HILLSBOROUGH -- Employees at the Osram Sylvania plant have been helping drivers see the light for decades, and with new technology moving in, they'll be a major force in automotive lighting for years to come.
Folks in Hillsborough have been making light bulbs at the local factory since the 1950s, when the focus was on making tiny bulbs that lit up telephone switchboards, said Marketing Director David Hulick. In the 1970s, the plant started making the switch to automobile lighting, and when halogen lighting became the bright idea at the end of the decade, Osram Sylvania jumped on the new technology.
"We partnered with Ford to make the halogen lamps that were whiter, brighter and lasted longer than incandescent bulbs," he said.
The company's main competition, General Electric and Westinghouse, didn't jump as quickly, and Sylvania was able to corner the market on automotive lighting, Hulick said.
Each day, with the exception of a few major holidays and a break in the summer to do plant maintenance, more than 600 employees working three shifts make millions of light bulbs. Almost every car made in America, and many made overseas, contain Osram Sylvania bulbs made right in Hillborough.
The prognosis for Hillsborough workers is in stark contrast to their former counterparts in Manchester, where Sylvania recently closed a plant that employed 139 people. Sylvania transferred some production lines and equipment from that plant to Jaurez, Mexico, and Foshan, China, company spokeswoman Anne Guertin told the Union Leader in March. The Manchester site produced high-intensity discharge (HID) lamps and also served as a laboratory, she said. Sylvania continues to operate a plant in Exeter.
Throughout the massive Hillsborough factory, a constant hum of machines can be heard as tiny tungsten filaments are spun, molten glass is molded into bulbs, and gas is blown in and capped with metal or plastic. Every step of the manufacturing process happens on site, and then the bulbs are loaded on trucks and shipped to customers or distributors.
Most of the bulbs made at Osram Sylvania are either incandescent or halogen, but a new technology is starting to move into the plant as the market for LED lights starts to grow in the automotive industry.
Osram Sylvania has again partnered with Ford to bring LED (light emitting diodes) technology into the mainstream, and when the redesigned 2015 Ford F-150 is released later this year, the contribution of Hillsborough employees will be tough to miss.
"Every time you see that truck come down the road, you'll know those headlights came out of Hillsborough, New Hampshire," said LED Product Manager Jonathan Dunlap.
The F-150 headlight is unlike any other product on the market, Dunlap said. The lamp consists of tiny LEDs built into a thick block of clear plastic, around 2 inches by 4 inches, that has been cut like a diamond to magnify the light and send it in all directions.
"It's like jewelry," said Dunlap. "It's functional and beautiful at the same time."
The plastic block with the LEDs is essentially a bulb and a lens combined into a single, durable unit that can survive the worst road conditions — including off-road driving — that drivers will encounter, said Dunlap.
And unlike halogen or incandescent bulbs, the life expectancy of LED bulbs is hard to beat, lasting as long as a decade or more.
As the Ford project continues, Osram Sylvania is investing millions in product development and manufacturing of LED technology and a steady stream of new machinery for producing LEDs is flowing into the Hillsborough plant on a weekly basis, said Hulick.
What drives the technology, beyond durability, is fashion. LED lights can do things regular bulbs can't do, and aftermarket LEDs have been increasingly popular with people who like to add a bit of bling to their vehicles, Hulick said. It may be a while before LEDs are standard in every car, especially those with lower price points, but the new technology is becoming a must for high-end vehicles.
"I don't think we'll ever stop making halogen bulbs," Hulick said, "but we are making room for more LED."