The rise and rise of LED lighting - and the associated testing - has led to exciting times for photonics company Pro-Lite Technology, as Tim Gillett discovers
Twelve years after its formation, Pro-Lite Technology remains a bright prospect. Pro-Lite is a specialist photonics company and supplier of optics, lasers, opto-mechanics as well as light measurement and photometry equipment. The Pro-Lite Group comprises: Pro-Lite UK; Photometric & Optical Testing Services – an independent measurement laboratory; SphereOptics, a Germany subsidiary providing sales and service in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Turkey and eastern Europe; and Pro-Lite Technology France, which provides sales and service in France.
The company’s business is effectively divided into two strands: light generation, which supplies a variety of lasers and laser diode modules for applications in life sciences, analytical instrumentation, metrology and materials processing; and light measurement, which supplies radiometers, photometers, colorimeters, spectrometers, integrating spheres, spectrophotometers, optical detectors and goniophotometers for measuring the brightness, colour, rendering quality and spatial or angular distribution of lasers, LEDs, light sources, displays and signs.
Robert Yeo and Ian Stansfield are joint managing directors and were part of the team that founded the company in 2002; the pair retain control of Pro-Lite to this day. Both are optical physicists, with Stansfield’s MSc in optical electronics and Yeo’s in laser technology. The pair had previously worked together at Optilas, which became Acal BFi, while Yeo had also worked for Labsphere, in the United States.
In fact, when the decision came to launch Pro-Lite, Labsphere became its first supplier, Yeo recalls: ‘Labsphere had set up a European operation, some direct sales offices, but they decided it was more efficient to use independent sales organisations like us. That could be seen in one sense as a retrograde step for them, but it has actually worked out very well because they have chosen to work with specialists, and their business has moved on as a result. It was quite a leap of faith for them – but I guess their thinking was that, if they outsourced it, they wouldn’t have to pay anyone a salary to do it!’
Since then, Pro-Lite has pulled together a range of products from different suppliers, while also providing a short-term rental service for a range of products. It also has a ‘demonstration laboratory’ so potential customers can see the products in operation, first-hand.
Robert Yeo, joint managing director of Pro-Lite
Yeo reports that, as a proportion of the business, the two strands of light generation and light measurement have remained remarkably similar: ‘In any given year there are variations – so the measurement side might jump ahead of the photonics side, and then the next year the photonics side jumps back the other way – but it’s pretty-much evenly split. The only marked departure from this kind of equilibrium has been in the last few years, where there has been a growth on the measurement side of things, because of the large recent growth in the use of LED lighting.’
In 2011 Yeo and Stansfield hired photometric testing specialist Dr Gareth John and founded Photometric and Optical Testing Services, based in Cheltenham, where they provide paid-for photometric testing for lighting or display products. In the same year Pro-Lite also bought SphereOptics, in Germany. So this has helped to open up the market in Germany and the countries around it, to the south and east, in similar products and services. Earlier in the year it set up Pro-Lite France, in the city of Bordeaux.
Proximity to market
Stansfield explains that it has always been important for the company to be physically close to its markets: ‘Customers often know what data they want from their lighting products, but don’t know correctly how to go about getting it. Or there might be a particular material that they want to test.
‘They might also want to create what is called an IES file, a standard light data file that measures a light source and formats the data into a standard report, to allow easy modelling of the light source’s performance. For example, they might be designing an office space, and can work out how many light sources they need to achieve a particular level of light. Many customers know they need an IES file, but don’t know how to go about generating it, or what equipment they might need to do so.’
He added: ‘This is where we step in and show the customer how it is done – and, hopefully, they lose their fear of this strange thing called photometry! We have demo laboratories in the UK and in Germany, and I don’t believe we could have been successful without them; being close to our customers has been essential.’
Yeo says the plan for the next few years is to consolidate: ‘Having effectively started two new businesses, we want to establish them both as major players in their markets. We are also well on our way to becoming an accredited ISO 17025 service provider [the internationally recognised quality assurance standard for test laboratories]. Many customers insist on the certification so it will certainly help the business to become accredited. It’s also a recognised marker of good practice.’
Maintaining the LED
For the foreseeable future, Yeo expects Pro-Lite’s market to expand: ‘The rate of adoption of LEDs is accelerating all the time – though the rate of increase is expected to peak in 2017 or 2018. Anyone working with LEDs still needs to be able to quantify the performance of their product – in terms of selling it and for regulatory purposes.’
While Yeo admits that the market cannot always grow as fast as it is now, he explains that there is a fundamental issue with LEDs that seems unlikely to go away: ‘The big problem that manufacturers have is that they cannot make LEDs to a tight enough tolerance… it’s simply impossible to get every LED to look the same – the human eye will still be able to see the difference. So the need for testing won’t go away, there is not a way round this issue at the moment and I can’t foresee that there will be – there’s so much variability in the process. Things are looking bright for us.’