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Light bulb factory closes; End of era for U.S. means more jobs overseas

The last major U.S. factory making ordinary incandescent light bulbs will soon be closing. When it does, the remaining 200 workers at the Winchester, Va., plant, about 70 miles west of Washington, D.C., will lose their jobs, marking a small, sad exit for a product that began with Thomas Alva Edison's innovations in the 1870s.

"I knew it was a good lamp design," he recalled recently. In retrospect, in fact, it was a key innovation. The Smithsonian houses Hammer's original spiral CFL prototype.

At the time, however, the design had one big problem. Bending all that glass into the required shape was slow and required lots of manual labor.

"I used to say you would need 40,000 glass blowers to make the parts," Hammer said. "Without automation, it was economically unfeasible. It was a lamp before its time."

The company decided to make investments in other types of lighting then being developed.

Years passed. The next major innovator to try his hand at CFLs was Ellis Yan, a Chinese immigrant to the United States, who had started his own lighting business in China and then in the early '90s turned his attention to the possibilities of CFLs.

To make CFLs, he had workers in China sit beside furnaces and bend the glass by hand. Even with the low-wages there, the first attempts were very expensive, clunky and flickered when turned on, he said. But he persisted.

"Everybody [in the industry] stayed back and was watching me," he recalled. "No one else wanted to make the big investment for the next generation of technology."

The business prospered and Yan's factories in China employed as many as 14,000 - not so far off from the 40,000 glass blowers that Hammer had once imagined would be necessary. With new automation techniques, Yan is seeking to cut the number of his employees in China, where wages are rising, to 5,000 by year's end.

Today, about a quarter of the lights sold in the United States are CFLs, according to NEMA, an industry association. Of those, Yan says, he manufactures more than half.

Someday soon, Yan says, he hopes to build a U.S. factory, though he so far has been unable to secure $12.5 million in government funding for the project.

Manufacturing in the United States would add 10 percent or more to the cost of building a standard CFL, he said, but retailers have indicated that there is a demand for products manufactured domestically.


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