as we continue down paths of increasing specificity—smart lighting, for example—we’ll start to see new roles emerge in lighting companies. We can imagine a time when the About Us section of a company’s website might have the position: Chief Information Officer, Director of Networking, Senior Controls Officer or VP of Privacy. Each, in turn, will manage their specific area of expertise and try to aggregate that into a general business plan. The question becomes whether or not they do that successfully—whether or not they manage the technological transition from the perspective of a lighting person.

What seems to get overlooked during these technological transitions is the quality of the user experience. LEDs have been around for a decade. Performance is amazing; price is good. Yet consumers are still distant. The recent demand for warm-dimming, a somewhat random artifact of incandescent technology should serve as the most recent example/reminder that there is something missing—we’ve lost the thread to quality of light somewhere along the line. Instead of bemoaning the fact, the best strategy may be addressing it head on. Along with the alphabet soup of titles being added to the masthead of lighting companies, maybe we should consider adding titles that address quality. When, we start seeing listings for Director of Lighting Quality, VP of Customer Experience and Chief Lighting Officer we’ll know we’re moving in the right direction.

November 2015


Don Peifer

Don Peifer

Don Peifer is vice president of innovation at Acuity Brands... More info »