LED Displays: A Formidable Foe
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LED Displays: A Formidable Foe

The scuttlebutt continues over who is number one: Mr. LED, with his promise of longer life, Mr. Neon with her bragging rights of years of loyalty to the Sign Man, or Mr. Fiber Optics and his daring attempt to play it safe under wet conditions. Who will be victorious?

By Johnny Duncan

The answer is that all three will. There is still a place for each product to satisfy your customer’s needs. The key is to learn the applications of each and be prepared (educate yourself) to provide the products, installation and service in an ever-changing market.

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  • One of these three contestants, LED, is emerging fast as technology allows it to evolve into a variety of uses. Some of these new uses can benefit your business by giving you a host of diversified products to offer your clients.

    Evolving of the competitor
    Photo courtesy of Time-O-Matic
    The first commercially usable LEDs were developed in the 1960’s by combining three primary elements: gallium, arsenic and phosphorus to obtain a 655nm red light source. As LED technology progressed through the 1970’s, additional colors and wavelengths became available. Then, in the early 90's came the development of high-brightness LEDs, which created performance increases that allowed LEDs to mature from indicator lights to sources of illumination.

    Today, LED use in signage is wide and varied. LED is used in applications for channel letter illumination, moving message boards, and window displays. The imagination of entrepreneurs, electrical engineers and architectural designers are developing new uses at a rapid pace.

    The future of LEDs is wide open, but there are a few areas of improvement that are becoming immediately evident. “The future holds better light output” says Lou Reik, Electrical Engineer with Time-O-Matic. “We see the LED industry as ever-increasing the light output which is very important to us. Improving on the red, blue and green colors is great, but a better, brighter light output is on the horizon.”

    One of the arguments from neon lovers used to be that LED cannot hold a candle to neon in regards to light output. With increasing technology, LED is gaining huge amounts of ground in that area.

    Photo courtesy of LivingWindow
    In addition, power consumption is improving for LEDs. As Steve Velte, President of Business Development at OnScreen Technologies pointed out, “The future for LED will bring more efficiency in power consumption…creating more demand in products.” Velte’s business is unique and creative in that they offer a see-through LED design called Living Window that permits full visibility throughout the sign and allows you to actually see through the video display to the outside, while letting ambient light to enter and customers outside to see into the store.

    Photo courtesy of LivingWindow
    Most valuable player
    Most of the current LED products have gone through years of development to get where they are now. Moving message centers are springing up all over the world and they will continue this trend into the future due to the increased technology and the demand for easier, changeable applications.

    “The ability to change messages remotely or wireless is one of the selling features for the message centers” states Velte. “Customers now have more of an ability to control their signs and this feature places the message centers in high demand.”

    Lou Reik of Time-O-Matic concurs. “LEDs are coming closer together resulting in higher resolutions. In addition, in the message centers, there is a color growth area resulting in a more pleasing appearance.”

    Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

    For Walter Sanchez of Grandwell Industries, the message centers are not the only hot LED items. “Because consumers are backing the movement of LED growth, we’ve seen a greater demand in LED window units or miniature outdoor displays along with the message centers.” The same type of window sign demand that used to be filled with neon, are now being satisfied by LED options. Most of the conversion is not necessarily because the customer is unhappy with their neon signs, but because of the marketing of LED in those particular applications. Customers are now realizing that they have a choice.

    Player improvements
    As with any technological improvements, there are bound to be some challenges to overcome in order to provide better customer service. “Electronic signs are fairly new, so some of the details or principles of operation can be challenging to customers”, says Reik. “The operation of message centers can be fairly complex for customers, so it is our job to do better at creating easier operational methods.”

    Sanchez agrees, “When using a PC, consumers are used to using software like Microsoft Word, so there is a software learning curve to overcome for the customer. Engineers and manufacturers are trying to simplify the software to make it easier for everyone to use.”

    Angie Langley of Adcorp in Huntsville, Texas has also seen the problems with customers having difficulties using the message center software. “It is usually simply a matter of explaining to the customer how the software works and giving them time to learn it.”

    Photo courtesy of Adcorp

    Understand though that it has come a long way since the DOS based programming of as few as 10 years ago. The programming environment has come a long way, but there will always be room for simpler, more user-friendly interfaces with which to change messages and images on the electronic displays.

    Because of the new improvements to LED, there will be other obstacles to overcome. Some of them are caused by pushing the envelope of development. “Even though LED packages are becoming more and more reliable”, says Velte, “the constant push to create better graphics, fonts, etc. also creates more complicated systems for the consumer. This will, of course, be diminished over time as the improvements catch up with the creativity.”

    Some of the challenges with message centers that Velte has experienced mainly relate to the control box or problems caused by power surges. Usually with a little diagnostics, the problem is found and resolved.

    Other improvements that have to be implemented before LEDs can be considered a complete success include overcoming restrictive town laws and ordinances and improving some of the pieces/parts of the signs.

    Grandwell Industries has had their share of overcoming the town law or building owner obstacles. “Because our LED window unit displays are so popular, a customer will have us design one to their specifications for a shopping center store for example. Only after installation is it discovered that the shopping center owner has already set a standard for the whole shopping center to only use green channel letters that are all the same size. It takes some engineering on our part to change the color of the sign so that the customer can convince the owner to give in.”

    Adcorp has had to change the way it puts together some LED time and temperature signs. “We’ve experienced some problems with the temp probe in the past when they were installed in black signs. Either because of the color of the signs and/or the location (sitting on black asphalt with no shade), the temp probes were giving inaccurate readings.

    And finally, although many LED manufacturers predict their products can last as many as 100,000 hr, that number is dependent upon several operating factors. LED lumen depreciation is affected by a variety of environmental conditions, such as ambient temperature, humidity, and ventilation. Control methods and improper thermal management can also significantly shorten the life cycle of most systems.

    The winner
    LED’s have gone from infancy to adolescence and are experiencing some of the most rapid market growth of their lifetime, but obviously, LED is not the only game in town. It has carved a place in the sign industry and will continue to grow in popularity and expand its uses. On the horizon are foldable signs like RediAlert, a homeland security device created by OnScreen Technologies. There are also multiple message centers that can be controlled from a central location. There are still many more applications to come and the sign industry will continue to change and evolve as these ideas continue to come to market.

    Sign professionals need to embrace the new technologies, if for nothing else than to provide their customers with more variety in technologically advanced products. Customers will see LED products at some time in their lives and when they are ready to buy, it may as well be from you. In the long run, the customer is always the winner.

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