John Bullock and Optaled owner Julian Birch talk about the story behind Optaled; where they came from and where they’re headed.
JB: What’s the story behind Optaled?
Julian: Ten years ago, Versa Engineering was established to respond to a need that had been identified by Optelma (Julian was Sales Director there at the time). It had been decided that a separate company was needed to service specifications being generated by Optelma, and that’s how it started. The original product was essentially linear, although other, more decorative, solutions were also being built. Versa has become Optaled; we’re still very close to Optelma, but we’ve expanded our customer base to include OEM contracts and direct specifications.
JB: How long did it take for Optaled to find its own identity in that process.
Julian: Well, due to Covid-19, it’s not been the greatest start in the world . . . though perhaps it will eventually prove to be just what we needed; we’ll see. We started the process of reaching-out to new markets just a couple of years ago. As you can imagine; it’s been an interesting journey.
In the run-up to the decision to shift from Versa to Optaled we’d seen that there was a greater demand for linear solutions from within the UK lighting community, both from design houses and from other manufacturers. We knew that the market was there; it was a case of connecting ourselves into the specification process.
JB: Has the shift away from OEM production towards direct specification of the Optaled product caused you any problems?
Julian: Instinctually, people want to protect their share of the market, so it was inevitable that some of the conversations were a bit awkward, but we’ve been working with some fine companies who’ve understood what it is that we want to do – recognising that we still offer them support and we’re not actually competing. After all, it doesn’t alter in any way what we’re capable of producing as an OEM supplier.
JB: Is that what the essence of UK SME manufacture is all about? smaller operations who can support one another through the specific technologies? The synergy of cooperation, if you like.
Julian: Being small enough, you’re more flexible and can be quick on your feet. It’s sometimes difficult for larger companies to respond in the time made available by project schedules. And it seems that contractors are looking more for one-stop-shop solutions. We’re able to assist in making that available via the OEM process. And it works the other way around, of course. Other companies can provide support to us when we’re the lead supplier.to the sector. We all win with this kind of arrangement.
JB: Looking at the main Optaled product ranges, do you see a time when non-linear solutions will take over?
Julian: We’re in the middle of a linear era. It informs lighting design thinking and is likely to be with us for some time. But, eventually, we’ll see some kind of change – as we always have done. But it’s worth noting that the linear solution is becoming more integrated into architectural detailing and that will help determine a positive future for the linear sector for some time yet.
And now that we’re seeing light outputs running up to and above 200lm/W, we can even afford to be less efficient in achieving lighting effects. That might sound like a heresy, but diffusing and optical materials can be used very effectively whilst still maintaining a decent energy/light performance.
Mind you, that’s the world according to what comes across my desk and the conversations I have with designers and engineers. Other people may have other ideas!
JB: Once we’ve all got over the fascination of running narrow light bands around commercial space, is there something else in the pipeline – linear product concealed within and behind diffusing surfaces, for example. Is this a potential future for the linear solution?
Julian: It’s only about shaping. Linear LEDs are being used in so many different ways. For example, illuminated ceiling plates, are becoming more common. We’ll see a lot of lighting solutions using linear sources in different ways, combined with diffusing materials, light-shaping optics and the like. And of course, the linear shape itself is changing. It’s not just about straight lines any more. We’re doing a lot with curves – a LOT of curves. As I said earlier, we’re often connecting being asked to coordinate with architectural surfaces. It’s challenging, but the results can be spectacular.
JB: Let’s look at the retro-fit side of Optaled. Was it a deliberate decision to embrace that kind of work, or did the business come to you?
Julian: Exactly that. Someone came to us and asked if we could improve an old installation for them, rather than having to get rid of the entire installation. We were able to bring it all back to spec, using more efficient and more sustainable solutions, all on the back of the original infrastructure.
And don’t forget, with new smart control solutions we can achieve new levels of energy efficiency because the original wiring doesn’t need to be changed. That’s a great potential cost saving for the client, right there.
The retro-fit work started with linear sources, inevitably upgrading old linear fluorescents with LEDs. But we’ve evolved from that position to look at light delivery as well as energy improvements. As well as replacing the old light sources and control gear on a ‘like-for-like’ performance basis, we’re also having conversations about moving away from redundant lighting methods, such as catA-style luminaires, to something that is much more appropriate to today’s working spaces. Few clients realise the possibilities that exist within their existing installations.
Here at Optaled we don’t really like the term ‘retro-fit’. It’s a handy description of what happens but it doesn’t go far enough. It’s not just about taking a less efficient source out and putting a more efficient LED source in. We have to understand light performance and what the client actually wants to achieve is likely to be more than just getting ‘better numbers’. Sometimes, a ‘retro-fit’ may call for a completely different solution than what the client is expecting. Yes, it will be an upgrade – a technical improvement – to light efficacy, but we want to take it further and ask the questions about what the lighting is meant to be deliver to the occupants of a space. Maybe a better term would be Regeneration, because we’re not necessarily repeating an old way of doing something, we’re actually bringing things up to date. And that’s a different approach – and something that needs to be embraced.
JB: Tell me, we’re used to the idea of replacing old fluorescent technology, but how are we getting on with replacing first generation LED tapes? Ten years ago, those strips were state-of-the-art but now they are ready for change.
Julian: In principle the job is the same; the old stuff is worn-out and needs to be replaced; and these issues are all solvable in one way or another, even if we’re faced with old adhesive-backed LED tape. And, yes, we do need to look at the disposal of old LEDs and drivers. Waste management is something that we’re looking at constantly and it is part of our service. As new disposal and recovery techniques become available, we’ll be supporting those processes in the best way that we’re able.
JB: Because of the type of work that you’re doing, which involves having to integrate lighting systems into someone else’s architecture, you are often expected to trust the information that comes to you. How difficult is it for you to explain to those concerned that the dimensions really need to be checked – and there’s inevitably time and cost associated with that?
Julian: There’s no alternative to this. You can work out costings with preliminary drawings and you can analyse what’s needed for the project, but we need accurate information before we can build anything. We always produce detailed drawings as a matter of course and those drawings have to be signed-off before we commit to building a system. It’s a way of focusing the mind of the client and the project team, but they realise the benefit later when they’re provided with a full set of working drawings that they can call on in years to come.
JB: From everything that we’ve been talking about, it’s clear that you’re the people sitting between the clients who benefit from new LED technology, and the developing manufacturers. Is that an interesting place to be? Do the LED manufacturers listen to what you’re looking for?
Julian: Yes, we have very good working relationships with most of the major LED manufacturers and those conversations happen all the time. We may not always get the response as quickly as we’d like, but LED manufacturers do ask us about the state of the market, and they do listen to what we have to say.
Supporting our projects we also have our own facility here in Somerset where we can build special LED arrays when necessary.
JB: Finally, where does Optaled go from here?
Julian: We’d like to be a better recognised company in the UK. Of course we would. The UK marketplace is our focus and we want to do the best jobs possible that will continue to support our existing customers and help to bring new customers to our front door.
That’s what we enjoy doing.
JB: Julian, thank you for your time.