CASE STUDY 5
Innovation in Action: The Dimming of the Light Bulb
In the beginning….
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 240241at 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
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.
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.
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.
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 242243light – 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
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:
Top of Form
• 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.
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.
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.
Read Case Study 5 and respond to question 3.
Your response should be at least one page long and conform to APA Version 6 standards. If you have questions about APA Version 6 standards
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.