Exploring Innovation in Action: The Dimming of the Light Bulb
In the beginning….
God said let there be light. And for a long time this came from a rather primitive but surprisingly effective method – the oil lamp. From the early days of putting simple wicks into congealed animal fats, through candles to more sophisticated oil lamps, people have been using this form of illumination. Archaeologists tell us this goes back at least 40,000 years so there has been plenty of scope for innovation to improve the basic idea! Certainly by the time of the Romans, domestic illumination – albeit with candles – was a well-developed feature of civilised society.
Not a lot changed until the late eighteenth century when the expansion of the mining industry led to experiments with uses for coal gas – one of which was as an alternative source of illumination. One of the pioneers of research in the coal industry – Humphrey Davy – invented the carbon arc lamp and ushered in a new era of safety within the mines, but also opened the door to alternative forms of domestic illumination and the era of gas lighting began.
But it was not until the middle of the following century that researchers began to explore the possibilities of using a new power source and some new physical effects. Experiments by Joseph Swann in England and Moses Farmer in the USA (amongst others) led to the development of a device in which a tiny metal filament enclosed within a glass envelope was heated to incandescence by an electric current. This was the first electric light bulb – and it still bears more than a passing resemblance to the product found hanging from millions of ceilings all around the world.
By 1879 it became clear that there was significant commercial potential in such lighting – not just for domestic use. Two events occurred during that year which were to have far-reaching effects on the emergence of a new industry. The first was that the city of Cleveland – although using a different lamp technology (carbon arc) – introduced the first public street lighting. And the second was that patents were registered for the incandescent filament light bulb by Joseph Swann in England and one Thomas Edison in the USA.
Needless to say the firms involved in gas supply and distribution and the gas lighting industry were not taking the threat from electric light lying down and they responded with a series of improvement innovations which helped retain gas lighting’s popularity for much of the late nineteenth century. Much of what happened over the next 30 years is a good example of what is sometimes called the ‘sailing ship effect’. That is, just as in the shipping world the invention of steam power did not instantly lead to the disappearance of sailing ships but instead triggered a whole series of improvement in that industry, so the gas lighting industry consolidated its position through incremental product and process innovations.
But electric lighting was also improving and the period between 1886 and 1920 saw many important breakthroughs and a host of smaller incremental performance improvements. In a famous and detailed study (carried out by an appropriately named researcher called Bright) there is evidence to show that little improvements in the design of the bulb and in the process for manufacturing it led to a fall in price of over 80% between 1880 and 1896 (A. Bright, The Electric Lamp Industry Technological change and economic development from 1800 to 1947, Macmillan, New York). Examples of such innovations include the use of gas instead of vacuum in the bulb (1913 Langmuir) and the use of tungsten filaments.
Innovation theory teaches us that after an invention there is a period in which all sorts of designs and ideas are thrown around before finally a ‘dominant design’ settles out and the industry begins to mature. So it was with the light bulb; by the 1920s the basic configuration of the product – a tungsten filament inside a glass gas-filled bulb – was established and the industry began to consolidate. It is at this point that the major players with whom we associate the industry – Philips, General Electric (GE), Westinghouse – become established.
Although the industry then entered a period of stability in the marketplace there was still considerable activity in the technology arena. Back in the nineteenth century Henri Becquerel invented the fluorescent lamp and in 1911 Georges Claude invented the neon lamp – both inventions which would have far-reaching effects in terms of the industry and its segmentation into different markets.
The neon lamp started a train of work based on forming different glass tubes into shapes for signs and in filling them with a variety of gases with similar properties to neon but which gave different colours.
The fluorescent tube was first made commercially by Sylvania in the USA in 1938 following extensive development work by both GE and Westinghouse. The technology had a number of important features including low power consumption and long life – factors which led to their widespread use in office and business environments although less so in the home. By the 1990s this product had matured alongside the traditional filament bulb and a range of compact and shaped fittings were available from the major lighting firms.
Meanwhile, in Another Part of the World…
Whilst neon and fluorescent tubes were variations on the same basic theme of lights, a different development began in a totally new sector in the 1960s. In 1962 work on the emerging solid state electronics area led to the discovery of a light emitting diode – LED – a device which would, when a current passed through it, glow in red or green colour. These lights were bright and used little power; they were also part of the emerging trend towards miniaturisation. They quickly became standard features in electronic devices and today the average household will have hundreds of LEDs in orange, green or red to indicate whether devices such as TV sets, mobile phones or electric toothbrushes are on and functioning.
Development and refinement of LEDs took place in a different industry for a different market and in particular one line of work was followed in a small Japanese chemical company supplying LEDs to the major manufacturers like Sony. Nichia Chemical began a programme of work on a type of LED which would emit blue light – something much more difficult to achieve and requiring complex chemistry and careful process control. Eventually they were successful and in 1993 produced a blue LED based on gallium arsenide technology. The firm then committed a major investment to development of both product and process technology, amassing around 300 patents along the way. Their research culminated in the development in 1995 of a white light LED – using the principle that white light is made up of red, green and blue light mixed together.
So what? The significance of Shuji Nakamura’s invention may not be instantly apparent – and for a long time the only products which could be bought utilising it were small high power torches. But think about the significance of this discovery. White LEDs offer the following advantages:
• 85% less power consumption;
• 16 times brighter than normal electric lights;
• tiny size;
• long life – tests suggest the life of an LED could be 100,000 hours (about 11 years);
• can be packaged into different shapes, sizes and arrangements;
• will follow the same economies of scale in manufacturing that led to the continuing fall in the price of electronic components, so and become very cheap very quickly.
If people are offered a low-cost, high-power, flexible source of white light they are likely to adopt it – and for this reason the lighting industry is feeling some sense of threat. The likelihood is that the industry as we know it will be changed dramatically by the emergence of this new light source – and whilst the names may remain the same they will have to pay a high price for licensing the technology. They may try to get around the patents – but with 300 already in place and the experience of the complex chemistry and processing which go into making LEDs, Nichia have a long head start. When Dr Nakamura left Nichia Chemical for a chair at University of California, Santa Barbara, sales of blue LEDs and lasers were bringing the firm more than $200m a year and the technology is estimated to have earned Nichia nearly $2bn.
Things are already starting to happen. Many major cities are now using traffic lights which use the basic technology to make much brighter green and red lights since they have a much longer life than conventional bulbs. One US company, Traffic Technology Inc., has even offered to give away the lights in return for a share of the energy savings the local authority makes! Consumer products like torches are finding their way into shops and online catalogues whilst the automobile industry is looking at the use of LED white light for interior lighting in cars. Major manufacturers such as GE are entering the market and targeting mass markets such as street lighting and domestic applications, a market estimated to be worth $12bn in the USA alone.
Tidd, John Bessant and Joe.Innovation and Entrepreneurship, 2nd Edition. John Wiley & Sons, (UK), 04/2011. <vbk:9781119961987#outline(7.13)>.
(3) Can you map the different kinds of innovation in the case study? Which were incremental and which radical/discontinuous? Why? Give examples to support your answer.
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