Select Page

A third, new wave of change is coming in the lighting industry. Various 3D printing technologies – collectively termed additive manufacturing – are already established in luminaire design and prototyping processes. Now, lighting manufacturers are evaluating the technology for cost-efficient tailored lighting (a.k.a., mods), for custom products, and for fabrication on site and on demand. Individual companies, and a consortium of interested parties, are sharing information on early forays in polymer 3D printing and what is needed for it to become a viable luminaire production solution.

Willem Sillevis-Smitt, senior director of strategic marketing for Lumileds, is sure that, overall, LED light sources are ready to support 3D printing of luminaires. LEDs are becoming more flexible and controllable; integrated drivers plus added intelligence are making them more rugged to manage stress and preserve performance over life. An LED light source "has to be able to work in a more unforgiving environment, in some ways, because the fixture might not be completely optimized and thoroughly constructed and engineered," he said.

photo courtesy Lumileds

LEDs are color-tunable and physically more flexible, which offers more freedom in architectural integration and luminaire design. Note the signature LED light styling in car brands, such as Audi. "Contrast that with how LEDs have been adopted in, for example, office illumination: we haven’t seen many new shapes and forms. Imagine that the fixture shape and style can really be customized to what the architect has in mind for a new building. You could really start seeing new shapes and implementations of lighting. It doesn’t have to be a fixture that’s installed inside a building after the whole construction is done. It can be much more an integral part of the building architecture," Sillevis-Smitt said.

Signify invests

Signify is offering this flexibility in styling as one of the major selling points of its customizable 3D-printed luminaires – coming to North America. "We started using 3D printing technology to create luminaires roughly two-and-a-half years ago. In Eindhoven, what we’ve seen in the professional domain is that it really creates added value for customers because we can tailor designs easier and more quickly," said Kevin Raaijmakers, Signify’s global commercial director for 3D printing. Signify promotes these products as highly sustainable, because the lightweight polymer shades and luminaire bodies can be 3D printed on demand and recycled multiple times.

Signify’s specification lines of 3D-printed lighting are families: the first are downlights, track lights, cylinders and pendants. Each family can offer an array of colors, finishes and sizes; each luminaire is printed and then assembled to order. They’ve invested heavily in automation technology at their "hub" in Eindhoven and are opening a 3D printing facility in Burlington, MA (India and Indonesia will follow quickly). Raaijmakers mentioned Lightolier as a logical choice for the first U.S. brand that will market 3D-printed families, with perhaps new brands to be established. These products are "priced in the category where you expect Philips/Lightolier products. It’s in the sweet spot of the specification market."

Raaijmakers sees a three-legged stool of competitive pricing; mass-market quality production; and "approbations." UL-listing for 3D-printed luminaires was a concern for all the companies I interviewed and for the Additive Manufacturing for Lighting Consortium run by the Lighting Research Center. Light engines and other electrical components must be listed, and then the feedstock and 3D printer combination must be listed for product parameters such as conductivity and flammability. "If you go to, say, 48V dc, then you could go to a Class 2 environment. Things could become a lot less critical. You would have either your 48V distribution or your step-down conversion that is solidly qualified – that would probably be a situation that is quite workable," explained Sillevis-Smitt.

Luminaire assembly is also an issue. From a transportation standpoint, luminaires could ideally be printed and assembled at the construction site using plug termination of electrical components. But luminaire manufacturer warrantees depend on well-trained personnel, and construction sites are not known for their cleanliness. "In our world, there are always some technical challenges, but they don’t seem to be too hard to overcome," Sillevis-Smitt added.

Industrial Designer Alex Chow is marketing and manufacturing his Container table light via the Gantri digital platform.

Consumers drive innovation

Signify will also service specifiers seeking mods and entirely custom luminaire designs, which can become standard offerings. Raaijmakers sees an evolution towards a "pull" lighting marketplace, where demand drives innovation: fast and flexible. "I think, in the end, the impacts will be huge, because if you look back, the lighting industry is a highly ‘push’ industry, working with inventory and stock [products], etc. The biggest advantage [is that] even standard products are tailored and only made to order; or print to order in our case. We never, ever have stocks of finished goods." he said.

He cited the example of retail rollouts where a custom(ized) luminaire needs only be produced a few at a time. Minimum order quantities and tooling costs become irrelevant. "I don’t know exactly where we’ll end up, but this will affect the value chain and the marketplace in the U.S. in terms of deliveries and how we interact with customers."

Signify’s initial offerings for the high-end consumer are pendants and table lamps with selectable shapes, textures and colors, plus some other details. Customers can "build" their bespoke luminaire online, WYSIWYG, and have it printed, assembled and shipped directly within one to two weeks.

"What we’ve learned is that people want to have choice. People want to find something that really reflects their interior and interior style, but don’t necessarily need to design it entirely themselves. Few people are able to, and most don’t want to spend the time. But they do want to have the right color, the right size, and something that matches their interior," Raaijmakers said.

Gantri has taken a more crowdsourced approach to innovation in consumer lighting. They invite designers to submit designs for tabletop lighting, using standardized electrical components with a metal base: "a digital manufacturing platform for modern design." Industrial Designer Alex Chow is marketing and manufacturing his Container table light via the platform: "3D printing creates a lot of opportunities to try new things you can’t do in traditional manufacturing.… It’s going to be interesting to see what happens as 3D printing evolves to be even faster, cheaper, and more available."

Gantri CEO and Founder Ian Yang believes that removing the cost of tooling and inventory opens the field to innovation: "Unlike the traditional product development process, where designers have to fork out hundreds of thousands of dollars for R&D and pre-made inventory before they can sell, launching a design on Gantri is completely free. We believe that this stimulates creativity and risk-taking, so designers can compete on their ability to design and market – not on the size of their wallet." Sharing sites like Cults offer a platform for free or small-fee downloadable 3D print files; luminaire designs to be fabricated DIY or on demand.

No bigger than a breadbox
photo courtesy Finelite

The limitations of current polymer 3D printers means that the material is not yet approved for outdoor use and that commercially viable, discrete luminaire shades and bodies must be relatively small; Signify quotes 60X60X60 cm.

Aaron Smith is vice president of technology and R&D at Finelite, and he conducted their first investigation into 3D printing for a production component. Fintelite primarily manufactures linear lighting and explored 3D printing technology for a glare-control louver that has some interesting options for patterned apertures. Unlike injection molding, 3D printing allows complex "trapped" geometries; Smith was looking for ovals and hexacombs, something "radical."

Smith sought a product that was long; scalable in production volume; cost-effective; and able to create unique, overlapping shapes. Initial trials were far too costly, and post-processing (trimming, smoothing and possibly painting) was formidable. The part was only one foot long, whereas two feet would have been monolithic. And because of its geometry, the part tended to warp as it settled. "Part of the trick with 3D printing is that it can be cost-effective if you have a small enough part and you can figure out how to jam them all together so you can get economies of scale for the size platform that you’re running on," Smith said.

Most 3D-printed luminaires use polymer shades or bodies, but there is continuing exploration of other parts, including heatsinks and optics. Luximprint is currently supplying optics prototypes and one-offs for manufacturers across the globe. Marco de Visser, co-founder of Luximprint, explained that conventional 3D printing methods and materials differ from "clear material printing" with high standards for optical performance. "There’s been a lack of validation means in the luminaire engineering cycle when it comes to one of the most critical components of the bill of materials: optics…. Now, with zero manufacturing tooling involved, inspirational and functional custom optics parts can be ordered and processed in a fast, flexible and cost-effective way, before ordering soft or hard tools for production. Also, for pre-series and one-offs [demonstrators], the process has proven to be a commercially viable option."

He elaborated that post-production finishing (trimming and smoothing) is not an issue in his process, and new materials are coming online for long-life, mass market production. "The fact that 3D printing is still relatively ‘new’ is holding a real breakthrough back… the adoption of new technologies requires a certain change of mindset, which is not always easy for established and experienced engineers. People may rely on well-known and proven approaches, but miss the possibilities and advantages demonstrated by these new fabrication methods." De Visser challenges designers and engineers to "re-think light" and consider a custom, iterative approach to design and fabrication.

Lois I. Hutchinson

About Lois I. Hutchinson

Lois I. Hutchinson is a freelance writer specializing in lighting and energy issues. She is also the content marketing mastermind behind Inverse Square LLC, a Los Angeles–based consultancy. Contact her via lightinginsider@exponation.net with your comments and any article ideas that concern the lighting community here in the Southwest.

Share This