Many tales have been told of Chinese upstarts knocking off products surreptitiously photographed at trade shows or first made on a contract basis for someone else.
Now turnabout is proving fair play and good business for Adapt Technologies, a Philadelphia area maker of energy-efficient LED lighting and advanced control systems. It's about to launch production of "leading edge" tube-style LED lightbulbs (replacements for overhead cold fluorescents) in West Conshohocken that it says can save customers substantially on electricity, in tandem with its optional "advanced control systems."
"I learned how to make them as an importer of LED bulbs and fixtures for my other company - US Global Glow," admitted founder/CEO Joe Wolf when first we met – at Adapt's dramatic debut at last week's Lightfair International trade show in Philadelphia. The photo-op star at its Pennsylvania Convention Center booth was a beer-serving robot, one of several precise performers that will play key roles in Adapt's factory.
From making "periodic buying trips to China, for several years running," Wolf earned full access to Chinese bulb factories, and garnered plenty of tips from his hosts.
"They showed me how they did things, even introduced me to the companies that supplied them with components and assembly machinery." Then, when Wolf finally shared his desire to set up a manufacturing facility in the U.S., some Chinese makers "even supported me. I explained we would be doing things differently, wouldn't really be competitive."
Well, yes and no. "If you're selling lightbulbs here to the U.S. government and to schools, the product has to be made in America," he explained. And because Adapt will be using "strictly top-grade components from suppliers like LG" - the illuminating LED elements - "and Dupont-Dow Chemical" - the adhesives - "we won't be competing on price with makers that use second- and third-tier suppliers."
On a tour of his clean plant, we found a heavily automated line deploying U.S.-made robots, "from the same guy who invented the Roomba" vacuum robot. There was also modified Asian-made assembly machinery to pick, surface mount, slice, glue together, and bake the parts.
"That is what's allowed us to set up shop in the U.S., to compete with Chinese factories where little fingers put things together for $2 an hour," said Wolf. Still, Adapt's bulbs will initially cost "30 percent more than Chinese bulbs, then drop over time as we ramp up production."
The company will argue to customers – including some area McDonald's franchises and the Brown's Super Stores chain, operators of local ShopRite and Fresh Grocer markets - that the clients will save more money by selecting the quality-obsessed new bulbs instead of the old variants imported by US Global Glow.
Averaging 80 LED (light emitting diode) elements per tube, each one will be tested with an eight-hour burn-in to "eliminate the one percent that don't start, prematurely fail, or show even a single LED that's not lit," said Wolf.
A serious LED tube should last a minimum of 50,000 hours (5.7 years). A bad one can fail "in six to nine months," warned Wolf.
Adapt will offer both basic and higher-efficiency bulbs in three different Kelvin temperature (color-output) models. The basics use the same ballast needed for standard florescent bulbs, so any handyman can make the swap.
As part of the company's energy management services, Adapt will also offer models with different styles of remote connectivity/control, starting with a Bluetooth transmitter-fitted tube that communicates through a hub to an app-loaded phone or computer.
Working with Wolf's prior LED lighting solutions, which also involved adjusting settings with motion, timer, and ambient light sensors, Brown's has "cut energy consumption and expenditures 29 percent every month," achieving "annual energy savings of more than $118,000 per store," said David Deeds, Brown's construction and sustainability director.
"Even in a relatively small McDonald's, replacing the inefficient lights and utilizing controls where it makes sense – in the walk-in coolers, the kitchen, the bathrooms, and the parking lots - we've lowered their utility cost by $1,000 a month," said Wolf.
Built at a cost "approaching $3 million," all privately raised, Adapt's first production line will run with just five live people who supervise and restock the multi-step process of assembling and packaging up to 6,000 bulbs a shift.