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


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Digital Signage Sales 101: Knowledge is power - what makes a good Digital Signage Solution.

-Deacon Wardlow
Knowledge is powerful, not solely in the acquisition of information, but rather how and when it's used. A big problem in our industry is the lack of education available to the public. Most Digital Signage integrators and specialists acquired their information through trial/error, experience, and bits and pieces gathered on the long road to implementing solutions for their clients.

There is a change coming in the industry. I've noticed more and more vendors, manufacturers, and resellers are starting to realize the power and importance of educating the client base. In this case, there is no "too little too late." The more people who bring information and education as opposed to advertorials and edusales, the better. An educating buyer will see past the glitz and glamor and ask to see how the system really works as opposed to flashy pics and false promises. 

I advise people to dig deeper when looking at solution and offers. Find out what's really being put on the table and what's being left out of view. Here are a few things to ask for with any system you're reviewing:

How scalable is the solution? When the system is in place and a client opts to grow that system to multiple displays and (more importantly) multiple sites, can they manage everything from a single interface? Can new systems and sites be easily added to the software/cloud solution?

When running the system, how much instruction is required to use the system? Is a higher level of expertise and experience required or can a new user get up and running with minimal training (an hour or less)? Does the system pass the 5min rule - from initial login, can a person create new content, schedule the content, and send the schedule to the displays within 5 minutes and minimal instruction/walkthrough? How intuitive is the system? 

Based on experience and systems in place, what is the shortest and longest constant use/runtime of a system? How long have they had systems in place and what kind of "stress testing" has been done to ensure a system can operate under various conditions?

Every solution has a place. Few, if any, systems can solve all the clients' needs. Some systems require touch/interactive capability while other are primarily content distribution (limited scheduling and other features). Work with vendors to learn the most you can about the system features and what it can and can't do. If a vendor tells you their system can "do everything" be wary. Better a specialized solution than a "jack of all trades." A jack of all trades can do a lot of things to a small degree, whereas a more specialized solution has stronger features and options available. 

The deeper you dig, the more you reveal and the better you and your clients can understand the solutions proposed. Don't take any one person or company's word on something - to offer solutions, you have to be able to figure out what the need is. The knowledge acquired now goes into the "toolbelt" and the more tools available, the easier and faster a need can be met, a problem solved.

Vantage LED has white paper resources and more educational material on the website (, 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 noted. Direct emails can be sent to for queries and/or assistance.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Digital Signage, Need to Know: Innovation and Progress, or Complacency and Stagnation in LED Sign Technology

- Scott Hofheins

With the highly anticipated Apple Live event on Tuesday still causing excitement and buzz across the country, it reminds us that innovation continues to be a key component for a successful product. While there are some in the LED sign industry who believe things are best left the way they are, history has proven that true progress in any industry relies heavily innovation and organizations not afraid to take risks.

It is well understood that the sign industry is different than the consumer electronics industry. Manufacturing outdoor electronics that need to operate consistently for 5-10 years means that innovative development takes more time. However, true innovation is still extremely important and necessary for the health of the industry and the end user experience as a whole.


The options now available for outdoor digital signage has, thankfully, progressed and evolved since the days of flip discs, incandescent marquees and simple LED marquees. While there is still a very secure place for single color text only message centers, I believe I speak for many by expressing my gratitude that full color technology and higher resolutions were developed. Content is more dynamic, and pleasant to read. Sign operators can be more creative and deliver their message more effectively to their targeted viewers.

This evolution did not come from an attitude of complacency; it came from people taking the risk of developing new technology to answer the market’s demand for a better and affordable product. Some failed, some succeeded, and the industry is better off because of their efforts. Outdoor digital signage is still young. We will continue to see more innovation, more features, a better experience and a better product for years to come.

The way we interact with our displays has also evolved for the better. We are beginning to see more progress and a significant evolution toward better software, and a better end user experience. You would be hard pressed to find any sign owner who would choose outdated software designed overseas, over a quality domestic provider when truly given the opportunity. And this is one of the challenges with our industry. Too many end users do not get that opportunity. They are accepting sub-par software, or a sub par product because it’s simply what they got with the sign.

This is changing, and will continue to improve as our society gets closer and closer through improved communication and education. We are a world getting larger, while our social circle get’s tighter, giving us better tools and access to important information about any industry, business, manufacturer or organization.


End users in our industry now realize that they have a choice, they can be an educated Digital Signage consumer. They understand the difference between innovative products that offer an array of useful features and options, versus products that offer less simply because they can’t do any better. 

Innovation is hard, and is not without it’s challenges. Even hugely successful organizations like Google have their fair share of flops and failures. Remember Google Lively? No? Exactly. But that is the beauty of true innovators, is they don’t give up. They fix, re-invent, take a different approach, or start from scratch. Change isn’t always popular, but is critical to the progress of technology, and I would argue to the human experience in general.

Without innovation we would still be waiting days, weeks or months for important letters, seeing our recorded history in black and white, and agreeing that the idea of a individuals owning and using personal computers is ludicrous. While there are products and software out that may be gimmicky, over hyped, or bad copies of the original, you have the tools now to weed through it all and get what you want and deserve.

Stay smart, and deal with true innovators who offer products designed, produced, and supported in the US.  


I hope this post has been informative and helpful. As usual, I welcome ALL constructive comments. Please feel free to comment and add anything I’ve missed, or additional tips you may have regarding this topic. Please visit for many other resources, white papers, and of course: Great looking LED Signs!

**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.