Impressions From LED Land

A ferry will take me this morning from Shenzhen, China to Hong Kong, which I am assuming is a far nicer way to get between the two cities than the subway rides I took to get here.

Yeah, you can take the subway to China. It’s cheap and kinda sorta fast, but hard work if you have luggage.

The ferry ride is among the last things on my whirlwind trip to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Foshan and back to Hong Kong. It’s been all about seeing factories that produce components for fine pitch LED displays, or the finished displays.

It’s been eye-opening.

The standard refrain you hear in North America is that the LED stuff coming out of China is cheap junk, and the smart buyer invests in product that uses selected China-made (or Taiwan-made) components, but does the assembly and offers full support in the U.S. and/or Canada.

That’s true – as long distance support is an issue and you definitely want to know something about what all is used by the seller to make its LED modules. But I saw a range of companies here that make really good products at very professional facilities.

I visited one place on Thursday that had stuff just laying around and dust all over (see below), but the operator said it was for the mostly domestic crowd that made its buying decisions only on price. The same guy had another facility across town that was tidy and structured, and sold to the mid-level market. Even with a better building, and a lot more processes, he could sell a fine pitch LED product out of there at about 1/3 the cost of North American and European companies that sell similar product.

I was at other places that varying degrees of clean-room procedures – one of them with a crazy machine that shrink-wrapped the soles of your shoes when you stepped into it (to prevent stuff being tracked in).

I went to another company that has only been around a couple of years, but run by people with many, many years of experience. They have deep financial backing and partnerships with major electronics companies, and some new product I saw there and at another place has the potential to upend the market.

One of the big issues with fine pitch LED is the teeny modules are fragile and brittle, particularly at the edges. They can easily be damaged by curious fingertips or unplanned bumps or splashes. The fine pitch stuff I saw this week was like a bathroom wall tile – sealed and smooth as glass. It could, at least theoretically, be used as architectural finishing. Turned off, it just looks like a deep charcoal bathroom tile.

There is a lot to know about this stuff for anyone making decisions about what to buy and what to avoid. All the marketing noise out there seems to be about pixel pitch and who has the finest, tightest pitches. But the stuff that can really matter is the source manufacturer of the actual LED light, and the processes and equipment used to “package” those tiny specks (you almost can’t see them), into the teeny cubes that get attached to circuit boards and built into enclosed and wired modules and cabinets.

The great majority of the product on the market has those little chips surface mounted one by one to modules (SMD), and there’s lots of buzz about a manufacturing technique called Chip on Board (COB) that sees big batches of LED chips bonded directly to a substrate board, which means more LEDs can be packed in tighter.

The counter-argument to doing it that way is that if an individual LED light conks out or is damaged, the whole board probably needs to be replaced or pulled out and repaired, whereas repairing surface-mounted LED packages can be done right at the board, on the spot.

One of the most mind-blowing things I’ve learned this week is the scale of the industry. There are hundreds – at least 300 and probably way more – manufacturers, and more bubbling up.

The trip was my fact-finding, photo-taking exercise to get my head around fine pitch LED for a special report. That will be out in January, ahead of ISE, and will be a free download. It’s intended to provide buyers and integrators a hype-free look at what this stuff is all about, and help them make more informed decisions about how to plan jobs and what to look for in product.

I think the biggest thing, for an end-user, is to find an integrator or an LED design company that really, really knows this stuff. It’s not just a relatively new variation on a video wall.

Now … on to my ferry ride (after I get across sprawling Shenzhen … amazing place … everything’s new and big).

Regular posts resume next week.

Dave Haynes

Dave Haynes

Editor/Founder at Sixteen:Nine
Dave Haynes is the founder and editor of Sixteen:Nine, an online publication that has followed the digital signage industry for more than a decade. Dave does strategic advisory consulting work for many end-users and vendors, and also writes for many of them. He's based near Toronto.
Dave Haynes

@sixteennine

11+ year-old blog (and now podcast) about digital signage and related tech, written by industry consultant, analyst and bullshit filter Dave Haynes.
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