CASE STUDY 5
Exploring Innovation in Action: The Dimming of the Light Bulb
In the beginning….
God said 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.
If 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.
Things 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.
3)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.