Interviews + Opinion

Cree’s Erik Milz Talks Outdoor Lighting

I recently had the opportunity to interview Erik Milz, VP, Product Management, Cree Lighting on the topic of outdoor lighting for an article I’m writing for the December issue of tED Magazine, the official publication of the NAED. Transcript follows.

DiLouie: How would you characterize demand for commercial sector outdoor lighting?

Milz: Strong, but not without issue. The recovery from 2020 is still underway. Demand is there as businesses continue to convert to LED lighting from old technologies that burned money. But supply chain bottlenecks, shortages of raw materials and components, supplier cost increases, the impact of the pandemic on employees and customers – there’s a lot going on that’s making it a tougher market.

Taking a step back from all that, the LED lighting industry is now mature enough that we’re starting to see early adopters to LED lighting begin to enter the replacement cycle, which also helps drive demand. Add to that pent-up demand from the pandemic, and overall demand is strong.

DiLouie: What are the top trends shaping how outdoor lighting is used, and what effect is this having on demand for specific types of lighting equipment? What are the most popular markets and applications today?

Milz: Aside from conversion to more efficient fixtures, the top trend we see is customers who want their lighting to be easier on the eye. Some of this is from people fed up with harsh, glary light from cheap LED fixtures. Some of this reflects demand from first-time buyers who have learned from others’ mistakes.

There’s also increased concern about skyglow, spill light, and glare. We continue to see demand for lower glare and warmer CCTs, especially in public use spaces, where neighbors are close by and wildlife can be affected. We have a growing ensemble of outdoor products that meet the Florida Fish & Game Commission’s highest standards for “turtle-friendly” illumination, and these have been installed near many turtle nesting sites. While we have seen the trend towards warmer color temperatures gain an increased amount of media coverage, we still see a sizeable portion of our customers buying the cooler CCTs that have dominated in the past. The trend is starting, but it’s not yet a surge.

The other often-discussed trend is in control solutions that are integrated with buildings and campuses and with smart cities. The Smart Cities initiatives are still in their infancy so there’s not a lot of demand yet, especially due to lack of standards. We expect that to change in the coming years.

As far as popular markets and applications, it’s strong across the board. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of activity in petroleum marketers and convenience retail, outdoor retail—which is largely automotive dealerships—and light industrial and warehousing.

DiLouie: What are the top trends in outdoor area luminaire optics, drivers, and LED sources, and what effect is this having on product capabilities and designs?

Milz: The strongest trend remains the demand for more efficiency—fewer watts for the same lumen output. Driver and LED technology improvements are key here, but they’re not nearly enough to win the day. Customers are savvy enough now to look for LED fixture designs that reduce glare, and that employ highly-efficient optics to distribute light with as little loss as possible, and in ways that enable light to be directed exactly—and only—where it is supposed to go.

As mentioned already, customers are more sensitized now to the issues of cheap knockoffs or poorly designed fixtures and have probably experienced “spray and pray” LED lighting schemes. So, they are increasing their demand for LED lighting with reduced glare, a uniform appearance when lit, and smaller LEDs used in higher quantities. As a leading manufacturer, we’re also driving the market toward programmable drivers to optimize lumen packages and add flexibility in production.

The practical limit of increased efficiency will eventually approach the theoretical limit of LED efficiency, but we’re not there yet, and despite impressive gains, the market demand is that same drumbeat—more for less, and improved performance across the board. There’s also more attention being paid to optical control, especially from a visual comfort standpoint – and therefore especially at low mounting heights.

As far as the impact on designs, what you’ll see in our next generation of outdoor products are familiar form factors, for the most part, and similarly improved performance, but we’re tightening up the optical delivery and efficiency and reducing size and weight. It’s proven technology optimized with state-of-the-art engineering and design.

DiLouie: What are the top trends in outdoor area luminaire aesthetics? Is the size of the LED source influencing available options, including even classic designs?

Milz: It sounds funny to say it, but what’s in demand in the Site and Area market are aesthetically pleasing outdoor fixtures that you don’t see. Customers want them to look good, but also to blend into the environment and be almost invisible. That’s part of a general lighting trend toward smaller, low-profile fixtures that deliver light without calling attention to that fact. And yet it’s inevitable that fixtures will sometimes be seen, and sometimes it’s even desirable, so aesthetics are going to play an even larger role—especially as it becomes harder to differentiate on performance and cost.

Using more LEDs for reduced glare is driving the look of outdoor luminaires and opens up the possibility for different form factors. Having said that, most businesses and municipalities tend to stay relatively close to a more traditional look because they’re more accustomed to it.

DiLouie: What are the top trends in how outdoor area luminaires are controlled, and what new capabilities is this offering?

Milz: A 7-pin NEMA socket outfitted with a smart photocontrol is still king. There’s rising interest in other form factors, like Zhaga, but the true demand for such alternatives is yet to be decided. Meanwhile, there are numerous wireless controls options leveraging the NEMA 7-pin socket. But there are no standards as such. And it’s not a VHS versus Betamax situation – there’s no clear performance or market leader. The various players have just decided to move ahead. So, we can look for consolidations and shakeouts in the months to come.

How a customer uses that socket depends on who they are. Utilities are interested in asset management and tracking. Commercial customers are more interested in control and maintenance scheduling and modeling.

Also, there’s increasing integration of wireless controls that enable full control, scheduling and tracking of the luminaire, especially in non-pole mounted fixtures such as parking garages. Customers also want wireless control that allows for integrated management of an entire campus—lighting, HVAC, asset management and so on.

We see more communications/connectivity technologies providing LED lighting-enabled capabilities beyond illumination. Meanwhile, smart cities and smart grids loom as unanswered questions in the background of all this, but without offering clear resolution about dominant standards or proprietary versus open source systems.

DiLouie: What do you see as emerging trends, such as IoT, WiFi, LiFi, and other capabilities going beyond illumination?

Milz: IoT is a key trend in the home, as seen with our Connected Max® lamps line. That uses WiFi and we see that only growing.

Commercial lighting projects still see challenges in the sales process for IoT and intelligent controls. Initial excitement at the proposed capabilities can quickly wane and stakeholders often resist alignment on common goals. As a result, IoT systems and sometimes even control systems get rationalized or reduced in scope. Energy codes, building codes, and rebates are helping to shape demand in these areas.

DiLouie: What’s next for outdoor lighting? What’s the next big thing? Where do you see outdoor lighting’s state of the art in five years?

Milz: Significant research is being conducted to determine the effect of outdoor lighting on people and wildlife. As data is analyzed and interpreted for applications, leading companies in the outdoor lighting industry are poised to incorporate controls and multi-spectral optical systems that either mitigate negative impacts or deliver positive environmental impacts.

When outdoor lighting interacts with, and responds to, our needs and activities with the same degree of personalization that our phones do? That will be the next big thing. Which means greater focus on more and more integrated controls, along with a continued drop in costs, and an attendant rise in the potential for LED-enabled IoT applications.

Lower costs will mostly be achieved through the reduction in fixture sizes. While a positive cost-benefit ratio for CCT-changing LEDs is not yet proven, interest is there.

Finally, the low cost of LEDs means more manufacturers will be able to afford building and shipping products configured for special circumstances and niche markets—a form of bespoke mass production.

DiLouie: How significant is the retrofit opportunity for existing outdoor area lighting systems, including replacement and redesign involving new luminaires?

Milz: Very significant, for several reasons. First, the lighting needs of commercial real estate continue to shift and evolve—often in disruptive, unexpected ways. Just look at the last two years. We’re only now getting a grip on how new public health mandates and trends in personal preferences will affect everything from lighting at restaurants, movies and offices to the increased need for multi-purpose spaces with scene-capable lighting for work, study, relaxation, creativity, and so on. As the market’s needs evolve, we’ll be right there doing our best to guide customers toward smart, sustainable solutions.

The number of businesses that still use older, incumbent lighting technology outdoors is surprising, especially since the payback for outdoor LED solutions is under 2 years and can even be as low as 12 months in certain circumstances. Yet there are still millions of incumbent outdoor fixtures to be replaced. It’s possible that some of the delay has been because early LED lighting was very glary and unpleasant, which left a bad taste for some. We do see customers who are moving from bad lights to our lights out of frustration with their initial LED lighting experience.

The retrofit opportunity is also significant on the other end of that bell curve; that is, in the most highly penetrated segments of the economy, because an ever-increasing number of initial LED installations are nearing the end of their lives. Early adopters who installed these fixtures ten years ago or more are starting to look around. So, the “second round” is coming—the industry’s most experienced buyers will soon be coming back. We don’t know if they’ll be hard to impress, but we’d guess they’ll be looking for both style and substance tied to the best in lean performance.
Finally, the trillion-dollar infrastructure bill may further expand the retrofit opportunity, since some of those funds will go to upgrade roads, bridges, streets, and tunnels with a lot of legacy lighting overdue for retirement.

DiLouie: What are the main attributes of an outdoor area lighting solution that electrical distributors would be looking for? How do they confidently select a quality product?

Milz: Electrical distributors need to offer solutions that are reliable, affordable, and in stock. The best way to keep their shelves stocked with items that meet those demands is to work with a company with deep experience in LED lighting, with a proven track record and a broad product offering.

Drilling a little deeper, the products need to be easy to install and maintain, and from a reputable manufacturer so replacement parts will be available now and for the life cycle of the product. Oh, and fast lead-times. Standards such as DLC are highly leverageable, too, because such certifications are seen as top-shelf “ingredient brands” that spare the buyer the need to do their own legwork.

DiLouie: What can distributors do to ensure they are most competitive in the outdoor area lighting market?

Milz: We encourage distributors to maintain close and frequent interaction with manufacturers. Manufacturers are eager to help you get the right message across to your customers on why better lighting can make a big difference, and better yet, they’ve got the show-and-tell tech to demonstrate it to your customers.

We’d also encourage distributors to move toward supply chain integration with manufacturers to create digital visibility into each other’s data feeds and supply chain. When the manufacturer can see your inventory, you never need to worry about empty shelves. When you can see the manufacturers’, you know in real time exactly what commitments you can make.

DiLouie: If you could tell the entire electrical industry just one thing about LED lighting for outdoor area applications, what would it be?

Milz: Human-centric lighting matters. It’s not about bolting together a bunch of components, it’s about engineering solutions that work best together for superior outcomes for people and animals alike.

LED lighting has the capability to significantly improve our interaction with the outside world; as consumers, we shouldn’t accept anything less.

Cheap does not equate with the best product. Look at the supplier’s history and willingness to stand behind their product—as well as the price—before making your decision.

Incumbent tech is still everywhere and the opportunities for improvements are immediate and “staring you in the face.”


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