GE’s Jason Brown on Lighting and the Industrial Internet of Things

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Brown, Manager, Strategic Solutions for Current, powered by GE. The topic: lighting and the Industrial Internet of Things. I’m happy to share his responses with you here. The interview informed an article I wrote for the June issue of ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR.

DiLouie: How do you see lighting fitting into the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)?

Brown: For over a century, lights were isolated devices that served a single purpose. Today, thanks to the Industrial Internet, lighting is becoming essential to the intelligence landscape of enterprises of all types, including retail stores, hospitals, universities, cities and utilities. Few technologies have experienced such a profound transformation after so much time. How we think about lighting has fundamentally changed with the blending of our physical and digital worlds. Suddenly, lighting is considerably more important to how businesses and cities operate in the most efficient manner. Going forward, the focus of industry is on using data to reduce costs and improve services.

DiLouie: With intelligent lighting control, one could argue the Internet of Lighting is already here. How do you see lighting control fitting into the IIoT?

Brown: Intelligent controls are a first step to energy reduction schemes, including simple switching, on/off time schedules, occupancy sensing and daylight harvesting. Many of these controls can also be synced with a building management system to take functionality to the next level. What this provides is a foundation for simple automation that, over time, allows organizations to migrate more cost-effectively to other intelligent systems and IIoT solutions.

DiLouie: What capabilities and benefits will lighting-IIoT integration present that go beyond the capabilities and benefits of today’s advanced lighting control systems?

Brown: Lighting systems embedded with sensors, transmitters and microprocessors offer data-gathering and digital capabilities that controls do not. A street lamp using controls can dim to 60 percent at 6:00 a.m. to save energy, for example. An intelligent street lamp, however, can dim to 60 percent, identify if the roadway needs plowed, monitor congestion and adjust traffic signal timing for optimum flow, scan lanes for stalled vehicles, measure pollen count, and perform a self-diagnostic check, instantly sending data to the cloud where it is accessible to city managers.

Within stores, location-based technology in LED fixtures can give retailers the ability to push targeted offers to shoppers’ smartphones or monitor inventory levels. In manufacturing environments, intelligent high-bay lighting can use its bird’s eye vantage point to track cranes and forklifts or spot foreign objects to reduce accidents and slip-and-fall incidents. Smart LEDs can even sync up the light levels in hospital rooms with patients’ daily care schedules, resetting their circadian rhythms and helping them rest better.

The operational efficiencies and value-added services enabled by sensors, software and machine-to-machine learning will go far beyond the capabilities of even the most advanced lighting control systems.

DiLouie: Not all buildings will require extensive data collection beyond lighting, HVAC and occupancy. Will the IIoT be scalable? Who will own these different levels in terms of collecting and presenting information?

Brown: The IIoT will allow energy solutions tailored to specific needs, whether that’s simple lighting and HVAC control in your local supermarket or miles of connected city street lights. LED lighting will be an entry point for most customers as it puts a highly scalable, intelligent infrastructure in place—one that can evolve over time to offer more beneficial insights and outcomes as learning takes place.

Less clear is who will own and analyze the information that’s collected, but the likely scenario is that the responsibility will be a shared one between the customer and their solution provider, with strategic support from a community of specialized partners. Today, there is no single method or established model for building an intelligent enterprise—it can be what you imagine it to be.

DiLouie: What role will lighting control manufacturers, who already offer management and analysis software, play in IIoT integration? Will they work with or compete with tech giants interested in the IIoT market?

Brown: Manufacturers certainly won’t create all of the solutions. Apple and the iPhone is a great example of this—if we can show what’s possible, we can inspire others to invent their own applications. Partnerships between manufacturers and tech companies are key to making intelligent lighting environments an open platform for innovation. Collaborative relationships will ensure products go to market based on feedback and intimacy with the customer. At Current, our culture is to embrace, test and perfect the brightest ideas, no matter where they originate.

DiLouie: What labor is required for IIoT implementation with LED lighting? What kinds of work can be performed by existing players like electrical contractors, and what new specialized labor will be needed?

Brown: Electrical contractors and technicians have been equipping lamps with electronic devices for quite some time when you consider lighting controls and occupancy sensors. Certainly, they can expect to invest in some new training around installation and network communications, but the basic knowledge and flexibility to troubleshoot, document and commission is already there. Given manufacturers’ focus on integrating intelligent components directly into light fixtures, complexity becomes even less of an issue.

Those looking to embrace IIoT opportunities should also begin to foster a partner network including software and connectivity service providers—specialists who can help you quickly earn the customer’s confidence and solve bigger challenges such as the integration of different IT systems.

It’s likely that many contractors will find greater comfortability with intelligent solutions than first expected, given the number of professionals who already rely on mobile devices and digital tools every day.

DiLouie: Will mass deployment of the IIoT be beneficial or disruptive (or both) to the lighting and electrical industries, and in what ways?

Brown: As more and more devices become connected to the IIoT, it will benefit both industries by opening new revenue streams and inspiring greater collaboration. There will be strong demand not only for intelligent devices and applications, but for the experts who can make sense of them. The possibility that connectivity holds for expanding operations and public services is immense. The Industrial Internet means we are connecting to the things that make our world run, to help them run better, and that’s good business no matter how you approach it.

DiLouie: What might a typical IIoT deployment look like? What systems and components are involved from lighting, control and data collection to owner use and benefit?

Brown: IIoT deployment, as the solutions are so end-user specific, is anything but typical. Solutions are developed to meet the specific application. With that in mind, an ability to be collaborative and customize data collection to drive customer improvements is critical.

For example, a high-rise office building could install intelligent LED lighting, invest in on-site solar power generation, then configure a network of sensors to continually shift energy use to avoid peak grid pricing. In a typical scenario, nodes or sensors integrated inside the light fixtures capture and send data to a wireless gateway, which delivers the data via cellular or Ethernet backhaul to a server (“the cloud”), where it becomes accessible through a Web-based portal or interface, and where software platforms can be leveraged to turn that real-time operational data into insight for better and faster decision-making.

DiLouie: What do electrical contractors need to know today about the IIoT and how it might affect their business?

Brown: There is a recent study by the International Data Corporation that estimates the worldwide market for Internet of Things solutions will grow from about $2 trillion to $7 trillion by 2020. That’s a lot of economic value around smart analytics, and it demonstrates the strong demand for applications that leverage data to increase operational efficiency, drive sales, or shed light on customers’ needs. The transformation won’t happen overnight, but the momentum is unmistakable.

What contractors need to know is that customers are beginning to view lighting and energy as a service, not a product sale, and those who can visualize better outcomes will quickly separate themselves from the competition.

DiLouie: What are lighting and control manufacturers doing right now to prepare for and ideally play a part in the IIoT?

Brown: At Current, we’ve been incubating several other areas of our business, including solar power, on-site power generation, energy storage systems and electric vehicle charging solutions. Through LED lighting and the software to manage it, we will deliver an infrastructure for intelligence that enables customers to reduce their energy spending with the help of renewable resources and other technologies. Taking a holistic approach allows Current to engineer solutions that not only change the way our customers use energy, but also when and where they get it.

DiLouie: If you could tell the entire electrical industry just one thing about the IIoT, what would it be?

Brown: To dream big. The new energy landscape will favor bold solutions. Explore your ideas and accept risk. Partner with others who share your commitment to learning and understand anything is possible if you can imagine it—that the world changes one ‘light bulb’ moment at a time.

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