LED message boards: Town criers of the modern age

Louis M. Brill

Our magazine closely follows all developments in the area of LED applications. We always try to focus on the most modern, sophisticated and useful. This time we decided to refer readers to an interesting material prepared by Louis M. Brill, journalist who specializes in this area.

They are everywhere. You see them over bank entrances, in fast food stores as menu/order boards, in store windows, on building walls, in airports and other public transit waiting areas. They announce the news, tell time, proclaim the latest sport scores and tell if your stocks have gone up or down. They are town criers of the modern age.

The “they” are LED message reader boards that have become a very visible and critical part of how a business can keep in touch with their customers on a day-to-day basis with their latest advertising and sales messages. The customer base for message reader boards are huge, and three of the many sign providers for this format including Act One, Time-O-Matic and Adaptive Micro Systems talked about the state of the marketplace, their product lines and how they serve their customers.

Act One Communications is located in Irwindale, California and a company that since 1996 has specialized in LED message communications presenting message reader boards, time and temperature boards and full color video displays. In terms of the Act One's message reader board (MRB) activities, it provides about 30% of sales and through the company's various product lines offers over 100 different reader board configurations as described by Ethane Lin, Marketing Manager for Act One. “We offer everything from monochromatic LED single line boards and multiples of that with double, triple and even up to six line LED boards. Some even have multi-colored lines, depending on customer needs and installation options.” 90% of Act One's LED message board sign installations are hybrids with an electronic reader board attached to a conventional billboard with some pre-existing graphics and fixed signage (company name or logo). The rest are stand-alone electronic message centerboards.

LED message reader boards LED message reader boards
LED message reader boards
Photo credit: Act One Communications

Act One's main product line for its LED message reader boards is its ActBright series which represents both its outdoor (majority of sales) and indoor displays. ActBrights come in various physical configurations with a range of text character sizes from two inches to thirty-six inches high. Sign text is monochromatic and available either in amber or red and the number of text lines per sign is optional according to customer needs. Generally, technology improvements to their MRBs are a moving target with both brighter LEDs and better color mixing in their displays. Other enhancements include various communication options from direct connect via a phone line modem dial up to a wireless option with an RF modem which can operate up to a maximum distance of 1 500 feet for remote LED message board locations. Multiple message boards can be connected through a Local Area Network (LAN). There are also wireless (WiFi) and ethernet connectivity options.

With a growing demand for MRBs, Lin identified his main end-user groups as schools, churches, banks, billboard companies and car dealers. “Basically any company that has a direct and real-time communications need with their customers is a perfect candidate for LED message reader boards”.

In connecting to its end-users, Act One sells specifically to sign companies who are Value Added Resellers (VARs), who in turn, have a direct contact with the end-users. Thus the VARs qualify a potential customer, make a MRB recommendation and then acquire a specific MRB from Act One and deliver it to their customer.

The VARs also take responsibility for installation, maintenance and serving, leaving Act One free to continue as a manufacturer and a supplier of LED message reader boards to its customer base of sign companies who resell their signs.

Lin stated that most of the company's sales have been traditional and followed its existing inventory. However, Lin recalled one interesting MRB project where Act One installed in 2000 in Hollywood, a LED message reader board sign that was five feet high and sixty feet across. The client was the History Channel and the reader board was attached to a billboard promoting the Cable TV channel. Drivers passing by would see the LED message board ask history related questions and then answer them.

Time-O-Matic of Danville, Illinois has been in business since 1932 and invented the first incandescent-based electro-mechanical Time & Temperature sign board in the early 1950s. They have expanded their inventory over the years and have transformed from manufacturing incandescent light boards to using LEDs as their core lighting technology. In improving their product line they faced a big challenge of approaching the upcoming century with a “new” corporate image. Thus they introduced Watchfire as a product brand as a way to salute the new century.

“Originally Time-O-Matic manufactured incandescent light boards and made flashers and controllers for neon lighting,” said National Sales Manager John Kunze. “In a big product transition, the neon controlling equipment has been phased out and Time and Temperature boards have joined with various LED message reader boards (product line started in 1997) which have now become the main stock and trade of the company. The Time Temperature boards are now 10% of our sales and the LED reader boards are now 90% of our business.”

LED advertizing sign LED message boards
LED advertizing sign
Photo credit: Time-o-Matic
LED message boards
Photo credit: Time-o-Matic

Watchfire displays are made as aluminum cabinetry, which are fabricated in many configurations, providing for quick-turn easy installations. The smaller cabinets are based on custom extrusions while larger cabinets are based on the proven Time-O-Matic “stiff-cage” welded aluminum tube designs.

Watchfire's main emphasis is outdoor message centers. The company is a wholesale manufacture and sells their various message center product lines to sign dealers (VARs) who resell them to end-users who might be banks, retail businesses, schools or churches. “The bottom line, we are still growing,” says Kunze “and we still see an increasing demand for these LED message reader board products. All Watchfire LED message boards come in red, amber, or multi-color (capable of 32 000 colors) and range from two feet by eight feet to four feet by ten feet in size. Essentially our LED message board products are modular and can grow to any size that the end-customer can afford.”

“Speaking of growth, we've seen the entire business community open up to using message centers as an adjunct to what their companies are about,” said Kunze. “When we started, most of what we sold were Time and Temperature light displays and you'd see them mostly in banks. Now we see them everywhere in all kinds of businesses. Companies now see the value of creating and getting their messages out to a very mobile public that consistently passes by their businesses.” This was perfectly summed up by one happy Watchfire customer, “The value of this communication aid can be measured as a definite positive effect as evidenced by the numerous comments that we receive.”

Adaptive Micro Systems (Milwaukee, WI) is a purveyor of instant text, commercial advertising, transit announcements, sales updates and news, all seen at a glance on any one of their hundreds of types of LED message reader boards available for all kinds of commercial and industrial applications. Adaptive is a vertically integrated manufacturer of indoor and outdoor LED message broad products. For indoor LED displays the company starts with LEDs in the semiconductor form, then die & wire bonds the LED chips into hybrid LED displays for final assembly into finished cased alpha branded indoor LED signs. For outdoor AlphaEclipse products, Adaptive uses selected grades of LED lamps to build its sign sub components and from that the final message reader board built on demand for their authorized sign dealers.

LED message boards LED message boards
LED message boards
Photo credit: Adaptive Micro Systems

As for Adaptive's framing of its overall marketplace, it has four business units, each with its own specialized market reach. These markets include Commercial products (selling indoor-outdoor products, advertising), Automation (factory floor manufacturing reader boards), Transportation (traffic management including transit platform and arrival/departure displays, highway traffic displays), and Custom OEM (for high volume special orders).

Adaptive sells its LED message reader board products mostly to sign companies, OEMs, (original equipment manufacturers), and system integrators, who in turn resell to their specific customer bases. Resellers of Adaptive products are qualified as 'partners' who are usually regional, authorized sign companies (who are independent dealers), who in turn sell Adaptive products direct to end-users. The partners are trained in how to sell the benefits of message readers, how the signs work, how to maintain them and how to teach end-users the basics of operating their LED signs.

Lillie says the essence of selling LED message reader boards is not to sell them as signs (hardware), but as message advertising centers (solutions). “The beauty of LED message reader board communications is in its instant real-time contact with the public. Most pubic-based businesses in urban or commercially based zones (towns, shopping malls) have a direct pedestrian (walk-by) and vehicular (drive-by) pass-by traffic that could easily amount to anywhere from 10 000 – 35 000 eyeballs passing their business per day. These are people that retail businesses can communicate with every day with advertising, sales and customer service information, sometimes even more dramatically than with print or radio ads. With this captured targeted audience to communicate with,” comments Lillie, “owning a MRB is a marketing opportunity that's going past your front door every day.”

A LED message reader board is a product that has hardly reached its full audience of customers and end-users. “There have been significant product distribution and sales growth opportunities for LED message reader boards”, as Lillie summed it up. “There are still lots of great sales opportunities for reader board products. The challenge is getting potential end-users to appreciate the value of electronic message centers and to use them as part of their day-to-day communications to employees, customers and a vast public that has the potential to become customers.”

“The real key to the success of owning a LED message reader board,” says Lillie, “is how it is implemented by the company that owns it and how they use it in outputting their specific messages that are relevant to their viewing audiences.”