Aerelight

OutfitterDarkness

A quick note about this section

Our passion for designed objects is the direct result of our passion for well made things. We are always on the lookout for smart and well made products that are physical manifestations of a daring spirit of adventure; new ways of thinking about the world. Outfitter is where we share our current favourites along with a little window into how they came to be.

Thinner, greener, smarter

Written by
Stephen Baldwin


People
Ray Kwa, lead industrial designer, mechanical engineer 

Process
Resourceful prototyping using what’s (and who’s) around you  

Product
An organic LED desk lamp for the mass market


Ray Kwa was working as a manufacturing engineer in 1999 when, after learning about product design from an ABC Nightline segment on IDEO, he had a “quarter-life crisis,” deciding to make the jump to design through a program at Toronto’s Humber College.

Both skill sets have been useful in his work for OTI Lumionics, the heavily R&D-based company whose CEO and president, Michael Helander, contacted Kwa about the product that would become Aerelight.

Helander and his co-founders, two other engineering Ph.D.s in the University of Toronto’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, were looking to commercialize their version of OLED (organic light-emitting diode) lighting, and needed a designer to help them build a prototype that would be attractive to both investors and consumers — previously they had been making the rounds with only a light panel.

The goal from the beginning was to make the frame as inconspicuous as possible; to make the light itself the focal point.

OLEDs produce natural light by passing electricity through organic, carbon-based dyes and pigments that are used in items like clothing and cosmetics. The light is omitted from a flat panel, not a light bulb, and is cool to the touch. It contains no toxic materials, like mercury or lead, and is more efficient than a traditional 60-watt bulb.

Though OLED technology wasn’t new at the time of Aerelight’s invention — it was used in displays for products like Samsung’s Galaxy smartphone — it hadn’t yet been popular in lighting. OTI wanted to bring OLED to the mass market.

When Kwa started working on Aerelight, the budget was extremely tight, the team had little knowledge and few connections in the manufacturing world, and there were no pre-existing consumer OLED models. There were no benchmarks for Kwa, who knew little about the technology at the time, to follow.

The goal from the beginning was to make the frame as inconspicuous as possible; to make the light itself the focal point.

Once they found the right look and moved to the prototyping phase, they were forced to use makerspaces and other ad hoc machine shops. Kwa found the machinist who built one part on Kijiji. While smoking a joint, the machinist got to work and asked Kwa to join him.

Their original acrylic frame was swapped for aluminum, making the lamp more durable, affordable, and easier to manufacture. The higher strength-to-weight ratio allowed them to make the frame thinner and stronger.

To add more value to the product, the team turned the lamp’s walnut base — a nod to the product’s carbon-based roots — into a wireless charging pad, and enabled touch activation all along the frame. The latter required hours of testing to get the sensitivity right. While testing in an extremely humid home, they encountered several “ghost touches.”

Photo courtesy of OTI Lumionics

Kwa said the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Aside from winning some design awards, Aerelight also helped OTI Lumionics earn a $5.7-million investment from Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC).

Kwa’s most humbling moment came at the OLED World Summit in California, when Audi’s lead exterior lighting designer expressed his appreciation of AereLight.

“He reinforced a lot of things we were trying to convey, and the thought process behind some of our design decisions,” Kwa said.

Though they haven’t yet reached the masses due to the constraints that come with a small team, Aerelight is being sold both online and in design shops like Toronto’s Stylegarage and New York’s Cite.

___

To find out more about Aerelight, visit aerelight.com

Stephen Baldwin

Stephen Baldwin is a Toronto-based writer and editor who has written for Toronto Life, Fortune, Report on Business magazine, and CBC.

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