Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Digital Signage, Need to Know: Importing LED Signs From China, Re-visited

China sourcing is alive and well, and when properly designed, controlled and managed, products made in China can be very impressive. But,  any serious American company utilizing China as their manufacturing source will have an on-site quality engineer, or preferably an engineering and production support team because with China “you get what you inspect, not what you expect”.

Apple does not phone in a sales order to its Chinese factory for 1,000,000 new iPhones, whatever the next generation, then sit around and drink wine and play ping pong until the boat arrives. 

Let’s face it, for today, China still has a “cost of labor” advantage. But, it’s rising fast, and sometimes when you factor in shipping, communication costs, and hassle, many companies are starting to practice “on-shoring”- bringing production back to the US.  

Some companies utilize Chinese production facilities and actually “rent” time for their own proprietary production run. They may have discovered a well-engineered and manufacture sub-component and then applied strategic modifications to improve its performance. It’s not the typical “off the shelf” standard component but it may have started off as one. There are many ways for the “China Connection” to be successfully exploited and maximized.

So, it does not matter if you are a major US LED sign manufacturer, Apple, Boeing, GM or thousands of others, somehow China is in your operation’s life- for better or for worse!

My concern centers on the LED sign product designed and engineered in China, built in China, Inspected and certified in China, and shipped from China without American talent involved in the process at all. Just like when ordering from the “Mail Order Bride” catalogs of the 1800’s, what you get may not be what you expected. And it’s probably harder to ship your double-sided 4x8’ LED screen back to Shenzhen than putting that person on the stagecoach and sending her back to Chicago.

My worry falls into 5 categories and while I will not identify Chinese manufacturers, these are personal experiences and first-hand accounts from industry professionals.

NRTL certification (Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory certification- sometimes generically called UL certification), design issues, hardware quality, control software usability, and communication are the 5 Horsemen that ride roughshod  across the backs of LED sign importers. 

So let’s start:

NRTL Certification: It’s been a big deal in the LED Sign Industry and in the last 5 years more and more Chinese Manufacturers are paying attention and becoming ETL, MET or whatever “testing lab” certified. That is generally a good thing. No one wants unsafe or poorly constructed product on the streets, it‘s foolish and dangerous to pretend that certification is unimportant.  

The claim that Chinese product shipped, does not match the specifications of the product submitted for NRTL certification was alleged by 3 separate contacts, unrelated to each other.  In other words, it was alleged that they send the Lexus to the testing lab and ship the Yugo to the US.  Simply inspect (for example) the quality of the electrical wiring insulation and the way electrical supply lines are secured. If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, think it over.

Since most of the world does not require NRTL certification, some wonder if the Chinese effort to provide NRTL certification is to merely placate the US market rather than to improve the product.

Design Issues: Oh where to start? Let’s be simple- for years one US distributor of Chinese products had a high failure rate of the LED signs they sold- real high. Water intrusion, cabinet hinge issues, locking issues, odd mounting holes in the cabinets that had to be plugged up were just a few concerns. 

Then, during one ISA Trade Show a Chinese Marketing Director revealed the truth “In China, most LED signs are mounted within a water-resistant structure or shroud that protects them from the elements. In the US, many small LED signs are simply put on a pole without any surrounding protection- not designed for this.”

This is just one example that importers (and customers) face when assuming that an LED sign is “an LED sign”. They are not all alike, universally.

Hardware Quality:  If I had a dime for every time I found a re-manufactured LED module shipped on a new LED display… well, I’d have a big stack of dimes. Even when confronted with this assertion over and over the manufacturer claimed an “accident”. The truth is that when you push too hard for a deeply discounted price, unique ways are found to meet that demand! 

Power supplies, wiring, cabinet construction, controllers, electrical sockets, and more can fail on any manufacturer’s product. But if you believe that a well-made US LED display is not significantly more reliable than a Chinese designed, manufactured and shipped LED sign then there is some wet land in Florida you might be interested in. 

Sure, some Chinese sub-components are well designed and used on US produced LED displays. I have no argument here. But when that reasonably good product becomes part of an LED sign totally originated in China, the overall reliability is a lot less. 

It’s your hair, pull it out if you want to!

Control Software Usability:  I like Science Fiction. How many times in a movie have I seen the control panel of some captured alien spaceship? A well-meaning scientist accidently activates the control panel and suddenly it’s all aglow with strange shapes and symbols that meant something to some being from some world, but is gibberish to humans. 

Well, for me, trying to use Chinese control software is exactly the same experience. It is designed for an engineer or someone with a lot of patience and time. I am neither of those.

Communication: What do you expect? As Americans sometimes communication is difficult within our own borders- different accents, different manners, different customs, and different time zones.There are tremendous communication issues involved in a trade relationship with China- 8,000 miles, 10 hours difference on time zones (or more), language, meaning of words, and the frustrating time element required to resolve anything. And, oh... find a decision maker, I challenge you!

If you have a problem on Monday, it can literally take until Friday to get an answer that has been misunderstood and must be asked again. What you think you are saying, is not what they may be hearing. If you are impatient, check with your doctor for a prescription of tranquilizers because you will need them.

To the Chinese Manufacturer’s credit, they usually appoint a representative that is well-versed in English. That does not solve your problem. It merely gives you a shoulder to cry on and someone to share in your misery.

It’s a complex world. Just ask Boeing. They access 500 suppliers, many international, to obtain 3,000,000 parts to build their 777 Dreamliner Jet Airliner. And you thought you had problems!

Boeing had to make a lot of choices to assemble their supplier list. If every supplier is operating at 100% efficiency and without incident, it is still a monumental task to integrate the vast universe of variables together to create the end product- a safe, well engineered, state-of-the art machine.

LED signs do not, of course, require 3,000,000 parts, but smart choices still have to be made and all the facts have to be known when choosing a supplier. Quality, technology, reputation, and communication are the time-tested factors of success. 

Choose wisely, choose USA.

These comments are my personal perspective and do not reflect the opinion of Vantage LED, Inc. or SignVine, Inc. or any other person or organization. If you have constructive feedback please email me at  - Mike Prongue


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