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Lighting control – full beam ahead!

In psychology-related slang (according to Wikipedia, the web authority on everything) ‘control freak’ is a derogatory term for a person who attempts to dictate how everything around them is done. If that is so, how many of us can claim not to be one when it comes to that heart-pounding moment of curtains up? Or the crowd’s countdown to witness the ‘switch on’ of a new building facade?

To not be able to dictate how everything should run at that precise moment is to be on course for disaster, resulting in at best mild embarrassment, or at worst catastrophe! I put it to you that when it comes to lighting installations, being a control freak is no bad thing. In addition, having everything exactly where you want it, when you want it, at the touch of a button, or the trigger of a sensor, is the only way forward.

So what do we mean by ‘control’? To me – with roots in the entertainment side of the industry – when you say ‘control’, I think ‘desks and dimmers’. But no matter what your perspective, or what terminology you choose, it all boils down to the same concept – a controller (desk, wall panel, laptop) that tells other devices (dimmers, LEDs, ballasts, relays) what to do.

Two distinct sectors in the market naturally emerge: the industrial/commercial sector, including offices, hotels and public buildings; and the entertainment/theatrical market, such as television studios, theatres, nightclubs and conference centres. The boundaries might be relatively straightforward to draw with regard to type of space but, in terms of lighting application, it becomes more difficult as both design trends and equipment increasingly cross sectors.

Lighting has found its way into applications that even as lighting professionals, we might never have imagined 10 or even five years ago. So does it follow that this surge in demand for systems is driving the control market?

“I am stunned at the constant demand for controllers,” says Avolites’ Steve Warren. “One example is an installation at London toy store Hamleys, where the Christmas display is controlled by one of our desks on a date scheduler. Ten years ago if you had told me we would have consoles running shop fronts I would have said you were barmy. Moving lights are finding their way into shop displays, reception areas, hotels and bars, and these all need a controller, so I think we will continue to grow.”

But it’s not only the diversity of applications that is driving the market; the development of more sophisticated light sources is a contributing factor, alongside environmental issues. ETC’s market manager, Europe, Erik Larsen, says: “There is a higher demand for lighting control, firstly to do with controlling the lighting environment and power saving, and secondly because we have more sophisticated lights sources.

“Developments in dimming point to a demand for more sophisticated devices, with higher spec silent sinewave dimming, and the ability to dim a variety of light sources. There is a demand for an increased amount of switching to replace some dimming, which obviously stems from there being more automated lights. In the architectural field, where discharge and other sources are used, these might have a mechanical dimmer on board, so there is a growing demand for controllers to just turn power on and that means more relays.”

Green concerns

As for environmental factors influencing the market, Helvar’s lighting systems manager, Peter van der Kolk, says: “Control is important in most lighting applications, though the benefits can differ. In functional lighting it is all about providing the right light in the right place, and saving energy. In lighting for ambience it is all about providing the right atmosphere. Within the lighting control market, the focus is on energy saving, driven by legislation; future predictions are that this trend will continue to boost the market. On average, the trends are similar across the globe, though there are always minor differences on a country-by-country basis.”

Larsen continues: “In general, the demand is the same across Western Europe – there is not much change except for controlling more sophisticated devices than before. Eastern Europe is one key growth market in which we have invested as we see potential as the regional economy grows.”

Growth in Eastern Europe is a recurring theme among our interviewees, with UK-based Avolites going as far as to employ an engineer, ‘fluent in both computing and Russian’.
Martin Barker, commercial product manager – architectural for Martin Professional, agrees: “I wouldn’t say there was any difference in demand any more across Europe,” he says.

“Perhaps five years ago countries such as Sweden were quite innovative, and quick to embrace the colour-changing technologies. Some Mediterranean countries were quicker to adopt this also, as opposed to Northern Europe, but this has evened itself out now. Customer requirements are similar across the rest of Europe; however, budgets can be quite different, with countries prepared to spend different amounts on a project.”

So is this apparent buoyancy attributable to the increased importance of lighting control? It seems that control is becoming more central to both the commercial and entertainment sectors, but the reason for each is entirely different – one legislative and the other technological.

Taking the legislative angle, Barker says: “Energy-saving control has become larger in all areas of lighting installation, and in the commercial side it has increased because legislation has dictated so. There is a striving towards reducing energy consumption, so energy-saving controls are being used massively in commercial installations. Ultimately, these have to comply with the Kyoto Protocol and local legislation, and that has become a driver to installing regulation-compliant systems, so it is more of an essential than a nice to have.”

Larsen sees a greater focus on the cause served by control, rather than control itself: “I wouldn’t say control is becoming more important. I think the more important thing on the architectural side is the ability to help save power and reduce carbon footprints. That means extended use of daylight sensing to reduce power consumption, controlling other light sources to use light sources with minimal power consumption, the kind of things ETC has been doing for 20 years.”

It’s worth noting that ETC’s entertainment fixture range is the least power-consuming halogen product line on the market and has been for many years.

John Niebel, Lutron’s residential systems manager, Europe, has seen a shift in emphasis on control. “When I first started, it was optional to put a lighting control system into a building and you had to sell the concept of a lighting control system before you could actually sell the product. Now I think it’s the case in the commercial world that it is commonplace, and you wouldn’t build a large commercial building without some kind of lighting control system.”

For entertainment installations, I would suggest that technological demands play the larger part in driving this sector forward. I don’t believe that energy saving is always at the top of the agenda here. Where it can be, it should be, but in a ‘show-oriented’ environment, the driving factor is always the audience. Whether it is the 700 seated in the auditorium, the 2,000 asleep in the conference, or the 10 million viewers at home, the tools that the creative team need to realise the concept are key.

Warren elaborates: “Control is definitely becoming more important in this area: people are looking for more features and more channels on their consoles. Channels aren’t going up by 10 or 20%, they are doubling or quadrupling – orders of magnitude rather than step increases. Working with so many channels you need automated programming features, such as the shape generator, and control of media servers. I would say these trends started 10 years ago but it has only really heated up in the past five years.”

Stable budgets

So is it a bigger slice all around when it comes to the control serving of an installation’s budget? While it is clear that control is playing an increasingly important role, it doesn’t necessarily follow that everyone is taking home a bigger piece of the pie.

Niebel suggests that the proportion of a budget isn’t higher, but instead that market is growing because Lutron is just doing more projects. Larsen too doesn’t see control as an increasing budget portion. “I don’t see it really increasing, at least not in financial values,” he says. “Pricing seems to be relatively stable. But what you are getting is more features for the same money as technology moves on.”

Warren actively believes the proportion of budgets allocated to lighting is decreasing, owing to the increasing scale of installations – a false negative, if you like. He explains: “The sheer physical size of some installations means that control is a relatively small element, and I think architects are getting braver to fill large spaces with lighting. Initially designers didn’t contemplate spending half the budget on just the entrance foyer, or hotel facade, for example, but now they see the impact this has.”

Barker disagrees: “Energy-saving control in general is a bigger portion of the budget because of driving factors such as the Kyoto Protocol, trying to reduce greenhouse gases, and building regulation compliance. If you were just putting in energy-saving lighting control for lighting control’s sake, generally people wouldn’t do it, unless of course it served a specific purpose.”

With regards to emerging trends and customer expectations, Helvar’s van der Kolk sums it up succinctly: open systems/networks; better user interfaces; simplicity; integration; and intelligent stand-alone solutions.

Clearly having taken these points to heart, Helvar is set to launch its new 920 Imagine router early next year, which aims to integrate commercial and architectural systems, and comprises DALI subnets with a DMX input/output, and an SDIM port, its own propriety protocol – a product that clearly reflects the trend towards convergence.

As customers endeavour to future-proof their systems, Larsen believes the move towards the new ACN control protocol will be an increasing trend. He says: “The process of publishing a new standard has been ongoing for about eight years and ETC has been one of the companies taking the lead. Our product lines (through our own protocol Net3 that is fully ACN compliant) Congo, Eos/Ion, and Unison Paradigm, are all running Net3 (ACN) over Ethernet. It will take a while, but we are seeing the same pattern that we saw with the introduction of DMX.

“When products come onto the market there will be demand because customers want to invest in the future as they are often specifying systems that will be in use for 10 or 20 years – they don’t want yesterday’s technology. In the future I am confident that everybody will come together for ACN,” he adds.

One resounding concern is the move away from the human aspect of control. With so many LEDs hitting the market, many supplied with controllers, clients are often happy enough to see their project merely colour changing. “You look at the difference between a system that has been properly programmed with a powerful controller with features and a designer involved, and it just blows you away,” says Warren.

“You might have 10 installations that are average – and average is still nice – and then there are two that just knock your socks off. The difference comes down to the programming and the LD.”

At Martin, Barker is hearing from customers who share similar concerns. “Our clients don’t want to apply colour for the sake of it, so we supply the knowledgeable designer and architect with professional control tools to allow them to create their designs effectively. There are thousands of products on the market but we continue to be asked to produce the products we do because they are respected as superior and allow for the creation of quality lighting designs, and installations.”

With the European economy hanging by a thread, and the general economic outlook bleak, no one would presume to declare that everything is entirely rosy in the installation market, with an uncertain couple of years undoubtedly ahead. But it does seem, for the meantime, that the control market on the whole is bucking the trend. One thing’s for sure, credit crunch or otherwise, global economic crisis or not, control has made the transition from a luxury to a necessity, which might just prove its saving.