Why Making Lights in America ‘Is Not Just an Option’

After an unsuccessful tryst with China, Independence LED Lighting ended up establishing a new headquarters and manufacturing operation in Wayne, Penn., just under 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia — reshoring all that production work to the U.S.

Lighting in America is big business. Not just in the scope of money invested toward new illumination, but also in the sheer volume of electricity required to keep the lights on.

In 2012, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that the U.S. used 461 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity to keep the lights on in the residential and commercial sectors — equivalent to 12 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption. Industrial facilities consumed another 52 billion kWh, accounting for 1.3 percent of that same total. These numbers aren’t inconsequential — manufacturers and commercial buildings have relied on lighting retrofits for years in order to reduce the consumption of electricity while providing a near-guaranteed return on investment.

Charlie Szoradi, the current chairman and CEO of Independence LED Lighting, saw potential in the light-emitting diode (LED) space in 2007 and 2008. At the time, industrial fluorescent tubes were par for the course, but they typically required 32 or so watts to function, which Szoradi knew he could best with LEDs. To get companies into the 18 watt range, he said, would be like getting companies a laptop rather than a slightly better typewriter.

Right around the same time, Szoradi found manufacturing opportunities in China, and quickly found various partners there to produce the parts necessary to make a functional LED fixture. But the romance with production in China was short-lived — he says that in 2009, just two years later, he began to see “hurdles … because we couldn’t get that quality oversight or the reliability.” In addition, the heatsinks became a major cost — simply shipping all that aluminum 10,000 miles to the U.S. was a crippling cost.

Szoradi says, “In 2009, we started to look for a U.S. play, in terms of operations. We looked at a satellite map of the world, saw that the D.C.-to-New York corridor was the brightest spot on the planet.”

The company ended up establishing a new headquarters and manufacturing operation in Wayne, Penn., just under 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia — reshoring all that production work to the U.S. from China. This location is right in the middle of that “brightest spot,” which means that Independence LED Lighting can ship either east or west, on a global scale, with an efficiency that China would never be able to match.

The price and speed factors are only a portion of the overall benefit that Szoradi has found in reshoring production to the U.S. While the R&D portion of the business was always located here, it’s enormously beneficial to have those engineers close to the plant floor, particularly when they’re pushing for quality, lifespan and low power usage rather than engineering to the bottom on price. Szoradi says, “[China] is in a race to the bottom for price, and we’re on a race to the top for performance.”

Finding the right people on both sides of the equation — engineering and production — hasn’t been an issue either, Szoradi says. The region is simply brimming with that eager talent, and they have also poached some people from outside LED and lighting technology. Engineering issues these days are complex and cross industry boundaries — an engineer who spent years solving heat transfer issues in combustion engines could also be very well-suited to dissipating heat away from an LED semiconductor.

Collaboration is also playing a major role in Independence LED Lighting’s capacity to innovate and compete on both price and quality. Szoradi says: “‘Synergy’ is overplayed, but it, by definition, is an act where you can get more done in one day with two people than two days alone. Whether it is our aluminum extruding partner, or whether it is the fixture housing manufacturer, which are both U.S. manufacturers — it’s kind of a ‘strength in numbers’ approach. Get the smart people together in the same room, pulling for the same cause, and all of a sudden, we are a force to be reckoned with at a global level.”

A bright future

While some worry that reshored jobs will simply fade away in another ten or twenty years due to an ever-shifting global economy, Szoradi is bullish on the fact that his company’s contribution is for the long-term. Industrial companies have already spent billions retrofitting LED lighting into the facilities, and there are still many that have yet to make the transition. By the time that happens, there will be an even newer technology — be that more advanced LEDs or something else entirely. It’s a process that has repeated, and will repeat, far into the future. As long as the company stays aware of that technology curve, they’ll have potential business indefinitely.

And he’s looking well beyond industrial applications for LEDs as well. Schools could use LEDs with light-sensitive smart sensors to dim lighting when the sun is coming in through south-facing windows, preventing them from being fully-lit at all hours of the day. The company is also looking into installations that use solar power from the roof to power LED lighting that can grow plants indoors, no matter the time of day or weather. And then there’s hazardous lighting for the U.S. military.

All of this comes atop an intense desire to continue the pace of advancement within lighting technologies. Back in the ‘70s, Szoradi remembers naysayers arguing that the demand for supercomputers would stop at the top 100 corporations in American — but now there’s iPhones in millions of pockets, with each containing far more capacity than the supercomputers of old. He wants nothing less than a similar level of change within lighting. Back in 2009, he helped bring LED lighting to 18 watts when fluorescent tubes were 32 watts. They’ve since pushed to 15, and then 12, and they’re on their way to 10 watts.

“We get better. We last longer, and we run on less fuel,” Szoradi says. “It’s like a car that gets better gas mileage and has a stronger powertrain warranty.”

The value of ‘Independence’

At the same time, the value in making lighting products in America means more to Szoradi than making the highest-quality or longest-lasting fixture. He says it’s also about “American energy independence, which has a companion: American energy security.” Right now, a vast majority — Szoradi says 99 percent — of the lighting Americans use is made in China, and if China calls on “their trillion-dollar loan,” as Szoradi calls it — our trade deficit — the country goes dark.

Because that technology is so critical to our economy and our well-being, it’s absurd that we control so little of its future. Even 10 percent, Szoradi says, would be a major victory. And with Independence LED Lighting, he and his colleagues are doing their parts.

He adds: “Can you imagine if food was only imported to the United States? It would be crazy. The element of independence and security is key to the actual spirit of self-reliance that founded this country. To me, this is not just an option that we should consider — it is a requirement. Someone has to make lights in this country, because we use them every single day.”

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