Varroc eyes surface LEDs to drive future growth

by Mayank Dhingra 30 Jan 2018


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Todd Morgan,senior vice president, global product development, VLS: "Lighting is a mix of engineering and art together."

With a contribution of over 60 percent to its overall global business, Varroc Lighting Systems (VLS), the Czech-based Varroc Group’s lighting arm is set to make strides with new innovative technologies, also envisioning India as a strong driver of contemporary developments in the coming future.

The company has seen a lot of hard driving in the recent past to bring LED technology into the mainstream automotive application. While it could gauge progress being made gradually, the penetration is really accelerating now, also making way into the two-wheeler space. VLS, today, is offering the front LED headlamps on the Bajaj Dominar and the KTM Duke 2017 models in India.

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Surface-LED technology uses thin layers of micro-optic filters and conventional LED light sources to achieve the homogeneous appearance generally associated with OLEDs.

According to Todd Morgan, senior vice president, global product development, VLS, “Standardisation is going to play a key role in bringing LED technology into the mainstream, because that would lead the expensive elements of the technology becoming standardised and see reduction in costs due to the economies of scale, while only the visible aspects getting left behind to be customised.”

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Todd Morgan: "We are working with mainstream OEMs and already in deep discussions with some major players to introduce Surface-LED technology into mainstream vehicles very soon."

“In other areas, Matrix and Pixel technologies are still some time away from making their way into the Indian market, where they are still reserved for the premium segment even in Europe. But, technology is evolving faster than anybody had expected and Varroc is going into production with Range Rover and Range Rover Sport in the near future and offer Matrix headlamps for these luxury SUVs.”

The company also established its make-shift development centre in Pune last year, and is seeing its Indian development team being actively involved in bringing up these new products. “This has been an aspect of our strategy to push the local teams to be a part of the global programs at Varroc. It is leading in know-how gains here in India, as well as is finding us a way to squeeze the costs down with the frugal Indian way of working, which is always to our advantage with having a locally situated development centre.”

The present centre is also slated to shift into new premises close to the company’s manufacturing facility in Aurangabad, near Pune by end CY2017. As per Morgan, “I recently toured the facility and I would say that it really is truly world class, with all the high-end labs, even better than what we have back in Europe. It is going to be a great facility for engineers, and we also have room for expansion to up to 200 engineers from the current 120, over a span of next one to one-and-a-half years. A majority of these associates will be working on global projects and doing real development. We also focus on knowledge-transfer by rotating people in Europe and India, and encourage people to lead global programs to get the maximum exposure. So, having a contributing development centre in India will help in driving innovation for the local market as well.”

Breakthrough with surface LED technology
While OLED technology is slowly gaining traction and could be seen being used in high-end cars from the stables of BMW, Mercedes and Audi, the technology is a bit expensive and there are shadows of concerns about its reliability and production, considering that it is only limited to 2D glass plates.

Varroc has come up with what it visions as a breakthrough innovation, potent enough to be a threat to OLEDs. Christened surface LED, Morgan explains, “The technology is more cost effective, gives almost the same appearance, and we are able to do curved surfaces with it. Moreover, while OLEDs are limited to a single colour, surface LEDs can handle multiple colours, and can be made to perform the function of tail, stop and turn signals, all with a single bulb, thus, saving on space inside the lamp’s housing.”

The technology uses diffractive optics and plays with a lot of holographic effects to come up with numerous lighting patterns with a single light source. Invented by Thomas Gloss and his team at Varroc, the surface LED technology has been patented by the company and with its added advantages of reliability and cost competitiveness, the fourth lighting major in the automotive world aims to completely replace OLEDs with surface LEDs in the market in the coming times.

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Prototype tail-lamp developed for Land Rover.

 “We are continuing to evolve the surface LED technology and look forward to its segmentation. The curvature and multi-colour is better than OLED. Also, we are working with mainstream OEMs and are already in deep discussions with some of the major players to introduce this technology into mainstream vehicles very soon in the future.”

“On the other hand, OLED will still remain to shine bright on premium cars. While it really does look nice on these high-end models, its reliability and cost are the major factors to keep the technology away from coming into widespread application anytime soon. Moreover, with lower volumes and highly capital intensive nature of the OLED technology from a light-source supplier’s perspective, the cost of OLED could also not be expected following a downward trend in near future.”

The present day sees only three major light-source players, which include Osram, LG and Minolta to be working in the space of OLED. “With these limited number of players and without having any significant competition, there is less probability of the technology seeing a dramatic drop in prices like regular LEDs, as it is the competition which drives costs of these components.”

Foray of LEDs and a brighter future
With LEDs enhancing their presence with the passing day, Morgan explains, “LEDs are designed for the life of a vehicle, and a DRL is exactly the same and is non-serviceable. These are designed in a way that they are cooled properly and are able to sustain themselves in all the environmental situations they are subjected to.”

“We work very closely with light-source vendors including Osram, Lumileds and Nichia, and check the specifications and make sure that the lifetime requirements are met in these bulbs. Also, the cost of white LEDs is dropping significantly, and that is what is making OEs invest heavily in this direction as they see a lot of customer demand coming in for such lighting solutions on their mainstream models as well.”

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VLS is to supply Matrix headlamps for the Range Rover and RR Sport in the near future.

While Varroc’s major business in India is driven by supplies into passenger car models, recently, the company has also seen a lot of demand for contemporary lighting solutions coming in from the two-wheeler segment.

“Everything that we have learnt in the four-wheeler space all this while could immediately be applied into two-wheelers. All the engineering advances, thermal simulations and the electronic control modules can be directly applied there. So, again there is a big factor of know-how transfer in the form of the positioning of the LEDs against the reflectors, their cooling system and the handling of their electronic driver requirements, in a way, that allows to bring down the costs, and making the technology suitable to be deployed into two-wheelers.“

“As we drop the cost of LEDs from the premium segment down to mainstream, and then to even the lower segment of cars, all of that is then going to be directly significant for the two-wheeler space. The R&D labs inside VLS are already seeing the four-wheeler and two-wheeler teams with their CAE and optics engineers working in conjunction and sharing knowledge between the teams.” 

With a strong push towards electrification and with the advent of electric two-wheelers, power saving is an imperative requirement, where lighting a bulb at 55W holds little justification, when it could be done at a mere 19W with LED technology. “E-bikes are going to see significant advantages with LED technology, including power savings, weight savings, concise packaging and the freedom to introduce futuristically styled lamps.” 

While VLS is open to work with any automotive company, with a dramatic shift happening in the world of mobility, off late, the company is working with a number of EV start-ups in the four-wheeler space. “We do the 100 percent lighting for the Tesla Model S and the Model X. Apart from that, Varroc does a lot of the software development of these lighting solutions in the Tesla cars, here in India itself.”

The big role of software
With electronic component increasing rapidly inside vehicles, embedded software plays a vital role in the modern lighting technology as well. Software helps ensure that all lighting controls are in place, driver modules have some level of control, and there is a simple control for all the effects, including the welcome features, and the multitude of customisation options.

The highly advanced Matrix and Pixel technologies, on the other hand, are also controlled via much more detailed algorithms. “The information is pulled from the CANBUS and is fed into the control modules for the software to crunch the data and provide action commands including movement of lens and direction of beam in these new-age headlamps.”

“Additionally, personalisation is going to be a key for us in the future, and hence, software is continuing to grow and play a big role in the coming times in our new product development. With the trend of ride-sharing picking up, such personalisation options are going to be one of the ways to tune the shared vehicle as per one’s own tastes. With that, we would also look at venturing inside the car and explore the exciting opportunity of playing with options like mood lighting. We have similar technologies with digital micro-mirror devices (DMD) and micro electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) and maybe, those technologies could find their application inside the cabin. So, we are keeping our finger on the pulse, and while today we are not a major player in the area of interior lighting, but, who knows what the future may hold for us.”

With software ruling the roost in the coming times, a significant portion (around 60%) of the manpower that the company plans to expand in its development centre over the next year will include recruitments into the areas of electronics and software.

“In fact, we have a special area for electronics in the new development centre in Pune, and we have also recently built a dedicated electronics centre in our main campus in Europe. We also have an in-house EMC testing, and we are one of the very few lighting suppliers out there to have such a facility. We are contemplating establishing a similar testing facility in India as well. This would improve our engineering efficiency and make us more self-reliant.”

“It’s about knowledge transfer. We can’t have all these new technologies being developed in Germany, or even in Czech Republic, considering it is a low cost country. All this is driven by motion and close collaboration with OEMs. These technologies are new for the OEMs as well, and we have to help them adopt these solutions, which mean we have to have more local talent knowing where the world is moving.”

So, having a local development centre and working with local clients like Tata Motors, Mahindra & Mahindra and Renault, it’s important that we have our development capability localised. Although, Varroc is a global component maker with majority of its business being outside of India, still, we must have full development capabilities including optics, mechanical, electronics and quality, all based here in India for ensuring our success in the market.

Regulatory enhancements to mark technological revolution
Morgan believes that it is regulatory changes, which are going to bring new technologies into the mass market, and in India, “DRLs should be mandatory and should not be an option, especially when their basic objective is to make the vehicle visible to pedestrians, and when the nation is the second most populated country in the world with a large volume of pedestrian traffic. This is a very important safety aspect, and also serves the dual benefit of being trendy and offering aesthetic appeal to a vehicle.”

“Regulation will also lead to the mass adoption of the technology, which will eventually bring the costs down. That is the same reason why cost of LED headlamps went down in Europe because the standardisations lead to more demand, thus pulling in more competition in the market, and effectively leading to reduction in costs.”

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In early November, VLS displayed its expansive range of lighting solutions at an event in New Delhi.

“But, LED headlamps would not be driven by regulations in India. There were already some regulatory changes, which have done away the need for automatic levelling in LED headlamps, which enabled them to become more cost effective. This is why there were the 35W and 25W high intensity discharge (HID) systems. But now, LED is below HID in costs, and that is the reason why the application of Xenons is slowly dying and is not prominent anymore. All of this was driven by regulations. So, while earlier, there only were the choices of a halogen or Xenon; now, one can play in a wider band with the required performance and cost budgets with the LED technology. “

Enhancing vision for autonomous vehicles
Being in the vision technology space, VLS is also eyeing to innovate and develop solutions for autonomous driving technology by complementing sensors and integrating them into the headlamps. The company is looking towards driving more innovations in things like signal lighting, which becomes all the more important because with autonomous vehicles, lighting is going to be used as a communication tool.

“We would also be looking at exterior ambient lighting with the onset of such cars, like glowing brand logos for instance, welcome features and personalisation. Beam patterns could also change with autonomous cars, where they might need to complement the sensors and cameras, rather than aiding the visibility level of the human eye.”

“We are also thinking about using IR vision to see through things that the human eye cannot see, and we are currently working in this ADAS related area in partnership with BrightWay Vision to develop guided IR vision technology, which can see through fog. With this technology, we intend to take the information which is beyond the assessment of the human eye, and then make marker lamps to spot critical objects or living beings in dense fog situations, to ensure both driver and pedestrian safety.”

With mobility setting feet into an exciting era, lighting too is set to evolve and portray a designer’s emotions and define a vehicle’s identity in a more advanced form than ever before.

“Lighting is a mix of engineering and art together. While we have to work with studios, but since it is a safety item and is highly regulated, so we have to constantly work towards enhancing safety as well. Although, we want to make the design of these lighting offerings to be attractive, but, safety remains the top priority, which can never be compromised.”

This article was first published in the Autocar Professional's December 15, 2017 Anniversary Issue. 


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