GLP celebrates two golden decades
When Udo Künzler first set up German Light Products (GLP) in 1994 the disco boom was still running at full tilt, and the supply industry was wondering how to transition out of the scanner, helicopter and flower FX idiom that had dominated the genre, into the new world of moving yokes.
He found the perfect solution — a product that straddled both applications. But after pioneering a hybrid that captured all the market requirements for fast mirror scanning with a pan and tilt housing (the revolutionary Patend Light) he could little have forecast that two decades later the company would be at the forefront of LED technology, leading the series of ‘impression’ fixtures onto some of the highest profile concert tours on the planet — and at the same time building an industry sub-brand almost as big as GLP itself.
Based in the Karlsbad-Karlsruhe region of Baden-Württemberg, Künzler had been working as an electronic technician at Siemens, keeping one eye on the activity of his uncle, Hartmut Braun, whose B&K Showelectronic had become a major supplier to the nightclub market (as well as being owner of the 1400-capacity Galaxis nightclub). It’s easy to see how a young technician, working in the fairly impersonal environment of a multinational engineering conglomerate, could become seduced. “I would help Hartmut install discotheques in the summer months using scanners and helicopters and became infected by this,” he rationalised.
After completing his compulsory national service, he returned to civilian life 15 months later and decided not to take up his original post at Siemens. “I wanted to create something I could see a result from and Hartmut needed more help at B&K ... so I became an employee.”
He was soon head of the technical dept, modifying fixtures including early lighting pieces from Taiwan and China, and making them fit for purpose, as well as installing high profile nightclubs such as Chic in Gran Canaria.
Scanners particularly intrigued him and in 1993 he came up with the concept for the Patend Light.
“This was a completely new idea,” he said, “and directly led to the formation of GLP. We were aware that Vari-Lite was available for rental only and had the idea of developing a fast scanner, running a moving head and 360° beam rotation in pan and tilt mode.“
Housing a 575W and later a 1200W discharge lamp on ultra-fast Roto Head the aim of the fully-featured Patend was to deliver smooth slow movements and incredibly fast rotations.
Udo was so excited by the idea of the Patend, that in 1993 he proposed the idea of starting a dedicated and specialized lighting company. “So we formed German Light Products and I became a shareholder with Hartmut, starting from a small 200m2 workshop in the B&K warehouse, with two technicians.”
But such was the complexity of the Patend that it would take time to develop, and sensing the need to start generating cash flow they opened their account with the much simpler and more conventional Startec 2000 scanner, launching it to great acclaim at Frankfurt Musik Messe in 1994 (before Prolight+Sound had broken off as an independent show). This existed in two versions — the 575HMI and 250W halogen.
This had the desired effect, and although the scanner was hardly an original idea GLP enjoyed good sales to discotheques and small rental companies by handling all production and design in Germany.
All the while they continued to work on the Patend Light 575, combining moving head and scanner technology, and by 1996 they were ready to launch this at the PLASA Show in London. In fact so excited was one world famous lighting company on seeing it that their R&D director wanted to buy the company on the spot. “The only problem,” reflects Udo, “was that we didn't own the IP on the technology — so the deal fell flat.”
The chassis of the original product was aluminium while the scaled down Mini was in a plastic housing. “We spent a lot of money with a design company to fine tune the aesthetic. The reaction at PLASA couldn't have been better — the only problem was that by now there were other moving yoke products on the market [in the era after Vari-Lite], including Martin Pro whose Mac became the moving head bible for everyone.” However, they retained the 575, 1200 and Mini Patends which became quickly recognisable and extremely popular, so that today they represent icons of the period. One who adopted it was Tim Brennan at PRG who installed several in a Las Vegas club.
Other fixtures followed, most notably the Max, the Mighty Scan and the Pocket Scan 100W halogen with laser diode, which sold extensively in the US where a major wholesaler was distributing their products at the time. Mini Startec II then extended that family, and GLP produced its own dedicated DMX controllers (such as Show Designer SD1 and SD2 and Startec 2000 controller). Other popular catalogue items included the Joy 150 and 300 in 2000 and later in 2004, the successful Junior Scan.
Encouraged by their ability to pioneer technology, at the beginning of the new millennium GLP undertook the huge challenge of developing their Blue Tools platform, which should have been a world-beater.
“The idea was for a moving head with a special design and bi-directional rotation — a moving head, scanner and wash light combined,” remembers Udo Künzler. “We made the design and engineering and we had wanted to make the electronic power supply ourselves but outsourced the work. The product never got finished ... it was too complicated making the electronics to drive the discharge lamp, so we abandoned it.”
It was a huge disappointment not only to Udo but also to their new R&D man (now head of R&D), Markus Salm — who had previously been a customer of the company (and in fact owned some of the large Patend lights). Although he has subsequently spearheaded the successful impression campaign this first experience proved to be a baptism of fire.
Ironically, to recoup the heavy investment forfeited in the Blue Tools project GLP then developed Ypoc (you don't need to be a master of anagrams to work out how that name was derived). Instead of pioneering technologies they decided it was safer to resort to a ‘me too’ approach, with a basic 250W moving head spot and wash, followed by 575 and 700 versions. “This was a big success for us in 2002, and helped us to recoup the investment on the earlier product,” stated Künzler. The sales of Junior Scan two years later further added to the currency of the company.
Along the way GLP unexpectedly diversified into football and goal line technology via the start-up vehicle, Cairos Technologies. Udo Künzler was one of four founding directors along with Hartmut Braun (an idea that grew out of a chance bar room conversation following a football training session). The target was the 2006 World Championships and GLP was folded into Cairos while their R&D team worked feverishly on developing a new technological approach to determining whether a ball had crossed the goal line. The company later bought back its independence in 2010.
However, the investment the company received from its major shareholder had enabled GLP itself to expand. The funding helped them kick-start the impression programme and enabled them to recruit the highly experienced Kasper Gissel as Business Director in October 2007 to lead this new LED adventure. “He brought a lot of positive energy and created a completely new structure, bringing onboard some of the biggest rental companies,” recalls Udo.
In fact the Dane had been one of the key members of the old Martin Professional team as Head of International Business Development, and his network of contacts immediately reaped dividends. “We had to engage with LDs in order to make the impression a professional LED light,” he says, “ensuring we had an even beam, smooth dimming and that it was flicker-free for TV use.” Thus GLP became the first in the world to have a professional LED wash light.
Success was not long in coming and LD’s and rental companies were soon adopting the various iterations of the new GLP impression 90. But as Ypoc 700 became the company’s final discharge moving head, how had this new excursion into the brave new world of LED taken root?
“We had seen some other LED moving heads but they just weren’t sufficiently powerful,” remembers Udo. “We already had the idea of making a wash light but didn’t like the way it was being done and had to find a way that differed from the ‘three dot’ approach. We spoke to Osram and Lumileds, looking for a chip that would work, and design wise we realised we didn't need a big base, so we could make it lighter.
“We believed that if the product was small, easy and lightweight we would be giving the market what it wanted. This quality of light had not been seen before — it was far superior and produced a very good white.”
They opened their account with the impression 90 in 2007, so embarking on the most exciting chapter in their history. High profile endorsements were not long in coming.
The globally telecast United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen (COP15) in Autumn 2009 featured over 1000 impressions lighting two big halls (courtesy of Seelite A/S) — used entirely in white in view of their energy saving levels. This was the point at which GLP knew they were pursuing the correct path in developing a new generation of fixtures that could deliver world-class quality.
The initial impression 90 was followed by the Meisterstück, which the company quickly discontinued, since it had now considerably raised the bar in its quest for perfection, and decided that the colour consistency achieved fell short of the new standard. However, the more commercially priced Volkslicht, with no compromise on feature-set, became a major hit (nowhere more so than in the States, where it was affectionately known as the ‘Volkswagen’).
“The thing with impression was that the entire fixture was made by us using standard parts and it has been a big success,” considers Udo. In fact the 120Rz Zoom showed immediate advances, using Lumileds’ Rebel LEDs (transitioning from the K2 used on the original impression 90). This smaller lamp enabled 120 sources to populate the same space as the previous 90 K2’s, increasing output and providing a zoom facility.
Some 200 pieces were used on the popular ZDF TV show, Wetten, Dass out in Mallorca, and with Kasper Gissel, and Mark Ravenhill in full flow, rental companies started beating a path to their door. In Europe major hire operations such as Procon (now part of PRG) and Glenn Roggeman’s AED Rent came onboard. And after leading LDs such as Jerry Appelt and Ollie Olma adopted it, requests came in thick and fast.
But what about on the other side of the world? The company also realised it badly needed representation in the US, and another high profile recruit was Mark Ravenhill, the Martin Professional stalwart, whose lighting designs over the years had won many accolades.
Mark Ravenhill had joined the company in 2009 — a year that was to prove pivotal for GLP. A former colleague of Kasper Gissel at Martin Pro, he was anxious to move to the US with his family. “We decided to set up the US office and Mark loved the idea right away,” says Udo. “That year the impression was everywhere and it was an easy decision for him to make.” And based on his experience and huge network of contacts, Mark himself wasted no time in building up a top sales team to start penetrating many of the major/multinational and medium sized rental houses across the States.
In the same year GLP decided to extend their display options by purchasing the beleaguered G-LEC. The creative video company had made a name for itself with unique products such as Phantom, the first semi-transparent video panel that first appeared in 2000, and Solaris, a cable based video system, which offers designers creativity in both 2D and 3D applications.
“We had known the company for a long time — they had been first to develop the transparent screen and curtain and had the same customers. We had good contact with [G-LEC MD] Lars Wolf and they are based only 30 minutes away.”
In fact Solaris was used at the NBA All Star Game, on tour with The Chemical Brothers and Rascal Flatts, and in music videos by acts like One Republic. G- LEC has subsequently undergone a repositioning process and will launching a new range of products, starting at Frankfurt 2014.
One challenge that has confronted every manufacturer in the industry is where to best centre their production in order to match performance with price — without the risk of plagiarism, IP theft or shipment of a bad production batch. The Ypoc, was one example of a product that had been successfully manufactured in China while a second production unit in Slovakia today handles controllers and commodity items.
But with the impression GLP were determined to minimise the risk. “Initially the factory we were using was doing OEM work for a number of companies, which left us exposed, so now we only do the pre-assembly in China before the product returns to Germany where the electronics are designed and then Slovakia for final assembly. This way we don’t give the innovation away.”
And Markus Salm adds, “Now that we are handling the entire design, rather than outsourcing to external industrial designers, it is a better solution all round, and we know that everything is working well.”
In 2010, the impression Spot One became the industry’s first high output RGB LED spot fixture, followed by the impression Wash One, which was again ahead of its time. The key differentiator was that while some RGB units on the market were very low in output other LED fixtures had better output but were not RGB; it was the combination that made Spot One so unique.
“It was a bit like saying ‘the electric car is coming,!’” states Udo Künzler philosophically. “We focused heavily on this ... we thought it would be the next big thing. The LED market had changed and four colour RGBW chips were enabling the colour to be mixed in the LED. We used the traditional moving head design and incorporated new technology — all led by Markus.”
But while sales have simmered rather than soared, just as GLP had earlier reverted to the safety of Ypoc this time they returned to their earlier impression platform, producing two stupendous products based on the upgrades in LED technology, since a generation had now passed and the first LED products were ready to be retired. These were the X4 and smaller X4S. PRG in mainland Europe recently ordered a vast quantity of X4’s for the German market alone, and this number was doubled Europe wide to replace the old impression 90.
Helping to drive the new business this past few months has been another high profile industry professional, boasting a 20-year career with Procon (PRG). Based in Hamburg, Oliver Schwendke joined as new Key Account Manager following the merger between Procon and PRG. Arriving in time for last autumn’s PLASA Show in London he is quickly reconnecting GLP with
some of its historic customers and most influential designers in the industry. In particular, he sees the midrange rental companies as fertile ground and also big technology-led events that the German speaking markets are renowned for, such as motor shows.
Meanwhile, in conjunction with GLP’s optics specialist, KaiChang Lu, Markus Salm is pushing the envelope ever wider. The result of this will be another new impression destined for Frankfurt launch this spring called the X4L.
“This is a cross between the impression XL and X4,” he explains. “It contains 37 LEDs but is the first to have separate control of the colour for every LED and also has a much faster zoom.
“Most products have no separate modules so repairing them becomes a nightmare but have designed the X4L so it is modular.
As for the future, he acknowledges that while you can’t keep expecting LEDs to get forever brighter, maintaining the relationship with the LED manufacturers is crucial. “In any case, sometimes you can’t make use of the brightness they offer because the source is too big. We need a small source but as bright as possible which is why we use our own optics rather than outsource.”
“One LED with four colours was an innovative step which we had originally asked Philips to do with the Rebel LEDs — but this kind of change doesn't happen all the time.
The new X4L will mark not only the start of the next chapter for GLP but also the next decade. Everyone is excited, including Oliver Schwendke. “This will fill a major need in our portfolio,” he states. “It is a bigger fixture combining higher brightness, and with all the advantage of the impression X4 optics.”
GLP’s journey from humble beginnings has certainly been a fascinating one — and it is far from over. Today the company sits with products in London’s West End and on New York’s Broadway, on many number one rated global concert tours, on a huge range of TV shows — and at corporate presentation events on a daily basis. It has three strategic bases — in Los Angeles, Karlsbad and a Hong Kong base run by Asia general manager, Michael Münz.
It is the perfect platform from which to take on the next 20 years.