Byrne Electrical diversifies into LED

June 18, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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Byrne Electrical Specialists, a 40-year-old family-owned Rockford manufacturing company that cut its teeth on the auto industry and then provided decades of innovative wiring technology inside countless office furniture panels, is now moving into a totally new market: solid-state municipal lighting for streets and parking lots.

Byrne recently acquired the brand name and assets of XUS Corp., a Holland firm that had been developing an innovative heat-management technology that enables solid-state street lighting (using LEDs) to last longer and operate more efficiently.

“They were just getting their feet off the ground,” said Rusty McBride, director of business development at Byrne, headquartered at 320 Byrne Industrial Drive in Rockford. XUS, which was founded in 2007, “had developed a great product and they were getting ready to go to market. The downturn in the market really crippled them.”

The recession was hard on Byrne Electrical, too. Just a few years ago, Byrne had 250 or more employees at its Rockford plants. Today, due to the major decline in U.S. office furniture production, the Byrne headcount is about 200.

“We are excited about our entry into the emerging market of green LED lighting and the opportunities it provides for continued growth” at Byrne, said Byrne managing director Dan Byrne. “At the same time, this acquisition represents a continued commitment to keeping jobs in West Michigan, even amid fierce competition from overseas.”

Byrne was founded in 1970 in Norman and Rosemary Byrne’s basement at their home in Ada, with plans to produce audio speaker wiring systems for cars and boats. In 1975 the company opened a plant in Grand Rapids after becoming Ford Motor Co.’s primary supplier of speaker lead wires. Two years later, Byrne began developing power management systems for office furniture environments and the company went on a growth fast track. A second factory was added in 1979, and Byrne won its first patent in 1985 on a retractable power cable design. In 1989, Byrne introduced 8-Trac brand of power distribution system, which set the pace for electrical systems built into office panels and furniture.

Today, Byrne still serves “pretty much all the OEMs” in the office furniture industry, according to Mike Lomonaco, the company’s communications/account manager. However, Byrne went from a “record year in 2008 to about a 20 or 25 percent decline” in sales to the office furniture industry.

“The whole industry was even worse than that,” said Lomonaco, noting that the industry experienced “unprecedented decline.” Indeed, during 2009, office furniture sales declined 30 percent from the previous year, according to the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association.

“We’re starting to see, in 2010, some subtle signs of things starting to turn around a little bit,” he said, but the industry is expected to decline by another 4 to 5 percent by the end of 2010, with BIFMA predicting positive growth in 2011.

Diversification in other types of furniture markets, such as health care and education, has been helpful for Byrne, but right now, LED is where the excitement is.

Interest in LED lighting for outdoor areas and large industrial and commercial interiors has been growing steadily for years. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy has hosted an annual solid-state lighting R&D workshop for the past seven years, with attendees coming from across the nation. With funding from the federal and state governments, many cities are now experimenting with solid-state street lighting — including Grand Rapids and Traverse City.

The I-35W Bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, which collapsed in 2007, was rebuilt with LED lighting, which is being monitored as part of a DOE Gateway demonstration project.

DOE and the National Energy Technology Laboratory, on behalf of the federal Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Building Technologies Program, is seeking applications for applied research in solid-state lighting, as noted on the Michigan DELEG website.

Prototypes of the XUS street lights that Byrne will make are installed now in Grand Rapids on State Street.

“We are actually bidding projects and we’re looking toward July for first shipments,” said McBride.

Most of the actual LEDs that generate the light are produced in Asia, but the electronic circuit boards for the Byrne street lights will be made in West Michigan. Byrne creates the optics and assembles the light fixtures in Rockford, said McBride.

According to McBride, solid-state street lights using LEDs require only from 30 to 60 percent of the energy used by conventional lights. He said another major cost savings is in maintenance; the solid-state fixtures are expected to last up to 10 years, whereas over 10 years, a sodium vapor fixture would require bulb replacement about three times and the ballast, once. A conventional “cobra head” street light can cost about $159 a year to operate, counting maintenance cost and energy use. The LED solid-state fixture would only have the lower energy cost.

McBride said the quality of the lighting is superior, too, because the light coming from LEDs can be aimed more precisely.

Lastly, solid-state LED lighting is more environmentally-friendly than fluorescent lights, which contain mercury vapor.

XUS, prior to its acquisition by Byrne, had several of its outdoor LED fixtures installed in North America and Germany, and was a strong name in the lighting industry, according to McBride. One process the company was known for is its “thermal management” technology. The heat build-up in a solid-state LED fixture reduces the life of the LEDs and also the amount of light emitted. XUS developed an active cooling system that works much better than the passive cooling designs other companies use, according to McBride.

As Byrne ramps up production of the LED solid-state lighting, the company expects to add several new employees, perhaps as many as 10, said Lomonaco.

The technology behind LED solid-state lighting is changing so rapidly that “in general, it seems like about every three months you can expect something revolutionary,” said McBride, who has worked in the lighting industry since the middle 1980s. Prior to his recent hiring by Byrne, McBride was involved in high-profile architectural lighting initiatives at Philips Lightolier.

McBride said Philips has predicted that by 2020, fluorescent and incandescent lighting, “the traditional lighting sources we know today, will all be replaced by solid-state.”

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