THINK ALL LED tubes are made in China? Think again. IT engineer Markku Laatikainen has started manufacturing high-tech lamps in the middle of a Finnish forest.
In an ultramodern factory located in Kajaani, a small city surrounded by millions of pine trees, plucky start-up Valtavalo is taking on the huge Chinese producers and global brands.
The company’s history started in the 1990s when its future founders, the Laatikainen brothers, were still entrepreneurs in their previous companies in the IT field.
'We often sat in the sauna together and talked about maybe setting up a business together, coming up with various ideas. Years later, we came across LED tubes online by chance and knew that this was it,’ says Markku Laatikainen, who steers the company as its managing director.
The company’s decision to focus on replaceable LED tubes at a time when rest of the professional lighting market swore by integrated LED lights was a controversial move.
Additionally, taking on the big brands and their huge production capacities in China was eye-brow raising among senior lighting industry chiefs.
But mostly people have been confused about keeping the production operations in expensive first-world Finland, ‘on the edge of Europe and far from everybody else’.
All of the decisions may sound unreasonable to hard-headed execs, but the company’s philosophy has always been to stand out on the market.
In the the premises of an old paper mill, the brothers installed a state-of-the-art robotised assembly plant.
The automated assembly lines put together LED tubes for general lighting as well as according to special requirements.
Both of the lines are able to manufacture the most common tube sizes from 45 cm length up to 150 cm.
‘We have two basic designs for tube products and these can then be customised based on the customer or their requirements. The automated lines are perfect for manufacturing LED tubes used for growing plants, for example, since it basically only takes changing the LED component of our product,’ sats Laatikainen describes.
The company manufactures LED tube products under their own brand, but they also subcontract for several other companies.
One of Valtavalo’s guiding principles has been to offer the key strengths of integrated LED lights in the form of a replaceable LED tube, and this is something professional lighting markets value.
Today, long service life or warranty time, intelligent lighting control or tolerance to high temperatures are no longer exclusive to integrated LED lights.
Establishing a company during the financial crisis, in 2008, and leaving behind a good job to do so may sound like madness to some, but for Laatikainen brothers and Tuukka Prykäri, a doctoral researcher at the University of Oulu, it seems to have been self-evident.
For now, Valtavalo has mostly serves Nordic customers, so producing the high-quality products in a Nordic country has been well-founded.
The availability of high-quality manufacturing materials from nearby areas has also been possible. And when it comes to the price of labour, using a robot costs around the same in Finland as it does in China.
‘Focusing on standardised, easily replaceable light sources, such as LED tubes, was a decision made with common sense. Tube-type lights have been sold for near a century, so people are familiar with their usability, and the long-term maintenance costs of a replaceable tube are often significantly lower to customer when compared to integrated LED lights,’ says Laatikainen.
For now, the company’s bold choices have borne fruit; Their net sales have consistently grown over the years and now, after heavy product and production investments and two challenging years, it seems that profitability seems to be improving again.
After the new line investments, the company’s own total production capacity is currently over 1,000,000 LED tubes a year. The lines’ combined capacity can be further doubled from the current one with fairly small changes, enabling a turnover of over €30 million.
- See the latest LED tubes at the LuxLive 2019 exhibition. The show takes place on Wednesday 13 November and Thursday 14 November 2018 at ExCeL London. Entry is free if you pre-register HERE.