Tuesday, October 2, 2012

LED Sign 101: Hidden Costs /Issues/What to look for to Identify Quality vs Cheap Components

-Deacon Wardlow

Technology can get very complicated. Once upon a time, it was enough to ask what LED a manufacturer was using for their LED Sign systems, the LED used would be a general qualifier to demonstrate if the manufacturer is using high-end components or cutting corners. With the release of patent-rights with LEDs and improvement of automated systems, this qualifier isn’t enough. It can feel like you need a Doctorate to wade through the technical terms. Have no fear, the “Geek Speak” team is here to help you through.

System specifications are a great place to start your qualification.

Start with the number on Colors (you can find the original blog here). It used to be 16.7 Million colors was good, billions was better. Most control systems are now low enough (cost-wise) to allow manufacturers to go high-end without heavy costs required pushing the numbers up to Trillions. The higher the true color value available the better. Higher color values are an indication of higher overall depth of color and overall system performance. Lower values are an indicator the manufacturer is cutting a corner to achieve a lower cost (a few dollars here and there add up in the long run for a manufacturer, but the corner cut means a lower-performing system which will not be ideal for the long term investment being made).

Power Supplies:
I wrote a blog a few months back on this topic. Not only is the type of power supply critically important, but how the manufacturer is driving the power matters as well. Many manufacturers will drive power supplies at about 70-80%. This doesn’t sound bad to most people (they’re using less than 100% right? That’s gotta be good…). Unfortunately, the power supply performance is based on temperature. The hotter a power supply gets, the lower its performance capability. Optimally, a manufacturer should only be drawing upon 50%-60% or less of the power supply’s available power. This ensures the power supply will perform optimally regardless of high temperatures/environment. If a power supply is driven at 80%, the moment heat rises above 85 degrees, the system performance starts dropping. If the power supplies are driven at high values (70-80%) the moment performance drops below the 70/80% mark, the power supply will shut down and cause the system to go blank.

Conformal Coating:
Conformal Coating is incredibly important for the long-term optimal performance of an LED system. Further details are available in a prior blog written last month. When you look at the green PCB (Printed Circuit Board) on the back of an LED module, you’ll see a glossy shine. This should be even without clumps and dull/matte areas. Conformal coating protect sensitive components from oxidation, break-down, and damage from the environment. Poor conformal coating will cut the lifetime performance and expectation on a system down to a third or less.

FPS (Frames Per Second):
Another indicator to check the quality of the controller is refresh rate and FPS. Low values indicate a lower quality system. Baseline FPS should be 40-60 (not lower than 40) with a refresh rate of 1200+Hz). LED Signage is a big investment which will run returns over a decade. While cutting costs with a cheaper controller may appear good in the beginning, the overall performance takes a hit.

Hidden Costs:
Conformal coating on power supplies, adding a more robust capacitance to circuit boards, higher-grade chips, etc. are all small incidental costs which add up. Many manufacturers avoid higher-end components figuring the end-user won’t know any better and the performance is still “ok.” Not using proper conformal coating leads to shorter lifetime performance for system critical components which will require replacement.

While these seem like small things, the details are important. When looking at a low-cost alternative or dealing with a manufacturer who carries a second, “cost effective” line, make sure you get a full explanation of how that lower cost is achieved. 
The money the manufacturers saved by not using the best process or product ends-up costing the end-user with premature service calls (which can cost hundreds of dollars a visit) and it can cost the dealer their hard earned reputation as a reliable source for quality solutions. Cutting corners may appear to save some money up front, but will cost in the long term.

*I invite you to comment here and/or email me directly with requests at deacon@vantageled.com. Vantage LED has white paper resources and more educational material on the website (http://www.vantageled.com), please check it out when you have a moment. 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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