Perfect Timing for EMCs

Price and quality have never been better

There are those who wait out product development until it reaches what appears to be its peak—that point at which prices are lowest and the technology is at its best. The “timers,” as Keith Knackstedt of Optec Displays, City of Industry, Calif., calls them, are in luck with LED electronic message centers (EMCs).

“The LED chips are now more consistent, brighter and more reliable mainly because of improvements in the heat-to-light ratio. And, since 2004 or so the price of the products we’re putting on the market have dropped about 50 percent,” explains Knackstedt. “People who hesitate to purchase new technology based on cost should know that they’re hitting it just right, just as people are now with HD flat screen TVs in the consumer realm.”

In addition to improvements in the LED modules themselves, which are well documented over the past few years, improvements in power supplies, components, connectors and all the pieces and parts that make up a display have lowered not only the initial cost of EMCs but the total cost of ownership for the end user.

“I don’t know if everyone has caught on to the overall cost of ownership, because that can be a very effective sales tool. Besides the diodes, another way to reduce the cost of ownership is in those things people don’t necessarily see when they’re buying a display, such as advancements in sealing the power supplies, connectors and modules and filtered air ventilation to reduce heat and survive harsh environmental conditions,” says Jeff Everson, applications engineer for Daktronics. “Ultimately, you’re able to get a lot more display for your dollar. The overall effect of that is the ability to create bigger displays with higher resolution at a price point you wouldn’t be able to get to in the past.”

So, while power consumption is down and brightness is up, the durability and longevity of the latest generation of LED EMC displays has increased. This provides a multi-pronged sales attack that addresses both the short-term and long-term costs of a display, which are of primary importance to the end-use customer.

Good Time to Upgrade

What this also provides is an avenue to approach businesses that have older display technologies, whether they’re a previous generation of LED displays or incandescent message centers. There are vast opportunities to replace existing signs with the latest technology in order to bring down the total cost of ownership with both energy savings and decreased maintenance.

“We’ve improved the product design to make it more weather-tight. There are new polymers being used to coat the PC boards to prevent dust and corrosion from reaching the electronic components. People are concerned about risk and having to constantly repair a display, so they look at the risk value of the latest technology and it’s very low, so customers need to be educated about that lower risk,” says Optec Displays’ Knackstedt. “Overall, other than outside economic factors, our industry has progressed to where this product is more mainstream. They pay for themselves, so cost-wise they’re a really good bet.”

All of these factors combined also bring down the advertising costs. As Everson puts it, “The cost of ownership goes down while the advertising impressions go up.” Indeed, electronic message centers have always been a cost-effective medium, particularly in recent years with the fragmentation of media from just a relative few advertising outlets to the thousands of permutations now available.

So Many Choices

Because of that fragmentation, many businesses are overwhelmed by the seemingly infinite choices and have a hard time finding one that actually works and brings business to their door.

EMCs are proven to bring business to the door; they get through the clutter by reaching the consumer with a message that’s immediate and relevant to that time and space. Improvements in the displays have only made those messages more visible and effective. And, while the brightness of the LEDs has improved markedly, EMC manufacturers have also been tackling contrast.

“The other side of brightness is contrast, which is where a lot of the advancements in image improvement have come from. At some point you get to a ceiling with brightness, so where you can improve the image quality is to improve the contrast ratio,” says Daktronics’ Everson. “The most challenging time of day is direct sunlight, so the less sunlight you reflect back and the blacker you can keep that background the more you can enhance image quality. There are areas we’ve experimented in with plastic housings and encapsulating LEDs so you don’t get that reflection where we use small grooves and etches to scatter rather than reflect sunlight. When the sun was shining on a display you could see the individual modules, and the enhancements in contrast have helped eliminate that, making the image more seamless and consistent.”

Moreover, many LED displays can be dimmed and brightened, depending on the time of day. This allows the LEDs to function at maximum efficiency so that they last longer and are more functional.

Mike Freeborg, vice president of customer care at YESCO in Logan, Utah adds, “There’s also the ability to adjust the modules in the field. Over time the LEDs will dim and if you have to replace it with a new module, that module will be naturally brighter, but now there are ways to adjust it so it matches everything else.”

Red Tape

Even with all the advancements in LED EMCs, there’s still one thing that stands in their way… regulations. Freeborg reports that the industry is at a regulatory crossroads.

“On one hand we have a tug of war going on where some municipalities are banning them altogether, whereas others are loosening regulations because there’s a lot more information available to them about the balance of aesthetic and business concerns toward a common sense approach to regulating message centers,” he says. “What’s going on from a regulatory standpoint is what keeps me up at night. It can happen as quickly as a council member deciding one day that they don’t like a certain message center in town. Then, they start the move to ban it, there’s a motion in council and a vote. To undo that takes an immense amount of effort. It’s sad that markets can be artificially closed, and a lot of sign companies are fighting that battle every day.”

Freeborg adds that YESCO, other EMC manufacturers and sign companies are awaiting a safety study from the Federal Highway Administration that was actually due to be completed a few years ago. Freeborg expects that the study will mirror previous studies, such as one conducted by the Virginia Tech Traffic Institute—that shows no discernible effect on traffic safety.

The linchpin of these studies is how long drivers are distracted, a data point that’s used to gauge everything from texting and cell phone use to billboards and message centers. Freeborg says that what constitutes a long enough distraction to make driving hazardous is about two seconds. Texting, for instance, has been shown to distract drivers for four to five seconds.

“The Virginia Tech study showed that the mean glance time toward digital billboards was less than one second, both day and night, and we expect a similar result from the federal study. If they were able to draw a correlation between EMCs and poor driver behavior or increased accidents, the public would have heard about it by now. It would have been important for the National Transportation Safety Board to release something about it,” says Freeborg. “There are groups that think every sign is evil, but we’re constantly promoting that EMCs can be dimmed down at night and be a powerful tool for business while staying within the aesthetic needs of the community. We have approached planners with a program called Finding Common Ground and got it approved for planning credits so planners could learn more about it, because so many are confused about regulating this technology. This program is being co-presented with members of the planning community. We’re making headway, but can we reach everyone in time?”

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