Feature: Light fantastic

Changes in the way we work, coupled with significant advances in technology, are driving innovative new lighting systems, both inside and outside the workplace.

The days of one-size-fits-all fluorescent office lighting, with little more than an on/off switch or, at best, a dimmer control, are on the wane. They are being replaced by technologically-advanced, connected solutions that provide a more flexible approach. Many of these are targeted at visual comfort and functionality, and allow individual work areas to be illuminated using specific light fittings or ‘luminaires’ tailored according to their use.

The LED effect

The increasing availability of LED light sources has opened up an opportunity to deliver very specific light outputs and distributions using compact configurations and customisable designs. LED performance and colour quality – and colour choices – have also improved, with costs declining as the technology has matured.

“We’re seeing two key drivers behind the demand for more advanced workplace lighting products,” says Steve Meadows, Commercial Director, Office, Industry, Healthcare & Education, at UK LED specialist Signify (formerly Philips Lighting). “First is the issue of sustainability. With businesses under increasing pressure to be more environmentally friendly, every aspect of the workplace comes under scrutiny. Lighting is no exception, and this is driving the adoption of more energy-efficient LED alternatives. It all contributes towards meeting the UK government targets of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the built environment by 50% before 2025.

“Second,” he adds, “there’s a demand from companies for simple, easy-to-control, connected systems. Products such as Signify’s Interact Pro – specifically designed for small and medium-sized businesses – allow data to be displayed via an intuitive dashboard and app, giving business owners easy oversight of energy usage. This enables them to make informed decisions on how to manage their electricity consumption.”

Personalised illumination

Hot-desking and open plan offices are becoming ever more commonplace as they meet the demand for dynamic working areas, while also offering a more efficient and flexible use of available space.

However, although employees may enjoy being able to work anywhere around the office, they can miss having their own personal workspace. Dynamic LED solutions can mitigate this effect by offering staff the ability to personalise the area they occupy to their own preferences. Connected applications coupled with location-based technology can be used to automatically adjust the above-desk light conditions to an employees’ favoured setting as they move about the building.

“Alternatively,” says Meadows, “workers can modify their immediate illuminated environment using an app on their own smart device, even in an open plan environment. Adaptive lighting can also be used to help wayfinding around a building, or to automatically modify the luminance in meeting rooms according to the needs of the person that has booked that space.”

Light and well-being

Unsurprisingly, simply having bright light is in itself not a guarantee of obtaining good vision. This is particularly significant when making a comparison between people of different age groups. A 60-year-old, for instance, requires at least twice the strength of light required by somebody in their mid-twenties to achieve comparable vision. Such individual age or health-related needs should not be overlooked by companies with diverse workforces.

The impact that luminance has on other aspects of employee well-being is also increasingly being considered, with ‘circadian lighting’ promising to be a major trend in the future. Human circadian rhythms – the 24-hour body clock that governs natural cycles of activity and rest by managing hormone levels – are heavily influenced by variations in natural light throughout the course of the day. Natural levels are warmer and lower in the early morning, rising to much higher, cooler ones during the day before returning to low, warm levels in the evening.

“Humans have evolved from a time when the sun dominated the daily routine,” explains Steve Stark, Sales Director Trade UK & Ireland at Germany-based specialist Ledvance. “The advent of artificial light has freed us from these primal constraints, but there can be negative connotations caused by isolation from continuously varying natural daylight. Replacing it with prolonged exposure to unchanging artificial light can cause unwanted effects such as fatigue and depression.

“Fortunately, the controllability of LED now makes it possible to replicate the varying characteristics of natural light throughput the day to better support our biorhythms, which should allow workers to be happier, healthier and more productive. This human-centric approach requires higher luminance levels than standard LED systems, together with increased spectral content at blue wavelengths to achieve the desired biological effects, but experts believe the gains in productivity will outweigh the costs of increased energy consumption.”

Circadian solutions are often used in hospitals and other medical settings where they aim to have a positive effect on patients’ sleep cycles and assist with their recovery. They can also help staff who work irregular day/night shift patterns.

In addition, these solutions are being employed in educational settings where technologies such as Philips SchoolVision provide bio-adaptive lighting to help students concentrate and perform better. High-intensity LED products are also being used across all types of educational establishments – from primary schools to universities – in both indoor and outdoor areas to help students feel safe on site.

Future illumination

Over the past few years, the Internet of Things has gone from a catchphrase to a reality and lighting systems are playing an important role in this transition. In a smart home, lights can be connected to all manner of different systems and devices, from door alarms to thermostats. Street lighting is now being used in conjunction with other digital technologies. Lamp posts, for example, can also house small 4G/5G mobile phone base stations, helping to declutter the urban environment and providing higher-quality phone services.

Another technological advance is the development of what is known as Light Fidelity or ‘LiFi’. This is a two-way, high-speed wireless technology similar to wi-fi, but it uses light rather than radio waves to transmit data while providing illumination at the same time. “LiFi-enabled luminaires are already on the market and they provide a fast internet connection without compromising light quality,” says Meadows. “Such technology has huge potential for connecting many devices at once, particularly as the wi-fi radio spectrum becomes increasingly congested.”

All of the above indicates that technology is having a huge impact on the lighting sector. Modern solutions are creating opportunities not just to save energy, they could also generate extra benefits such as enhanced productivity and well-being in the workplace.

With regard to immediate relevance and potential in our sector, however, OPI’s research suggests that, by and large, wholesalers and resellers in the OP community haven’t yet taken the plunge into this dynamic category in any meaningful measure, and are currently leaving it to specialists operating in this area. “In its infancy” is the term that best sums it up, with a steep learning curve ahead before knowledgeably being able to sell products and solutions to customers.