By Chris Meehan | Apr 22, 2021
Lighting for bicycling, photography/videography, and diving
Manufacturing high-end lights in California for the camera, biking, and underwater industries for more than 30 years, Light & Motion has anticipated trends that now dominate the industry.
"I believe we were the first brand to pivot to LEDs in their entirety across the whole line," says Emerson, noting that the transition began with the Seca in 2006-07. "That was a pretty drastic pivot in a single season."
He continues, "We did the same in underwater. We were the first company to deliver a 2000-lumen imaging light for underwater use, and those had all been halogen and HMI lights. We did that almost the same year we pivoted the bike business."
Embracing LEDs catalyzed dynamic growth. "It made a huge difference in the underwater space that was our marketing message," says Emerson. "We launched the first all-LED underwater, self-contained light in 2008-2009. We had a picture of our light and all the competitors' lights, our light was literally a quarter the size by volume, and four times the power. So it decimated the market. We went from a small company, just building specialty lights for our camera housings, to the number-two brand in the underwater lighting space in two years. It just took over the market."
Moving to LEDs allowed the company to make a bike light as a self-contained unit as well, instead of a distinct light and battery pack. It's hard to imagine," says Emerson, "that they were separate before, but they were."
Light & Motion also makes high-end lighting products for photography and videography, which makes sense, given its heritage as an underwater lighting company that moved into the outdoor space. "The news crews now are buying our lights -- CBS, ABC, Fox," Emerson says. "The lights are compact, handheld, very powerful, very high-quality color for rendering skin tones. It's just the experience we've developed over the years and has led us to stay in that segment."
The company still manufactures high-end bike lights in the U.S., but Emerson contends that new tariffs actually made it less expensive for it to manufacture overseas.
"We've always built in the United States," Emerson says. "We have been moving some of the products to Asia specifically because of the Trump tariffs. They basically penalized U.S. manufacturers, which is just absurd. But our competitors who built entirely in China were coming into the United States tariff free for the first two years while we were paying a 25 percent tariff on parts."
The company's lithium-ion batteries come from Japan and Korea, he adds. "But they go through China to get assembled in packs and then come to the United States, so we had to pay a 25 percent tariff on those and on electronics that were made in Asia."
Light & Motion manufactures many parts in-house with injection molding and other processes, including seals and smaller parts as well as the interface parts of the lights. "We do all of the final assembly and packaging as well."
For all of those reasons, Light & Motion has moved production of its less expensive lights to its contractor in the Philippines as it manufactures premium products in the U.S. "We have always had a strong connection to manufacturing. We believe that it helps us build better products by living with the problems and fixing them," says Emerson. "They certainly could be built in Asia, but we just haven't rushed to move them. It gives us a lot of flexibility. . . . . If the tariff structure continues to penalize us, the obvious thing to do would be to move those, too, but we're hoping that will change."
As one of the only manufacturers of bike lights in the U.S., Light & Motion was able to maintain a 95 percent fill rate during COVID-19, "which was unique in the industry," he says Emerson. "We've been in stock partly because we have flexibility to build the United States. Some of the products we're building in Asia we actually built in both places. We were able to flex our factory to meet demand."
That proved critical as certain sectors exploded during the pandemic. "Bike had a boom this past season which was exciting to see," Emerson notes. "The water photography and scuba diving business got crushed because it's a highly travel-dependent activity. People go on trips to Indonesia or parts of Asia or South America and that just stopped."
"Interestingly, the photography business strengthened through the pandemic -- our biggest retailer reported that they did better than they planned for the COVID year," he adds. "That's despite canceled weddings and group events. That has been the lifeblood of photography, but there's still the hobbyist."
Overall sales were down in 2020, but Emerson expects that to change in 2021. "We're projecting very strong growth this year because of a new product we're launching this summer in the photography space," he says, declining to offer more details. "We're projecting growth in bike and dive, too, but not to the same degree."
Challenges: "Changing our culture: We're pushing our culture to be much more customer-focused and to be much more responsive," Emerson says. "One of the cool things about being a manufacturing company is we employ a broader range of people from across our community."
Opportunities: "On the technology side, there's so much investment in batteries for electrification of transportation that we're gonna find exciting things," sasy Emerson. "We will be able to turn that into exciting products because as the batteries get better, everything gets better."
One market that could drive growth is drones. "That market is still pretty nascent. It's still hard to fly drones at night," says Emerson, anticipating demand for inspection-oriented lighting first. "If we ever tackle repairing the infrastructure of our country there'll be a lot of opportunity for drones to support that effort and lighting will certainly play a role."
Needs: Better supply chain management. "I think that will be the largest challenge for the next three or four years," Emerson says. "It's going to take a long time and it's going to require a huge investment, intellectual investment, planning and adjusting how you think about product development, not just assuming that all this stuff that's going to be available to you."