LED has become one of the hottest products in the AV world, but this recent turn of events offers mixed blessings for those who produce or install them. Paul Milligan looks at all the issues affecting outdoor LED.
The ISE exhibition in Amsterdam has become a barometer for the wider AV market across EMEA, and the growth of LED in the last three years is a perfect example of this. As anyone who has walked the show floor will have seen, LED is everywhere, and it has become the hottest product in the pro-AV world. “My entrance to the market was in 1980s when projectors first started, and I can see a huge similarity between that and the way the LED sector is going, for good reasons mostly,” says Graham Burgess, CEO of DigiLED, a contract manufacturer of LED tiles, which oversees manufacturing in China, Japan and Korea. “LED has now got to the point, from nowhere, where it’s affordable, and you can justify it instead of projection, and that has changed the world. Nobody expect high-res LED to move quite as fast as it has.”
Because of this new found popularity new manufacturers are joining the market at a rapid rate of knots. Depending on who’s guesstimate you believe, the current number of manufacturers providing LED tiles around the world is anywhere between 500 and 2000. As Burgess has already said, it’s not a new product, so why has it suddenly become so popular? The answer is a combination of price and performance. LED tiles have fallen in price in recent years, making them affordable to a wider range of customers than ever before. And as discussed in our look at the LED market last year (P18 July/Aug issue 2015), the performance of the products is also increasing rapidly. The pixel pitch of tiles is falling fast, resulting in ever sharper resolutions. Gone are the days of blocky LED displays in stadiums or shops, only capable of handling basic text. The growth of LED has been seen both indoors and outdoors, and it’s the latter, which has particular requirements and challenges for manufacturers and installers, which will be concentrating on here.
In the indoor LED market we’ve seen the typical pixel pitch of tiles fall from 10mm to between 2-4mm. The drive to go below 2mm is underway, with Leyard being one manufacturer already demoing a 0.9mm prototype. Is this drive for ever smaller pixel pitches the same in the outdoor market? Not quite. “Four-five years ago we were most commonly asked for 20mm. We are now commonly asked between 10mm and 12mm for outdoor,” says Paul Childerhouse from Pioneer Group. In an ideal example of the growth of the LED market, his company has gone from installing big LED projects (including an InAVation Award-winning project at Manchester City Football Club in 2015) to also supplying its own indoor and outdoor LED products. Burgess agrees outdoor is on the same downwards trend with regards to pixel pitch. “If you go back three years, most outdoor LED was 25mm or 20mm. I can’t remember the last time I sold a 25mm. 10mm and below is the most common, a couple of years ago it was 7mm, now we are selling a lot of 6mm. In the rental market sub-10mm is popular. If you go to places like Times Square in the U.S. that is a good barometer of what the market is looking at, and that is mostly 8 and 10mm.” Is the desire for smaller and smaller pixel pitch outdoors actually necessary though? Burgess is not alone is questioning it. “The jury is out. When you go to those types of pixel pitches you compromise on things like contrast. End users are driving it, they hear ‘pixel pitch’ and decide they need a sub-5mm screen, do they need it? Probably not.”
One key difference between indoor and outdoor LED technology is in viewing distances. Those looking at LED videowalls indoors are far more likely to be closer to the display than outdoors, meaning the extra detail can be picked up on far more indoors than outdoors, because you are further away from the screen. “For that reason it’s more important to keep the brightness up outdoor than go down in pixel pitch,” says Christian Orcin, VP of sales EMEA from Chinese LED manufacturer Leyard. Another difference between indoor and outdoor LED is in the competition it faces. Indoors LED is fighting against LCD panels and projection, outdoors those technologies don’t work, and in most cases LED is solely up against printed billboards. A lack of viable competing technology is another reason why manufacturers are so keen to get into the outdoor LED market.
So who are the buyers of outdoor LED products? Is it primarily the rental sector or is retail now the biggest buyer? “The biggest single category now is DOOH. That’s driven largely by non-European influences. If you go to America, you have CBS, Clear Channel, and Lamar, who are all big players in the outdoor billboard market. DOOH is driving it because of the sheer number of installations in the North America and Asia,” says Burgess. “If you go to a big Asian city there is a massive amount of LED screens, way more than there is in Paris or Munich,” a fact Burgess puts down to more relaxed legislation in those territories. The rental market remains a consistent buyer of outdoor LED, due to the durability of the product. One of the more traditional markets, sports stadiums, also remains a steady buyer. One up and coming customer of outdoor LED according to Childerhouse is the education sector, which is now installing it in the communal spaces dotted around the university campus.
With new manufacturers joining the LED market all the time, is it in danger of being dominated by low cost products? “We can’t deny that cost is a major driver,” says Burgess. “What’s happening is that 100 or so Chinese manufacturers have gone from making typical margins of 25% to breaking even. The big players, who have invested in highly efficient factories, are driving the costs down because they know they’ll win out in the long-term on cost efficiencies. So the small and medium-sized players are being driven out.” There is no doubt low cost LED tiles, primarily from China are available, but they are not being seen in great numbers everywhere says Childerhouse. “If you go to Korea or China, you see LED everywhere. The majority of those installations use a low cost product. The products hitting Europe are a professional product. I’m seeing Samsung, Barco, LG etc putting in very high-end product.”
There are undoubted dangers for buyers when prioritising cheaper products, as Jonathan Cooper, business development consultant, NEC Display Solutions Europe, points out. “It’s a big risk, even if the product is a quarter of the price, you have no concrete backup or guarantee it will be supported. For a lot of end users there is a lot of trust placed in terms of what they are getting, and sometimes that they can have a nasty surprise.”
“Its very difficult when you have 500 manufacturers, and customers receive 10-15 offers for what look like similar products, they can make a selection based only on price, so they might end up buying the wrong product for the application because they haven’t had enough training or education.”
Now that LED tiles have fallen to an affordable price, does the increase in manufacturers mean we now facing oversupply in the market? “Yes, the saturation is clear just by walking around ISE,” says Cooper. “There has been some consolidation in the market, but as soon as that happens another two or three new companies appear.” Orcin further outlines the problems of oversupply; “The danger is that it creates the wrong experience of LED for customers. It’s very difficult when you have 500 manufacturers, and customers receive 10-15 offers for what looks like similar products. It isn’t a familiar environment for them and they can make a selection based only on price, so they might end up buying the wrong product for the application because they haven’t had enough training or education, and the result of the purchase is a fail. So they lose the trust in the technology, rather than losing trust in the supplier they chose. That’s the biggest risk we have in LED market nowadays.”
One issue that can’t be overlooked when buying outdoor LED is the level of weather protection you need. The outdoor LED market is a global one, which means the same product has to work in 40deg heat in Saudi Arabia and -20 degree cold in Russia. What does this mean for the manufacturer, and does it mean added cost for the buyer? “The process starts with the LED and the module itself,” says Childerhouse. “We have them hermitically sealed. The encapsulation techniques of the LED is really important, and the glue and bonding of the module is key. If you have a poor module and the glue doesn’t withstand the heat variations, it will start to fail. The quality of how the modules are encapsulated has improved enormously, in the last five years that has been one of the major improvements on the manufacturing side.” The main issue with weatherproof LED tiles is to make sure the right one is specified in the first instance, a large portion of outdoor LED tiles on the market are IP65 or IP54 rated, and some manufacturers such as NEC feature fire-retardant elements such as a metal frame, so they don’t melt in extreme environments. There is an added cost to the buyer for weather proofing LED tiles, Childerhouse estimates it to be something like 30% more, but those we spoke to agreed the message is out there in the market that if you want it to last it will cost a little bit more. “Intelligent buyers, like the DOOH market, have either learnt from experience or understood the logic (of paying more) at the start,” says Burgess. Orcin agrees; “Yes it does add cost if you compare 10mm outdoor with 10mm indoor, but the comparison isn’t real because the two don’t go head-to-head.”
Are there big differences between installing LED indoor and outdoor, or is an LED screen install the same regardless of location? “As a rule of thumb the installation process for an outdoor screen is considerably more rigorous than it is for an indoor screen,” says Burgess. He gives an example of a one of his recent installs in the U.S. where a 700-tonne structure was installed at a stadium using the same gauge of cable used to suspend the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Outdoor projects tend to be heavier, larger and higher, and come with a range of added problems (and costs). “65% of the cost of that stadium project was associated with cable and building a tower and paying a suspension bridge specialist to come up with a design,” adds Burgess. If the project is on the roadside do you have to close the road to get in lifters or cranes? If it is in a semi-residential area you will have to install some ambient light sensors. Of those we spoke to most agreed 50% of the cost of an outdoor LED install was not the screens, but the construction element. “With indoor you don’t have to worry about wind or the movement from the heat or the cold. You also have to deal with structural engineers and architects, so it’s a lot more complex situation outdoors,” says Childerhouse.
With that in mind how important it is that installers are spending lots of time back at windy, high, inhospitable venue to carry out repeated maintenance? “Low maintenance and easy access is very important, for example if you have a 40ft screen that burns away for a year in high brightness during the day and low brightness at night, and then a tile fails, when you swap that tile out you probably have an SLA with a DOOH client you’ll have to fix it in four hours or swap it out in 12 hours,” says Burgess.
LED has always a pretty sturdy and reliable product, which is part of the reason it’s been such used for so many years, with products lasting anywhere between 5-10 years. One side issue with the move towards small pixel pitch LED tiles is that the tiles become more fragile as the LEDs inside them get smaller. “When you go to higher resolution screens, physical damage to tiles is the problem. If you have a 3mm or 4mm screen the LEDs are very close to the edge of the screen and get damaged easily. You get more edge damage from someone bashing one tile against another than you do from LEDs failing. In the rental market that’s a big issue, because the technicians handle a 6mm screen they same way the handle a 20mm tile, and you can’t do that,” says Burgess.
One way to make servicing easier is to install front access panels, now seen in greater volumes in the market. The added benefit of front access is that it allows the installer to put LED into more places than before as it takes up a lot less floor space that rear access.
The LED boom we are currently experiencing shows no sign of stopping, but with low cost products flooding the market, it’s very much a case of ‘buyer beware’. This may be advice you could apply to any AV product, but seems especially relevant here, if you want the product to last, and for it to receive servicing, always choose a trusted partner.