Time to Go High Resolution With EMCs

Your customers are tired of watching HD TV at home, then seeing a blurry picture of the breakfast special with illegible words and pricing on the LED sign you sold them. They may be asking themselves, “Why do I have to settle for low res in a high-res world?”  You may be wondering the same thing.

Guess what? You don’t have to settle anymore. When LED signs, then called EMCs (Electronic Message Centers), first came onto the market in the 1990s, they were 50mm pixel pitch monochrome signs meant for showing time and temperature. A 4’ x 8’ sign was 24 pixels high by 48 pixels wide. You could see the LED lamps, kind of like you could see the light bulbs of a classic sign from the 1960s.

Quick Primer

First, a quick primer on LED language. Pixel pitch refers to the distance, measured in millimeters, between pixels. Each pixel is made up of three different color LED lamps—red, green and blue. So a 50mm pixel pitch means that one group of three lamps is 50mm (about 2”) from the group of three lamps to each side of it and the group of three lamps above it and below it.

The resolution, also called the matrix, is the number of pixels high by the number of pixels wide. Most outdoor LED signs are DIP (died in place), which means the lamps that make up each dot or pixel are actually three tightly clustered red, green and blue LEDs. The typical indoor LED technology is called SMD (surface mounted device) meaning that the red, green and blue LED chips are enclosed together in a single dot.

DIP is the more stable and cost-effective technology for outdoor. It’s hard to get the brightness and long-term water resistance with SMD. Though in the future, SMD will begin to replace DIP for some applications, especially where viewing angles and color contrast are very important. For right now, DIP is the ticket for big outdoor.

As LED signs evolved, pixel pitch went down (and resolution therefore went up), and customers started to show basic graphics on their snazzy new 35 mm EMC. This was great. Especially for the local church who wanted to let everyone know what time service begins on Sunday while also showing a cross or basic shape. Soon thereafter, tri-color technology was introduced, tripling the color options, and dazzling passersby.

Just as tri-color began to get old (and became relegated to small window signs), full color LED signs arrived to save the day. Suddenly, the color palette went from three to three billion. About the same time, the industry began developing 20mm pixel pitch.  That same 4’ x 8’ now had 50 pixels by 100 pixels and could show pictures that looked pretty good from a couple hundred feet away.

In the last few years, the industry standard has improved again, shifting from 20mm to 16mm and enhancing resolution by more than 50 percent, a huge improvement. Now LED sign customers can see a nice picture at around 100 feet away and the colors are now counted in the trillions. Pretty good.

Our High-Definition World

The only issue is that most monument and pylon signs are roadside, with viewing distances as short as 10 feet away, and average viewing distances of around 50 feet. 16mm is great, but not nearly enough to compete for attention and get the message across to clients in a high-definition world.

So, what is the solution?

  • 12mm? Nope. The industry is blowing right by that pixel pitch.
  • 10mm? Yes!

The 4’ x 8’ 10mm sign your local bank or supermarket should have is now roughly 100 pixels x 200 pixels, enough to make it look high resolution from the typical viewing distance of 50 feet. The LED sign world is going from good to great.

One reason 10mm LED signs are now feasible is that their brightness has increased over the last few years.

Here's another quick primer on LED brightness measurement: A nit is the measure of visible light intensity used for LED signs. 1 nit = 1 candela/square meter.

In turn, a candela means candle power (light emitted by a tallow candle). Nits are related to but smaller than lumens, another common light intensity measurement.

Sunlight is roughly 5,000 nits. 10mm LED signs used to be a maximum of 6,000 nits and looked a little dim in the afternoon sunlight. Now, with 8,000 nits or more, the 10mm sign is easily bright enough to beat the sun.

Price Points

            Question: So why hasn’t everyone moved to 10mm?

            Answer: The perception of high price.

But now the price per pixel has come down. Same concept as with computer prices. Prices stay fairly constant while technology and performance get better. The 10mm LED sign today is similar in price to the 16mm four years ago and the 20mm of eight years ago. And we’re not talking about downgrading to suppliers who sell junk, just so you and your customers can afford to buy a better resolution sign.

Part of the reason is that the LED marketplace has evolved and matured, with more quality suppliers from which to choose. An American sign company now has a variety of suppliers who can deliver a quality, high resolution product at an accessible price and with U.S. tech support. Competition among suppliers is great. Quality goes up, prices come down—lead times get shorter, and service gets better.

What’s more, as the American economy has recovered, there is more financing available for your customers, usually in the form of a five-year, $1 dollar buyout lease. That means you can sell a customer with decent credit a $500 monthly payment for 60 months, instead of a $25,000 monument sign.

Since a typical business increases revenue by at least 15 percent when they install an LED sign, a $500,000 revenue business with 30 percent margins will increase profits by $1,875 per month. So a leased LED sign is highly cash flow positive from day one. The customer wins. As the sign company with a 25 percent or more mark-up, you win too; and for installing and standing behind a quality sign, you deserve it.

Regarding Sign Codes

Sign codes, on balance, are also starting to loosen up regarding LEDs. While some municipalities stubbornly continue to restrict LEDs, others are changing their codes due to pressure from business owners who see them being used in neighboring cities and are frustrated to learn that they cannot have one. The dominos are starting to fall. The pace of changes in sign codes to allow LEDs will increase in the next five years.

If you don’t yet sell LED signs, there is still time. The U.S. has not yet hit critical mass where—in order to keep up with the times—the majority of cities ordinances are forced to allow LED billboards. But that time is coming. If you are positioned in your geography as the go-to LED sign company, good things await.

Getting Started

Of course, you have to find a manufacturer that can best fit your needs. It's a good idea to check the references. Better yet, check out their LED signs that are already in the market, hopefully near you. Or go their facilities and meet their team. Spend the time up front to develop a solid foundation for a long term relationship where you can get service you can count on.  See if you can get a demo unit at a discounted price for your car or trailer. The close rate on potential sales skyrockets when you demo a trailer-mounted LED sign in front of the customer’s business where you are proposing to install an LED monument.

If you have only dipped a toe in the LED sign waters, now’s the time to wade in further. It will enhance revenue today and also hedge against a future in which programmable LED signs replace static applications for everything from monuments to billboards.

Find the right manufacturer, get yourself trained on their software and hardware, negotiate a good deal on a demo unit, and get going. The software is simpler than you might imagine, the prices are accessible, and, of course, the resolution is fantastic.