Lighting companies would make great drug smugglers

Manufacturers of LED lighting are building up just the right skills to become brilliant drug smugglers

I had one of the most memorable meals of my life a few years back in the company of a group of local lighting manufacturers in Guangzhou, China.

My technical editor at the time, James Hooker, is a vegetarian and the Cantonese were keen not to offend, so they had booked a table at a vegetarian restaurant. But this wasn’t just any vegetarian restaurant – it was one which specialised in ‘mock meat’: beancurd and tofu crafted to look and taste like animal flesh.

It didn’t taste great to be honest, but what impressed was how skilfully the chefs had made the beancurd look like the leg of a duck or a slice of beef. As I recall they even put faux hairs on the pork crackling.

I have been reminded of my meat-mimicking mates a lot recently, as I visited LED projects in stores, hotels, railway stations and even a pub and seen what the lighting industry has come up with: ‘Here’s a row of T8 fluorescent but they’re actually Philips MasterLED! And those ceramic spotlights are actually LED modules designed to look like CDM! These recessed modulars may look like 4x24W fluorescent, but you’ve guessed it, they’re LED too!’

And boy are we getting good at making stuff that looks like other stuff. Toshiba even sells an LED source which mimics a circular T5 fluorescent so closely that it includes the dark patch where the end caps meet!

We’re in the replica business – and we’ve discovered we’re pretty good at it.

The customer, of course, is almost always a willing party in this subterfuge. They are our co-conspirators in an elaborate hoax to fool everybody else that nothing has changed.
What has struck me too while visiting these projects is how often the customer – usually a facilities manager or electrical engineer – says conspiratorially: ‘The LEDs are brilliant. No-one has noticed we’ve replaced the lighting.’

Well why would they? Especially after all the trouble we’ve taken to make them look like other stuff.

Not only are end users keen to not to upset their customers (be they shoppers, diners, rail passengers, teachers or whatever) with racy new form factors but they are especially eager that ‘the management’ doesn’t notice any change in the lighting. They call it ‘preserving the look and feel’ of the space.

So it’s often a conspiracy between the lighting manufacturers and the customers to keep things as they are and smuggle the LEDs into the building as if they are Class A drugs. Design engineers are building up the perfect skillset to become great drug smugglers.

Best of all recently I’ve seen lots of carriage lights lit with LEDs. These are LED luminaires that are copies of traditional lighting luminaire that are in turn copies of gas luminaires from the 1800s.

We bang on about new form factors but given the choice between, say, a standard streetlight and the radically different Cree Aeroblades, customers will often choose the former.

Maybe all this points to an innate British conservatism. I’m not so sure; the lookalike stuff appears pretty popular around the world.

Whatever customers choose, I can’t see them opting for beancurd beef any day soon.


Follow Ray on twitter @raymolony