Thursday, August 30, 2012

LED Signs 101: LED sign system components

-Deacon Wardlow

Driver board, LED Tile, Modules, Panels, Quads, etc. If one were to look at all the different titles, they’d be misled into thinking they were different things when they’re all component titles for the same thing; an LED “panel” made up of a matrix of either 8x16, 16x16, or even 32x32 pixels (LED groups) with connectors for power and communications meant for LED Signage. LED components can be confusing and even though the industry has been in existence for decades, the terms are not standardized across the board.

Many manufacturer’s don’t want you to understand the systems. The more complex it seems, the less likely they figure you are to dig deeper and get to understand what they’re really using to produce the product. Here’s a quick tutorial (which will be expanded and expounded upon later):

Power Supplies: Be wary of private-labeled systems. A sign shop doesn’t make it’s own ballasts and power supplies for signs. They reach out to the top manufacturer and get the best product at the best price. It’s possible to specify some particular component tweaks, but the reason they do this is reliability. A main manufacturer who specializes in power supplies builds millions of units (not thousands) and they work to ensure the clients get the best quality. It’s nice to have a private-label, but who stands behind that brand should something happen to the manufacturer of the LED Display?

PCB (Printed Circuit Boards) and LED Panels: A lot of companies are claiming to be “made in the USA” when in fact they buy off-the-shelf product from somewhere in Asia and put it in a cabinet. This is akin to me claiming a paint-by-numbers set I’ve done is my own masterpiece. If the company is not engineering their own solution, they’re handing control over to someone else and they have little/no control over quality and the ability to modify the product to meet consumer demand or to match changes in technology which may offer a better, cheaper alternative technology solution to those able to change with the times.

Controller: The controller is the engine which drives the LED Sign forward. There’s a reason auto manufacturers spend so much money and time on their engines, the engine makes a huge difference. While standard components are somewhat important (i.e. what type of power and connection cables are selected) the controller NEEDS to be something specified and engineered by the manufacturer. The controller is the heart of their Display and it’s important that heart get the maximum number of beats and performs optimally for the lifetime of your system. Make sure the manufacturer you’re dealing with can go over their controller and explain how they engineered a solution specifically for their systems. You can’t go online and find a great solution for LED signage. The solution has to be specifically engineered to the use and controllers (more than anything) need to be product-specific.

Control boards (logic board, receiver cards, etc.) and Control Chips: While this is digging deeper than most people prefer to go, it’s important (again) to make sure the company has sourced the product properly. A year ago, Thailand had some major floods and over 80% of the world’s market were getting hard drives from Thailand. When the source “dried up” from the flood, hard drive levels were at an all time global low and prices were driven up. Several companies ate the loss and others had to increase cost on their systems (causing dealers to lose a lot of sales)/ Without solid sourcing (including a backup source in a different country/location) it’s too easy for a localized event to suddenly cause issues with the ability for a manufacturer to meet market demand. When the 6-8 weeks you were expecting for production on an LED Sign turns into 12+ weeks, nobody will be happy. Proper sourcing avoids these kind of pitfalls.

Software: Is this a component? Most definitely! All too often I see the standard Chinese software on systems “made in the USA.” What the end-user gets is a sub-standard control system, software which is not simple and straightforward to use, and software which DOES NOT meet the market requirements. EVERY LED Signage manufacturer should have a unique solution for their clients. When an end-user comes back to the manufacturer with a special request (i.e. someone who’s display needs to be tied into a scoring system for a sports arena), you’ll find how important it is to have this component sourced through the manufacturer. A request to a “standardized” control system manufacturer in Asia will either never be answered or get the, “We will see” response. LED Sign Manufacturers need to be able to respond to market demand and customer requests and this means software which they can modify as needed.

Don’t accept a mediocre solution at a low price. Fight for the best combination of quality and price possible and always dig deeper. Make sure the system you’re getting is the best possible and unique to the manufacturer of your choice. You don’t always get what you pay for. Make sure what you’re getting is what you expect and the manufacturer can meet your needs.

*Please comment here and/or email me directly with requests at Vantage LED has white paper resources and more educational material on the website (, check out the site periodically as we’re constantly adding new material.

**Note all posts/thoughts/writings are strictly the viewpoint of me and me alone and do not reflect nor speak for Vantage LED’s beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, etc. unless specifically stated.

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