Pushing the reset button

Updated: 2012-09-14 08:51

By Meng Jing (China Daily)

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Pushing the reset button

LED lighting technology is believed to be the next big thing and the main battleground between multinational and Chinese players in the lighting industry. Provided to China Daily

Related reading: Osram plans on a bright future

Small LED lighting producers in China are banding together to take on the industry's multinational giants in the West

The invention of incandescent lamps by American inventor Thomas Edison more than a century ago not only marked the beginning of the modern lighting industry, but also the birth of pioneering conglomerate General Electric. Today, the global wave of phasing out incandescent lamps is doing the same trick.

With the dawn of energy efficiency, many international companies are trying to catch that spark that will push them ahead in the industry, not least of all companies in China.

But if there was ever a time for a Chinese lighting company to make a breakthrough, that time is now.

On Oct 1, China, the world's largest lighting market, is hitting the reset button with its ban on the sales of incandescent lamps. The upcoming move, in addition to the Chinese government's desire to increase efficiency, cut down its carbon intensity and manufacture more LED (light emitting diode) products, is set to slowly but significantly change the nation's lighting market.

"The possibility of the reset of the new world order in lighting lies in two simple facts. One is the potentially huge LED lighting market in China, the other is the Chinese government's strong desire to build LED lighting into a strategic new industry," says Wang Fei, a Shenzhen-based analyst with LEDinside, a unit under the consulting firm TrendForce. "The combined home advantage can help Chinese producers to be among the world's top 10 lighting producers in 10 years."

Both LED lighting reports released in 2011 by HSBC Climate Change, HSBC's global research subsidiary, and the global consultancy McKinsey identify China as the most important market for LED lighting. Both say China's massive population, rapid urbanization, rising incomes and economic development create the most growth potential in the LED market worldwide.

According to McKinsey, the size of China's overall lighting market is projected to grow twice as fast as the global average, reaching 13 billion euros ($16.79 billion) by 2016 (or 17 percent of the global market), with its LED lighting market reaching 11 billion euros by 2020 (accounting for 20 percent of the world's total revenues).

Philips, the leading lighting producer based in the Netherlands, expects LED lighting products to account for 50 percent of the general lighting market in China by 2015.

"We don't think LED lighting can completely replace conventional lighting products. But the vast lighting market will still make China the largest market in the world for LED in the years to come," says Tommy Leong, president of Philips Lighting Great China.

LED lighting products, which are powered by semiconductors, are a vast improvement on conventional lighting products in many ways. They are not only more energy efficient, have a longer life span and are environmentally safer. LED lighting is very different from traditional technologies that use electrical filaments or plasma with bulky glass covers.

On the other hand, LED products are pricey to produce and purchase, which is why China has been slow to adopt the technology. The alternative to LED products - compact fluorescent lamps - is much cheaper, but not as environmentally safe nor as widely available.

The good news is that prices for LED products are dropping at a clip of about 20 to 30 percent a year. That bodes well for China, Leong says, because apart from the central government's resolve to cut down on its energy footprint, the government is eager to build the LED lighting industry into another driving force for its growing economy.

In July, the nation released the first national Five-Year Plan (2011-15) for the semiconductor lighting industry, setting a plan to boost the industry into a 500-billion-yuan ($79 billion, 61 billion euros) sector with at least 20 to 30 leading domestic companies by 2015.

But China's vision for the LED lighting industry was actually molded three years earlier. In 2009, the central government chose around 20 pilot cities to replace their conventional street lamps with LED lighting, cutting hefty checks to LED lighting suppliers, the majority of which were domestic producers.

The number of cities to receive LED lighting is set to rise to 50 by 2015. Incentives are also coming from the provincial level: South China's Guangdong province announced earlier this year that it will replace all public lighting with LEDs within three years, aiming to boost the size of its local LED lighting industry from 100 billion yuan in 2011 to 500 billion yuan in 2015.

As China's promising LED market grows, investors from multinational lighting giants have been drawn to the fire. Both Germany-based Osram AG, a multinational lighting manufacturer, and Dutch electronics conglomerate Philips have pumped millions of euros to build up local production chains this year. But the two will be competing against thousands of smaller Chinese investors expanding production capacity, creating what insiders are say is an oversupplied market.

Casualties are already piling up because of the flooded market. A number of Chinese LED producers have filed for bankruptcies and many companies that make LED lighting products are reporting a drop in sales.

Nevertheless, Zhang Xiaofei, president of Shenzhen-based GaoGong Industry Institute, a leading LED consultancy in China, does not doubt for a second that some of China's LED lighting producers will rise to the top of the global lighting industry.

"Compared with big multinationals, Chinese domestic players are small. Only a dozen of them have annual revenue of more than a billion yuan. But it doesn't mean that they cannot find their position among global LED lighting leaders in the future," Zhang says.

"All the players in LED lighting around the world, big or small, are practically at the same level of achievement. Chinese players are not quite far behind from lighting giants in developed countries. I see no reason why they cannot succeed in their home market."

He cites the success of Japanese LED maker Nichia Corp as an example. Though the global industry is dominated by GE, Philips and Osram - with a combined market share of 60 percent - Nichia, which had little experience in lighting up until recently, has managed to become one of the top three leaders in LED lighting with 29 billion yuan in sales in 2011.

Other leading Chinese LED producers share Zhang's opinion that the cards are not stacked against them. The LED lighting producers all mentioned rolling out plans of increasing production capacity, investing more on research and development and building up retail channels.

The strategy of Beijing-based Tsinghua Tongfang, which has seen sales in its LED lighting products double to 1.4 billion yuan over the past three years, is a typical example.

Liu Tong, the company's manager of semiconductors and lighting, says the company has not only spent 200 million yuan to build an R&D center earlier this year, but it has also started to invest in retail channels and expand production capacity.

"Chinese producers have secured advanced positions in various sectors of LED lighting production. The only weakness we have is in semiconductor chips. However, we've been closing the gap at an increasing speed," says Liu, who added that Tsinghua Tongfang has been investing 6 to 8 percent of its annual sales into R&D.

Wang Peng, sales manager at Bons Optoelectronics Technology, a leading LED lighting module maker based in Southwest China's Sichuan province, says a sizable production capacity is key.

"In this oversupplied and over-fragmented industry - with tens of thousands of small participants - no one can survive the tough market without a sizable production capacity," says Wang, who added that Bons' sales reached 200 million yuan in 2011.

Wang Fei, the Shenzhen-based analyst with LEDinside, says the first phase of consolidation, done over the past two to three years, has already lead to the closure of many small companies, while the new phase of consolidation will bring more small companies together.

A nationwide consolidation of an industry might sound like a force to be reckoned with but the question remains: Will China become a potential threat to the established industry giants in the West?

Sam Wu, vice-president of Osram's Asia Pacific division, can't answer that definitively, but he does note that the company has around 8,000 patents and decades of studies in LED technology and had 5 billion euros in global revenue in 2011.

Philips, on the other hand, sees more in China's rising stars.

At an August news conference for the groundbreaking of Philips' first professional LED lighting solution manufacturing in Chengdu, Leong said he is sure there will be two to three Chinese companies taking their place among the top 10 lighting producers in the world in the next decade.


(China Daily 09/14/2012 page10)