Chat with Matt: An interview with Michael Bluhm

Matt Dixon is the editor of Sign & Digital Graphics.

This installment is with Michael Bluhm, Director, Product Solutions – Sign, for SloanLED.

What career path brought you to your current position with Sloan LED?
In 2003, I took a National Sales Position at a large wholesale sign company. I spent my four years there selling electric signs to other sign companies in North America. The timing was perfect as the economy was strong and automation for channel letter manufacturing was becoming popular. This automation allowed wholesalers to support customers quickly, reducing lead times to the end customer.  

Over your career in the sign-lighting field, what has been the most impressive technological advancement?
Over the past 12 years at SloanLED I have been most impressed by the advancement in two areas of LED technology.

The first has been the ability of the LED manufacturers to improve the color consistency of white LEDs. This “binning” process has evolved to allow our customers to not experience any color variation from batch to batch, which has been an issue in years past. We can now select from any top tier LED manufacturers, at a cost premium, a specific size bin for the color temp with assurances that the largest variation of white color tone cannot be detected on the face of a sign by the naked eye.

The second most impressive technological advancement has been the improvement in LED efficacy, which defines how much light is generated by the energy provided. In 2010 we released a part that eclipsed 50 lumens per watt. Later this month we will release a product that is approaching 160 lumens per watt with a multi-die packaged in a 24VDC circuit design. Increased light output and less lost energy (heat) means fewer power supplies needed.

What are the biggest product demands you hear from sign manufacturers regarding LED lighting?
If you go back 10 years, sign manufacturers were looking for LED solutions to replace neon. They needed a brighter LED solution at a lower cost. That need has been met.

Now sign manufacturers are looking at LED solutions to replace fluorescent lamps and HID products.  Although all LED lamp replacement solutions still cost more than a fluorescent, the reliability of LED is far superior. It’s this segment of the market we have focused our engineering efforts toward in hopes to continue to lead the market with innovation.

What is the most common reason you find that LED signs don’t work as intended, and how can sign companies avoid that issue
Since LEDs are “points of light” and not a continuum of light as in neon or fluorescent they can sometimes illuminate substrates poorly. Flexible face material, polycarbonate and acrylic all react differently when illuminated and one needs to test to establish proper spacing behind the material for even illumination. Digital graphics can also add more complexity to finding the appropriate light solution. Infinite variations in depth and row spacing will require the company to test for the appropriate placement of the LED solution for best results. We publish product density guidelines as a quick guideline but we encourage our customers to test to achieve their specific desired results.

Sloan LEDs have been used in some very large installations. Which one is the company most proud of in terms of ability to fulfill the customer’s demands?
We were just awarded a large project in France illuminating 450 advertising columns located throughout the city of Paris. Our engineers designed a custom LED light linear solution that was 128” long to replace a combination of T-8 lamps. Prototypes were quickly made and tested. Customer feedback was addressed, and the final version was sent to the client via detailed drawings for approval. It was the innovative design, focus and speed of our organization that allowed us to win this project. The retrofit project will commence in June this year.

If a sign shop is already installing LEDs for their signs, what are some tangential services they can provide that might allow them to increase business?
Retro-Fitting existing T12 lamps is an area where any sign company can improve sales. When a customer calls in looking to hire a sign company to service a failed fluorescent lamp, some companies suggest retrofitting the complete sign with an LED solution. Taking a service call worth a few hundred dollars and upselling an LED replacement increases revenue and improves customer satisfaction.

Where do you see LED technology in 10 years, and what benefits will this have for sign makers?
Recently we’ve seen huge jumps in quality of light. A major gripe against LEDs has been that they cannot compete with incandescent or daylight. I think as a result of LED’s shortcomings, lots of studies have been spawned to figure out why certain types of light look good and make us feel good. I think these concerns will evaporate in the next 10 years and “full-spectrum” or 95+ CRI (or… an even better metric than CRI) will become the norm.

LEDs will begin replacing a lot of high-powered light sources. LEDs just recently got to a place where they can replace car headlights. While they already exist on a smaller scale, in 10 years LEDs will become the norm for spotlighting, stadium lighting, and other high-powered lighting applications.

I think a lot of lighting technologies are going to disappear. As LED costs decrease and efficacy increases, I think fluorescent, metal halide, and HPS will be basically gone in 10 years. LEDs can provide better quality of light at better efficacy, and it will be very soon where cost will not be an issue. At that point, it will just be a matter of choosing the LED solution that best fits your application.