Lighting does more than bring objects into view. The use of lighting can evoke a mood. It can deliver a specific experience. It’s theatrical and can give objects personality. And for many industries, it’s an important design consideration.
Kim Peiler is an electrical engineer at Osram where she works in the field of optoelectronics and system engineering for automotive application. In her 16 years so far at the company, she has held multiple roles in different market segments, everything from general lighting to consumer, mobile, and automotive.
Her current work involves lighting for automobile instrumentation and displays. She helps bring the right lighting solutions with opto-semiconductor parts to vehicles, and analyzes future applications of this technology. The global automotive lighting market was estimated to be valued at about $27 billion in 2020.
“Part of my job is looking at trends with mobility and automotive. A lot of change is happening now with lighting the exterior, and I can see change developing with interior lighting. Lighting can be a critical part of the vehicle and the customer experience.”
Light affects customers in many ways. In a commercial, a car may be initially dark, but then the headlights come on inviting a customer to look more closely. Or the advertisers will use the tail lights to tease or taunt customers as they try to give the vehicle a “personality.”
“That didn’t happen 15 years ago, says Peiler, “when you were looking at commercials for a car, but it certainly happens now, and it’s very aesthetic and kind of emotional. It’s a big design element. So, I’m involved with basically anything that’s lit up in or outside of the vehicle.”
Peiler manages a team of engineers at Osram that supports the whole automotive industry. OEMs will use lighting to differentiate their brand, especially luxury brands, by having different looks to the lights. It’s easy today to identify a brand on the road just by the appearance of the tail lights.
One example is the Lincoln brand. The company’s design team wants light to create a welcome atmosphere for the Lincoln Embrace car. The lights come on in a specific sequence delivering a wraparound effect.
“It becomes theatrical,” says Peiler. “It’s kind of like a show when you come up to your vehicle and it greets you. The automotive marketers call it ‘The Embrace’ because it’s actually supposed to meet and greet you.”
Lighting in a car involves headlights, tail lights, the dome lights, the displays, the instrument clusters, the switches, and the door trim. Even the license plate has a light. Lights are all over a vehicle and different companies make those components. So, the industry includes the OEMs and then all of the suppliers that make those components. Then, there are companies that are the solution partners. For example, companies that make electronics that make the lights turn on, and companies that make the optical elements and the mechanical housings.
“Everything that you see glowing, at any point, is lighting. This is why I love automotive. You see more and more displays and every display is thousands and thousands of little light sources.”
In the beginning
Peiler went into engineering because it was a challenge. “Maybe that’s just my personality, I look for things that make me a little bit uncomfortable or might not be as commonly chosen, and try them out.”
She remembers a career day in middle school where one person who worked in the telecommunications field brought in a bundle of light fibers, and lit them up at the end with a flashlight to show everyone how the light went through. “It looked fun,” she says. I think that those type of basic experiences initiate someone’s consideration of fields like engineering because I thought, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ I never thought I’d end up in engineering, in the field of lighting and automotive, but I remember that career day, and I remember thinking that the guy was cool and whatever he did for a living was also really cool.
“I think in high school, I found physics to be my most challenging course. I had a teacher there that was supportive in my attempts to really understand the subject. So, from there, I was like, “Okay, well, this is really hard but I’m finding it fascinating, and so why not go to engineering school and find a path that way?”
One of Peiler’s skills is the ability to see what’s coming that could change an industry. She gives a non-automotive example. “I spent seven years of my career in general lighting, so I was there for the beginning stages of what is today called horticulture lighting—growing plants with lights such as LEDs.
“In those early stages, it started basically with academic inquiries by students from universities that were studying this phenomenon of growing things with artificial lights. But I decided this area made a lot of sense from a sustainability point of view. If done efficiently, beyond the obvious crops, you could grow anything, including food with LEDs. You could create a world where it wasn’t the traditional agricultural set up anymore, and you would have all these benefits from saving water, saving pollution, saving the footprint that it takes to grow things. I saw a good sustainability story, and because we have the fundamental technology, I spent many years working on studies to look at the right LED colors to grow certain crops, and the technical things that would show the advantage of using that technology in that way.
“It can take years to make products. But if you don’t start, you never get to that future that at least I had in mind. I’m not saying I’m the only one who had that kind of vision, but I’m thinking big picture and then taking the steps years ahead before the academic studies show proof of concept, working with companies to make those types of fixtures, and then grow stuff to show that it really works.
“At that time, people were saying, “Hey there’s so much more mainstream lighting things that you can work on. Why spend the time on that stuff that seems a little bit science project-y?”, but it’s that, say, overarching sustainability message and the idea that you could really change and improve the food that we have, and that whole idea being the fuel behind it to do all the little steps and studies and scientific experiments to get more people on board to work in that field. Today, years later, this is a robust part of the solid-state lighting area.
“When I went to automotive, it was because I could see a real shift in the potential for future applications in that space. Looking at autonomous vehicles and mobility in the future, I’ve been working with people from different companies that are moving in this direction, and you see the need for more light, more information given to people. So, whether it’s the pedestrian on the street that needs to know what action a vehicle will take, or just a better way to light up the streets so you don’t have as much glare or light pollution.
“The technology is definitely there. It’s basically taking one light source and chopping it up into thousands of little light sources, and then you can address them and basically turn off the ones that you don’t need. This technology is in vehicles too. It’s basically turning lamps into displays, and taking unlit parts of the car that never had any function at all, and giving them the ability to give you subtle information. For example, seeing a pedestrian nearby that you might not have seen before who is moving into a space too near the vehicle.
“Lighting can give you the peace of mind that you’re seen, and it gives cues maybe about what the vehicle is going to do to make everything more intuitive and comfortable and trusting, but the technology behind that is electronics and software intensive. So, this is the evolution of headlamps and basic indicators into a much more digital world and with a lot more going on, I would say. I actually pushed forward to work in that area and work with the leaders in the industry. We’ve done a lot of proof of concept of different applications to show that you can digitize what was basic lighting and turn it into something that’s valuable and helping people to understand what’s going on.”
Work, life balance
In general, women face more issues with career and family care than men. But one of the motivators for women in engineering is the importance of having a career, and one that can impact society.
“For me, it is very meaningful to have a career. Sometimes, I have to think about work-life balance and why am I here at this job doing this, and it helps me to not only give my best effort, but also, say, justify some sacrifices that I do make in my life.
“It can be a challenge to have kids and still keep the same style of career as you had before you married and had children. And it’s important to network with fellow engineers and participate in opportunities for travel or positions that take you around the world. But that affects the home and relationships in the family.”
Peiler’s advice is to be open. “Engineering is a wide field. Really, there is no stereotype of what an engineer can do. So, if you’re outgoing and you like to work with people, there might be customer facing roles. If you’re into design work, then there’s R&D, and creating things on the backend. There are all kinds of different areas you can go into. In my case, I went into management because I like working with people and bringing together projects and teams. Engineering takes a technical mind but it also takes communication skills, listening to people, and bringing their ideas together. So, I would say to women who are thinking about engineering, that there’s such a variety of things that you can do that most likely there’s something that you’ll find that you really like. If you give it a shot, you can maybe find that area even if you don’t know it right at the beginning.”
While work-life balance is one challenge, many women engineers face different challenges than men face. A frequent one involves confidence. “For me personally, it took a long time to come out of my shell and feel confident and speak up. Today, people might not see me as quiet or shy. Early on, though, I had several internships, and in my first few years working as an engineer, I was not confident. I think that limited my impact in a meeting or on a team. When I began speaking up, I was a little surprised but happy to realize that people listened to me and they valued my inputs. I think that was just me kind of growing and coming out of my shell.
What also helped Peiler was to be noticed and acknowledged by more senior people in the company. Some let her know she was a little quiet, but then they took the time to coach and encourage her. They would make a point to pull her in, include her, and even echo something she said, or in the conversation, point out that they agree. That can be helpful to encourage someone to speak out.
“The field of engineering is, I would say, definitely a gratifying one. It rewards you with your day-to-day work, but I also think people recognize what women engineers bring to the table. When they do speak up, it’s a little bit different covering different angles or experiences, and it’s needed.
Peiler was involved in developing the Women in Automotive Lighting Leadership, a conference to bring together prominent, respected, successful automotive women in the field of lighting. Not only does such an event spur on idea sharing and creativity, it also lets women know they are not the only one experiencing challenges.
“By talking through situations and hearing people go, ‘oh yeah, I’ve experienced that before, and this is how I dealt with it,’ helps others realize these are common experiences.”
For Peiler, fun is problem-solving. She enjoys how engineering allows her to be constantly creative and innovative. “With light, everyone wants a different look. It’s kind of like fashion, and so you can light something from the edge, you can light it from the back, you can make things turn on and off and change the colors. There are many ways to achieve a goal. Plus, my team will bring up issues they’re having, and the ways that you can address those are often different from day to day. It’s a very dynamic environment, and I like creativity and innovation.
“Even something that has an exact function, you can approach it with 10 different electrical circuits. Something that looks the same from the outside might have 10 different ways optically to make it look that way, and each one has different properties. In our case because we make the little components that light up, it might have different devices in there, so yeah, it’s fun.
The lessons of failure
When projects don’t go according to plan, it’s always an opportunity to learn. One of the lessons Peiler learned involved a street lighting project. She and her team were trying to make a demonstration of one of the very first outdoor street lighting done completely with LEDs. They had some issues with the design that did not work. But there was already a commitment and a tight timeline on the project, so it needed to be fixed and fast. In the end, they completed the project.
“Initially, it looked like it would be impossible to fix. We exhausted every possibility to make something work out. But sometimes, miraculous solutions present themselves; what you thought it not impossible becomes possible. We found a solution. The lit street lights were beautiful and it was wonderful, but I would say what I learned in that scenario where we had a failed design is it takes a team to come up with a solution and pulling everyone’s heads together and basically brainstorming about what could be done, getting creative.”
Filed Under: Women in Engineering