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Let There Be LED Light

Will Cree's $10 LED light bulb end America's century-long incandescent love affair, asks Compound Semiconductor.



Cree's latest LED bulbs are ready to wake up US residential markets


As industry anticipates an LED market upturn, Cree has just unveiled a new line of lower-priced, incandescent look-alike bulbs that could speed the recovery.


Costing from $10, coming with a ten year guarantee and offering a similar light output to the much-loved incandescent - but rated to 25,000, not 1000 hours - the bulbs have been developed specifically to kick-start sluggish domestic lighting markets across the US.


As Cree's vice president of corporate marketing, Mike Watson, told Compound Semiconductor: “We didn't think this segment was moving fast enough so we're giving consumers a reason to switch to LED lighting. They love the shape and the light that comes out of the incandescent so we've given them a bulb that they are used to, at a price point they will try."


And the feedback is good. Described in the MIT Technology Review as “the LED bulb Edison would love" and reported by many to “look like and light like" an incandescent, this is a bulb that the likes of Philips Lighting and GE will find difficult to ignore.


The new line of LED bulbs includes three models; a warm white 60W-equivalent 9.5W bulb priced at $12.97, a daylight 60W-equivalent, 9W bulb at $13.97, and a warm white 40W-equivalent, 6W bulb at $9.97. Each has a colour rendering index of at least 80 with both warm white versions emitting a 2700K pleasant warm light and the daylight bulb a cooler-looking 5000K light.


Meanwhile, the Philips Lighting 60W-equivalent incandescent copy cat, delivers a cooler 3000K at 10W for $14.97, while the GE Lighting equivalent rings in at around $45. All bulbs promise a lifetime of around 25,000 hours, a long-term guarantee, but only the Cree bulb hits that magic $10 figure.


So how does the LED heavyweight do it? A 40W bulb comprises ten of Cree's phosphor-converted high voltage XLamp XT-E LEDs with the 60W version containing twenty of the same. Phosphor is applied directly in the LED package with a blue emitter to produce white light.


Pairs of LEDs are mounted around the lamp's heatsink with Cree calling the entire vertical structure, the Filament Tower.





Cree's 'Filament Tower' mimics the filament of an incandescent light bulb


“The LEDs are arranged in a parallel configuration to get as close as possible to the line voltage of the power supply," says Watson. “We can reduce the component count on the driver, making it simpler and lighter, and we need less metal, helping us to replicate the look of an incandescent bulb."


Indeed, Watson is keen to emphasise the simplicity of its latest bulb. “We've designed this 100%, and sourced the necessary components," he says. “Take it apart and you'll see how simple and elegant it really is. We needed something that could fit into this form factor and give you the look of incandescent light, at a low enough cost."


Watson asserts 'entire system' breakthroughs - from the LED and power supply to optics and design - have been crucial to cutting costs but also attributes the $10 figure to the company's structure. “We're vertically integrated and can adjust many variables at the same time and better than if we were using the traditional supply chain," he says.


Vertical integration or not, many industry sources believe Cree is onto something. Pars Mukish, analyst at Yole Développement, believes the bulb will serve its purpose and trigger greater consumer adoption in the US domestic lighting market.


“Today's main issue with LED lighting for residential applications is the upfront cost," he says. “The incandescent costs less than a dollar, the compact fluorescent lamp costs between $3 and $5 while the LED lamp, before this, was between $15 and $40, depending on geography and rebates offered.“


But of course the Cree bulb changes this. And as Mukish adds: “ In the previous era of LEDs, it was all about increasing the lumen per watt. Now it is all about increasing the lumen per dollar... we think [Cree has] a good strategy as the potential volume triggered by residential lighting will be a virtuous circle for the company to continue decreasing costs."


Indeed, question Watson whether the bulb could match the efficiency and quality of past winners of  the US Department of Energy's L Prize competition and he bluntly says: “The L prize is fun, and industry rewards are fun, but the prize that Cree wants is consumer adoption."


“The bulb is designed to meet Energy Star requirements but has also been designed to be affordable with or without that. It can pay for itself in about a year... so without any rebate or government regulation we have made the Maths work," he adds. “Anything else we do on that [the efficiency] side will now just make this even sweeter."


Beyond the US


So while the bulb is currently available in Home Depot stores across the US, what about the rest of the world? It will have to wait.


Watson believes the greatest demand currently lies in the US, adding:“Europe uses a lot of recessed track lighting whereas the US market already has a very large installed of A lamps."


Still Cree's US focus looks to be working; the release of the products saw Cree's shares rise 13% to the highest level in two years. We have yet to see if US consumers will snap up a $10 LED lamp, but at the very least, Cree has brought affordable LED lighting closer to home.




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