LED light bulb manufacturers diversify to find sustainable profits

Article By : Brian Dipert

The LED market abhors a demand vacuum, and form factors and functions are proliferating in response.

Back in September 2016, EDN published my teardown of an A19 60W-equivalent LED light bulb that had prematurely failed (also see Martin Rowe’s subsequent teardown, prompted by a similarly untimely demise). As a precursor to the dissection details, I quoted a couple of then-lowest LED light bulb prices I’d found, for various form factors and features:

  • Six 9W (60W equivalent) A19s for $10 [$1.67/bulb]
  • 10 10.5W (65W equivalent) BR30s for either $29.99 or $32 (color temperature-dependent)

LED light bulb teardown

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, prices have continued to decline since then. Here are a few current A19 60W-equivalent examples I came across in researching this writeup:

Some of this price decline is likely driven by higher consumer demand (therefore higher manufacturing volumes) over the last ~3 years, leading to volume cost efficiencies that manufacturers are able to pass along to consumers as price decreases. And some of it is inevitably the result of ongoing “corner cutting” in terms of the quality of the components used to build the bulb, the means of assembling and testing (or not) the bulb, the robustness (or not) of the bulb’s heat dissipation capabilities, etc … unfortunately translating into an increasing likelihood of premature failure such as that which both Martin and I experienced.

To wit, while researching this piece, I found a notable price discrepancy between “brand name” and “generic” LED light bulbs of similar specifications. I’d wager that at least some of this price disparity translates into quality (therefore reliability) differences. “You get what you pay for,” as the saying goes, or if you prefer, “don’t be penny-wise, pound-foolish.”

With that said, brand-driven perception advantages generally tend to diminish over time, as Ford, Honda, and Kraft Heinz are now finding out (although the concept admittedly still seems to be working out well for Duracell and Energizer), so manufacturers are (or at least should) not be relying solely on them long-term. Companies are also proliferating the foundation LED light technology into a variety of form factor and function variants, such as the examples that follow.

Color temperature differences
I’ve already alluded to this one earlier in this writeup, via a soft light-vs-daylight example. LED light bulbs with different color temperature output ranges are priced differently, likely a reflection both of demand variances (therefore volume cost efficiency differences) and differing consumer preferences (“price a product based on its perceived value to the customer, not based on what the product costs”).

Full-color output
As recent teardowns of mine exemplify, multi-color LED clusters are increasingly capable of outputting a complete color spectrum, versus only white light. Witness, for example, bargain site Meh’s recent 2-for-$24 promotion on Merkury Innovations’ 450 lumen bulbs.

Network connectivity
The aforementioned Merkury Innovations bulbs are one example of a burgeoning number and diversity of illumination products that can communicate with other devices over various network protocols. Everything I’ve come across in my research so far is wireless-based: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and/or a more home automation-focused scheme such as Z-Wave or ZigBee. Though I suppose powerline networking is also theoretically feasible (albeit perhaps too bulky from a practical implementation standpoint).

Smart home control
And why would you want your lights to be networked? So that you could control them from afar, of course! At a minimum, it might be desirable to be able to turn them on and off, dim them and change their colors via a dedicated smartphone/tablet app. More elaborate scenarios involve lighting management via wall switches and/or “smart assistants” (Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, the Google Assistant, and/or IFFTT). In some cases, as with Philips’ Hue system, an intermediary hub is required (four 60W A19 bulbs plus a hub for $89.99, for example). In other cases, as with TP-Link’s 800 lumen bulbs (two for $37.95), Alexa cognizance is built in.

Philips Hue
Philips Hue lights can sync with videos and music.

Dimmer switch compatibility
Speaking of dimmers, the most economical LED lights you find tend to be incapable of dimming; on/off is all they know. Dimmable LED light bulbs are pricier, albeit not dramatically so: at the time I wrote this, for example, a six-pack of AmazonBasics dimmable 60W-equivalent A19s was selling for $19.99, whereas their non-dimmable siblings were $15.99 for the same pack-of-six quantity.

Integrated light sensors
If you’d like your lights to automatically turn themselves on and off, so-called “dusk to dawn” models with integrated ambient light sensors go for three-for-$15 or thereabouts.

Integrated motion sensors
Or maybe you just want your lights to turn off automatically after everyone leaves the room (and back on again when they return); $12.99 gets you two. Learn more about motion-sensing LED lighting design with this teardown.

Integrated speakers
This particular product category admittedly doesn’t resonate with me, personally. But maybe the point is to easily be able to pipe tunes around the house, or something? I see them advertised for sale fairly often, so presumably someone‘s buying them. Although come to think of it, where I mostly see them advertised is on closeout sites (two for $18, for example), so seems to me they’d be more useful as a two-way intercom, with an integrated microphone included in the mix, but Amazon Echo Dots and Google Home Minis seem to be moving in on that particular market.

Differentiated form factors
The pervasive A19 light bulb format is all well and good, and LED-based BR30 and BR40 flood bulbs are also commonplace nowadays, but what if, for example, you want to replace incandescent bulbs with LEDs in your candelabra? Check out a six-pack of 40W-eqivalent warm white bulbs for $9.99. Or this three-pack for $4.50. Then there’s the six-pack of 4W 330-lumen “Vintage Edison” LED bulbs for $10.99. Plenty of other size, shape, and “look” options abound. The market abhors a demand vacuum (with apologies to Aristotle), after all.

The bottom line, restating something I first said back in November 2015 related to Bluetooth audio adapters, is the same:

Such diversity within what’s seemingly a mature and “vanilla” product category is what prompted me to put cyber-pen to cyber-paper for this particular post. The surprising variety I encountered even during my brief period of research is reflective of the creativity inherent to you, the engineers who design these and countless other products. Kudos to you all!

Kudos to you, again, creative LED geniuses. May your fervent imaginations translate into fiscal success. And as always, I welcome reader comments.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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