Trailer Magazine

LED: The challenge of change

  • From the August 2012 issue.
LED: The challenge of change

Today, we can’t imagine a commercial vehicle industry without LED's. But when it first arrived in Australia, the market was not so sure if the pricey novelty would stand the test of time.

Introducing technological change into a market can be arduous work. Those who promote change must often go the extra mile to convince the industry that a new product has the potential to make a real difference to the bottom line – especially when the initial purchasing price is somewhat high. Hence it is no surprise that Australia’s trailer building fraternity did not embrace light emitting diodes (LED) on the spot when they first hit the continent’s shore.

Today we know that the advent of LED marked the end of an era, but back in March 1999, when Hella and Narva released the first LED models in Australia, acquainting   the market to the all-new technology was a Sisyphean challenge. Narva, who were exploring the new technology at the same time, had the same issue.

The reason for that initial hesitation is simple. “If a fleet is due for an upgrade, every executive in the transport has to ask himself if there is viable reason to take a risk and change a system that has been working well before,” says Tomas Plessinger, Marketing Communications Manager at Hella. 

Regardless of the brand, frontline sales staff had to go the distance to convince the market that ignoring change can put a financial strain on a company’s future; and that the cost of technology isn’t simply calculated by looking at the cost in isolation. In fact, it may be due to the persistence of frontline sales staff that Australia has since become the world’s most advanced marketplace in LED technology.

“When you look beyond the list price and focus on the total cost of ownership, LED technology has a valid point; it’s not just a techno trend,” says Tomas. “But if a technology is brand new, there is no viable data to back up such a statement. That’s the dilemma of every great invention.”

In theory, the value proposition behind LED is ironclad. The lifetime of light emitting diodes is measured in tens of thousands of hours; they are rugged, yet classified as environmentally friendly; and their compact size allows a high flexibility in controlling the light with secondary optics. A classic light bulb-based lamp, although still available, cannot compete.

According to Tomas, the key equation behind LED technology is more light output for less wattage. Despite that advantage, it took a while until the industry accepted the change to LED as the “low-hanging fruit” of cost saving and energy efficient automotive design. “The main issue was the cost of an LED lamp. I remember that everyone was asking ‘how long will they last’ to figure out if the extra price would pay off.

To give a competent answer, Hella’s sales team provided a working spreadsheet into which fleet users could enter key variables such as the number of vehicles in the fleet; the number of globe lamps per vehicle; the cost of a classic globe lamp and the LED alternative; globe and lamp replacement intervals; as well as the cost of replacement globes and lamps, including labour and vehicle downtime to readily see the payback period for the LED lamp option. “From this analysis it was simple enough to demonstrate the savings achievable with the adoption of LED lamps over the service life of the vehicles,” says Tomas.

Narva, meanwhile, used a software program that had already been used when the brand launched Truck-Lite’s sealed lamps with a one- year warranty in Australia. “The program demonstrated the high cost of conventional lamps including replacement lenses, blown bulbs, corrosion, down time and an auto electricians cost of repair. The result were a compelling argument in favour of sealed lights and the savings greater than a $1,000 a year,” Tim Miller, General Manager at Narva. “The same approach was then used to sell the LED argument. Sealed was low maintenance and LED is no maintenance.”

According to Tomas, trailer manufacturers Vawdrey, FTE, and Barker proved flexible enough to give Hella’s new technology a try. But the driving force in changing to LED equipment was the fleet sector. “At the time, Bunkers and Linfox were spearheading the movement,” Tomas recalls.

Narva first convinced MaxiTRANS and tipper manufacturers Hercules and Hamelex White to trial LED, and transport companies such as Ron Finnemore Transport and Camerons soon followed.

Prior to the introduction of LED technology, vehicle lighting for fleet operators represented one of the three major cost centres along with fuel and tyres. These costs related to on-going replacements, downtime and infringement costs due to early lamp failures.

“If you look at the cost structure, it is understandable that fleets had a major interest in LED,” says Tim. “Luckily, the advantage of fully sealed lamps, virtually unbreakable lenses and a maintenance-free service life soon became obvious and brought about a dynamic market change.”

On the manufacturing side, it was the low current draw of the new lamps that made them interesting. “LED helped the trailer manufacturing industry overcome the age-old problem of voltage drop over the length of a long truck and trailers combination,” Tim adds. “Plus, there were no more lighting failures caused by water ingress, faulty earths, frayed wires, bulb failure or cracked or broken housings.”

Ever since, LED technology has earned its spot in modern trailer design. On the exterior of almost every piece of trailing equipment, there is a requirement for stop, tail and turn indicator lamps at the rear; side or clearance marker lamps along the sides; front and rear end outline marker lamps; reversing lamps; number plate lamps; ABS warning lamps; reflex reflectors and, depending on the target market, occasionally rear fog lamps.

Despite the proliferation of cheap alternatives, the original two main players have remained the market leaders in Australia. One reason is that the ‘big two’ were the first to realise that LED could overcome issues resulting from the
mixture of American 12V and European 24V vehicles in Australia.

Hella was first to introduce the 12/24 Volt multi-voltage lamp that could work with both US and EU makes. Narva quickly followed suit, also introducing virtually unbreakable polycarbonate lenses instead of the more vulnerable acrylic alternative. Today’s LED generation now offers multi-Volt circuitry as standard.

As a result, Tim is optimistic about the future. “It’s been a tough job making people aware of the LED advantage, but today, no one would ever go back. Increased vehicle availability due to fewer repairs make LED the only reasonable solution in vehicle lighting.”

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