Not all LED displays are made equal

Being responsible for the delivery and support for digital media solutions at Engagis, it’s critical that I have complete confidence in the components we source on behalf of our customers.

To get an insider’s view of LED display production, I recently travelled to China and did a detailed investigation of four factories (in the top twenty factories in China) and in addition, did research on a number of low-cost manufacturers. Here, I’d like to share some of my insights and learnings.

What I learned is that there are huge differences – both in price and quality – between displays that look essentially the same. And that may look the same in terms of the specifications.

The quality of an LED display is borne out in things like the uniformity of the display, ease of installation and maintenance, the lifespan of the unit and ultimately, the total cost of ownership.

There are a number of components used to create an LED display, including light emitting diodes, chips (integrated circuits), circuit boards, power supplies and the physical cabinetry, and the quality of each of these components influences the overall quality, performance and durability of the LED display.

The display manufacturers source their diodes – the component that creates a single pixel – from third party suppliers. There is a huge variance in the characteristics of each diode which impacts the quality and uniformity of the overall image displayed on the screen.

Premium LED display manufacturers or ‘assemblers’ demand from their suppliers diodes with an extremely small tolerance or variation, and pay more for this. And they ensure they are provided with certification and comprehensive specifications for each batch of diodes ordered. Documentation, flowing through the whole supply chain provides an assurance of quality and means that if LED’s, need to be replaced, it’s easier to source those that match and therefore maintain the integrity of the display. Not all manufacturers have such rigorous processes and documentation. So the takeaway is that higher quality, and more uniform LED’s, means you will be paying more for your display.

The design of the PCB, or printed circuit board, also influences performance. Some cheaper units use PCB’s with only one or two layers, whereas higher quality units have four to eight layers which allows for a more efficient design and one which is less affected by other electromagnetic interference and which is less likely to affect LED performance and other nearby electronic equipment.

A circuit can be designed with less chips (integrated circuits) but these chips will be ‘working harder’, generating more heat, and likely to have a shorter life. So circuits which use more chips are generally more reliable over time. Again, chips are an important input component, so sourcing a quality manufacturer is important, the optimum chip model and how many are used per LED module. It’s easy for manufacturers to cut corners here.

Beyond the physical components of the display, you are also ‘buying’ the company that manufactures them, meaning, you should be aware of their work practices and also their business health.

There are a plethora of manufacturers in China, and they come and go with great frequency. So you need to be confident that the manufacturer will be around in two, five, ten years to honour their warranty. Typically, the display should last five to ten years, so you need to ensure you will be getting support over this time period.

Work practices are a huge issue, not just from an ethical perspective, but also, brand risk. Imagine the impact on your business reputation if your customers and investors discovered you were sourcing products manufactured in factories with no consideration for occupational health and safety or the general regard for their workers. I recommend – and this aligns with Engagis’ policy – only purchasing from LED manufacturers that are ISO certified.

High quality manufacturers have a more automated assembly process, the latest technology and a more sophisticated quality control process to check alignment and uniformity. Not only that, they invest more in R&D which means that the final assembly of the display, in situ, is simpler, faster and cheaper. In fact, the installation cost of a poorly designed unit can be 300% more. In addition, maintenance or repairs on a better designed unit can be done by less qualified, and cheaper technicians, and without having to close down the whole display. Again, saving money. This has less of an impact in countries where labour is inexpensive, but where labour costs are high, like Australia, the total cost of ownership can be significantly higher.

When you buy your display, which will most likely be through a distributor or integrator, I recommend buying an inventory of spare parts, not only so repairs can be done quickly with ‘like’ components, but so the value of your investment over the life of the asset, typically five to ten years, will be maintained.

So my own personal takeaway is that all LED displays are not the same. There is a multitude of factors, some visible, some invisible, that will impact the performance, quality and lifespan of a display. It ultimately comes down to total cost of ownership, so what looks cheap in the beginning, will not be cheap in the end.