Some LED display manufacturers have made a mark in the digital signage and digital out of home industries by making a lot of noise and having splashy booths at trade shows.
Media Resources has taken a very different approach – plugging along pretty quietly and building up a solid book of business in the US and Canada that’s based on its technology and end-to-end experience.
The company has an unlikely home base in leafy, very upscale Oakville, Ontario, which is in the immediate orbit of Toronto. It started many years ago as a pure sign company, and has used decades of experience in all the engineering, paperwork and politicking of putting up billboards as a distinct advantage.
LED is now 60 per cent of what Media Resources does, and that’s growing.
I spoke with CEO Jeff Rushton. We get into the state of the business and why he’s investing heavily in an automated manufacturing facility in Canada, doing work that’s normally offshored to Taiwan or China. Lots of companies do design and final assembly over here, but get components built in Asia. Rushton’s will be doing the whole nine yards in Oakville.
We also talk about SITELINE, which is described as Light Trespass Mitigation technology. What it does is hugely reduce light pollution from roadside billboards – so nearby homes aren’t flooded in light and media companies get their new billboards approved by local authorities.
Jeff, thanks for joining me. Can you give me the background on what Media Resources is all about?
Jeff: Sure, yeah. Media Resources actually started in 1967. It’s a signage installation company and over the years, it’s grown into an Integrated signage services business. We are doing indoor and outdoor large format, digital signage across North America and across the world. We do large format digital printing. We are, I think, North America’s largest sign installer, and then we do 3D props for museums and billboard companies.
And so you’ve been doing traditional signage for a long time, what drove you onto the digital side?
Jeff: Well, interestingly, I was lucky enough to join here as an equity owner in 2012-11. And at that time, the company had represented YESCO in Canada and sold to all the billboard companies and when YESCO decided to go direct and the team understood the value of this business, we bought a couple of small companies doing manufacturing, and then we’ve expanded it greatly since then.
Okay, so when you’re working with Young Electric Sign Company, I think the acronym is, you were doing the installation and putting up the totems, or the podiums for the displays?
Jeff: Yeah, our customer base is around 70% billboard and then 30% basically commercial sign. So we’ve had long term relationships across North America with those customers. And so in Canada, we basically bought the boards and installed them and maintained them for our customers. And then again since 2011, we’ve been doing it ourselves and have kind of grown and really focused on the Billboard business.
How much your business is Analog versus Digital now?
Jeff: It was digital, well before COVID. (Laughter)
It started off actually at 5% back in 2011. And last year was 60% of our business. And both businesses are growing rapidly. So it’s definitely, you know, it’s definitely taken out a bigger share of our business.
Is that what you thought would happen or are you happily surprised?
Jeff: No, we thought it would happen. Way back when I was a young lad in the billboard business myself and then left and went into technology and was happy to come back to this kind of hybrid world of technology and, and billboard, we knew that if we could get a couple of the large customers to work with us, to try to optimize the product that we knew would be a successful venture and we’re happy that we made that bet and it worked out okay.
Now, what I know of your company, I have been your plant years ago in Oakville, Ontario, I think that was when you’re still relatively new into the company?
Jeff: Yes, that’s correct. Yeah.
And at that time, and we’ve even bumped into each other in Taiwan of all places. I believe you were sourcing and getting your LED modules and everything pretty much done either in China or Taiwan. But that’s changing, right?
Jeff: That’s correct, yeah. We’ve actually had Media Resources Asia Pacific do sourcing for us in Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan and China because some components you [just] can’t get. The module manufacturing plant we have right now was initially done there. We’re really happy to report that we’re putting in the Toronto area, what we believe to be the most automated module manufacturing plant in the world with robotics and some really state of the art optical recognition. And that will be ready for us here at the end of the year, early next year for mass production.
That’s a significant investment!
Jeff: Yeah, and we’ve gotten top drawer on everything because, Dave, you know, cold solder and other problems with the industry and that every single manufacturer has had them. We’ve done everything in our power through both the design of the product and the design of the manufacturing plant to get rid of that. So we’ve really upscaled the level of equipment that we’re bringing in here, some kind of industry first. So we’re going to be excited to show this to all of our customers when we get it up in place and when people are allowed to travel again.
Yeah, so you’ll have a different story to tell because there are lots of companies notably in the US and to some degree in Canada who say they’re LED manufacturers or have LED lines and talk about them being made in America, made in Canada and so on, and reality is they’re doing final assembly here, but that’s about it.
Jeff: That’s right. So, over the years what we’ve done is we, as it stands now, with extrusion profiles, the control systems, module designs, module molds, PCB layouts, everything we already do today. This will be the last piece to bring back to North America, so we’re very excited about that.
And as we discussed, it’s an expensive thing to do. But when we were talking yesterday, in advance of this, you were saying it’s break-even or actually saves you money?
Jeff: Yeah, it’s because we’ve used so much automation, like for example, our line overseas, you know, when it’s running, there’s around 33-ish people that’ll be on that line. In our new, it’s four or five. And so we save there.
Second, through the better yields that we’re going to get through the new profile. Plus, it’s a massive reduction in working capital because I can now almost build to order going forward. Versus in the past, we have to guess, you know, four to five months out what pixel pitch, what LEDs are using, what size module? So, this is going to be really drive a lot more just-in-time manufacturing for us.
Is it, kind of the standard SMD packaging that you’re going to be doing? Or are you using the more, you know, newer stuff like a mini and micro?
Jeff: Yeah, so this is gonna be mostly actually for the billboard market. So we’re going to still do through-hole and as the industry is moving and nobody really wants to do through-hole anymore except for North America billboards. So we’ve got that, plus your outdoor SMD. What we will continue to do overseas, just because of volumes and stuff, will be some of the new fine pixel pitch. And we’re evolving that space as well. There’s a real movement in the industry, not only for indoor fine pixel pitch, but more importantly, outdoor fine pixel pitch. We’re seeing some really neat things happening in that space.
Yeah, I’ve seen the outdoor fine pitch displays, particularly on these, kind of, vertical floor-standing totem thingies. I’m sure there’s a much better technical term for it. To date, or at least the early versions ran very hot I found and they also had a problem in that, the resolution wasn’t all that great because you know, it was still P10 or whatever and I gather that’s getting better over time?
Jeff: Yeah, Silicon Core and some others have got some really neat new technologies that they’re licensing that gets a lot of the heat out of the system. And then, you’re getting down now, you know, we haven’t launched it yet, but our desire is to have a 1.8 millimeter outdoor by the end of the year, so pretty exciting stuff. And it changes the game because as you know, LCDs and heat don’t work very well. So we believe this is going to be a better solution. And again, you don’t have fixed size formats either. You can scale to whatever size you want without a bezel.
At 1.8, are you getting to a point where it can start to do things like menus?
Jeff: Yeah, in fact, in our install side of our business, in the US, again COVID happened, we were doing some massive rollouts of other people’s products through drive throughs, for instance, and we see this as a potential replacement. So again, early days on this particular space is fine pixel pitch outdoor, but we’re seeing that as a real growth area.
And what’s the attraction of that versus just using, you know, high bright LCD displays?
Jeff: No bezel, total scalability in size and longer lifetime. So things like transit systems, things on ferry terminals, large displays for outside of airports, so there’s a pretty diverse market for it.
So going back to the outdoor stuff and the through-hole technology, which, you know, as you were saying is older but stable.
Given the way the outdoor business works where many of the displays are seen at a considerable distance, particularly the highrise billboard one, that’s really all you need to do?
Jeff: Yeah. The interesting thing is, you’ve probably seen this Davis, is there’s kind of been a bit of a, depending on which market you’re in. In North America, there’s a bit of a pixel pitch war between some of the media operators. For the most part, if you take a 1448 bulletin, most locations are fine honestly with a 20 millimeter. We’re seeing a movement to some to 16, some we’ve actually done 10 millimeter 1448. But if you drive by them, it’s very difficult to see the difference because they’re back 100 feet and 60-80 feet in the air. You can’t discern the difference in pixel density.
So where are they battling on that? Just because that’s, you know, something that can say it makes them different?
Jeff: Well, it’s marketing. It’s because it’s a competitive marketplace for our customers. So they deem that as a marketing thing with the agencies and then the clients. Our outdoor product, not taking the fine pixel pitch, goes 4, 6, 8, 10, 13, 16 and 20. So, you know, we try to satisfy all those needs with a common platform but with just different pixel densities.
Okay, so when you’re getting into a 4 millimeter outdoor product, you’re talking about things like what you did at that Hard Rock Casino in Sacramento?
Jeff: That actually that’s a 10. But, if you will take Downtown Toronto as an example, Thomson Reuters has a huge pylon, it’s about 20-something feet and it’s right ground level. So for those types of products, we would use a 4 millimeter. For downtown urban locations in North America, inside cities will be a 4, 6, 10 millimeter type product.
And in those cases, you can get more granularity in terms of the content you’re putting up on a screen like Thomson Reuters is probably doing news headlines and financial data?
Jeff: Exactly. And the general rule, and again, that depends on size and what content as you just mentioned the people are playing, but for every millimeter of pixel pitch, you should be back, you know, three feet effectively. So at 20 millimeters, as soon as you are back more than 60 feet, rough rule of thumb, then it’ll be hard for your eyes to actually see the pixels.
Okay, so I’ve heard the rule of thumb is, you know, anywhere from 6 to 10 feet but you’re saying it’s 3 feet per millimeter?
Jeff: Yeah. If you get in within a 10 foot kind of space, all rules are off right?
Right. Have you found in the last couple of years as LEDs, prominence in the signage market and the digital out of home market has really elevated that the perspective of who to buy from has changed.
I mean, I can remember five years ago, seeing all kinds of companies who I’d never heard of coming out with products and wondering, who are these people, how would I get support, all of that stuff. And now, it seems like there’s a handful of companies that are gaining the lion’s share of the business because they have North American offices.
Jeff: Yeah, I think it varies very much by vertical. So if you take the billboard business, you know, it’s a very demanding business. It’s 24/7 expectations for high up times, very long warranties. So you know, it’s whittled down to a few of us that want to be and like to be in that space. For us, as the three of the four partners here are ex-billboard people. We like the space and we love the people and some of these have been friends of ours for 20-30-40 years. So, we’re good with that, so we’ve not seen the influx of some of the lower end offshore players. But if you get into some other markets, you know, especially indoor then it’s kind of a different whole dynamics.
Is part of the secret sauce with you guys is the fact that you have this long experience in doing the deployment. So you can not only sell them the modules, but you know how to put them in and deal with all this stuff that comes with it?
Jeff: Yeah, like when I was blessed to be asked by the guys I used to work with, “Hey, Jeff, what are you doing?” I was sitting in Houston running a software company, or setting up a site okay?. And July in Houston is very hot. Anyways, I said, sure. I came up here and just saw this fantastic opportunity and wanted to be part of it and I guess what makes us somewhat unique is that we are the only digital manufacturer that has a very large installation, and printing and 3D arm. So we think about it as a holistic product, not just a digital thing that somebody is putting up. So we think about safety and speed and installation.
And then we are blessed with some of the people that have been hired as part of the team. You know, we’ve got a super strong engineering team. And you know, one of our Chief Product Architects is a guy who knows the industry councils and seniors very well. So we’ve really thought about it, maybe a bit differently. Our product is called Vision IQ, the IQ is Intelligence Network. So I come from a Systems background. So we thought about let’s build like a network with failover redundancy, self alerting, all those types of things. Now, a lot of our competitors are doing that, but that was kind of what we looked at differently 10 years ago. I think that’s maybe that with the great partners I have and this integrated product. That’s what our difference is.
Yeah, it’s an interesting corollary because, you know, I live in pre-digital signage, and I’ve been saying for a decade or more how important device management is, and getting blank looks 10 years ago, and now everybody’s catching up and realizing how important that is, and that if you don’t have good device management, you’re really not even in the game.
Jeff: Yeah, well, one of the things I really like is that we like to work with our competitors in the industry councils, whether it’s OAAA or IBO and, you know, the councils that are on there, they’re thinking standards or thinking API. they’re thinking about diagnostics frameworks. We’re working on a couple of initiatives for the industry that will basically give to the whole industry once we’re finished and, you know, some pretty cool things with cameras, and some pretty good things with remote management. So that’s where I hope it goes, because my view on this one and we had a great presentation with a couple of our customers.
We’re 4% of the market as, you know, for at home of the whole media dollar. Well, it’s kind of silly we fight amongst each other for that 4% and of digital that is 1% of the hundred percent. Let’s grow that 4 to 8% as a team as a team and take away from online and television, etc. That’s kind of my viewpoint of the world.
When I was in China and Hong Kong on the same trip, one of the things that struck me is, first of all, that there are so many companies who are manufacturers over there. But what that meant is the costs were relatively low and there were digital billboards everywhere, like I would go down a side street in Hong Kong where, you know, you would absolutely not expect to see a big LED board. And you know, there was this very, very large display over a nightclub or something and I was thinking, this is what’s going to happen eventually in North America and to some degree in Europe.
Jeff: Yeah, I’m actually surprised honestly, David, because I’ve been to Europe and overseas a lot. Personally and with business and yeah, the North American billboard market is much different, less urban, especially in the United States. Larger billboard, highway boards versus smaller format boards. If you’ve been to the UK, you know, standard size there is 3×6 meters or 10×10, 10×20, and 6 millimeter display, where we would have that as a 10 or 16 millimeter here. So it’s very different, and the rest of the world has SMD Surface Mountain and we’re through-hole for the most part.
Is part of the reason for the adoption rate, getting away from, you know, the highway billboards, local zoning regulations?
Jeff: 100%. You nailed it. That, I think, is the biggest reason.
I’ve seen the material, but I don’t know that too many people are familiar with what Sightline is all about. Can you kind of walk me through what that is?
Jeff: Sure. This is another brilliant invention by our engineering team and Chang…
Oh, you’re not going to attribute it to yourself?
Jeff: (Laughter) No, we were lucky enough to pick up, as part of our engineering team, Chang and his team. We purchased this company back in ‘13 or ‘14 and he had this idea of the ability to block light away from residential neighborhoods, and it’s evolved quite a bit over the years. So with the new version, we have a 400 millimeter standard product we like to use for billboards, we worked on that with Lamar originally at their request. And then we’ve evolved that. Now we have our Sightline in that format. And what that basically does is if somebody says “I may have a light problem” against a residential zone, airport, a military operation, anywhere there’s light sensitivities, we’ll do a full light study on that, we’ll look at what we can do to mitigate light in areas that they don’t want late. We’ll write a report and tell them exactly what we can do. Can we help you or not in that area, and then effectively, we build a custom module for that location and it combines a different orientation of the pixels. The red, green, blue. A different way to do lovering, vertical and horizontal thickness height. So there’s a whole pile of math that’s gone into making this. In fact today we’re installing one for DDI media. And we’ll finish that up with a light gun report that says, “We said we’re going to be at this net level, here it is in the day, here it is at night”.
So the idea here is you have residents of a community living near, you know, a major roadway who get wind of a proposal for an LED board going up, and they’re concerned that they’re going to have light blasting into their bedrooms at 2 in the morning?
Jeff: And it’s a true story. There’s a great one in Utah and just Salt Lake. There was a competitive board put up and across the highway was another community, different community. And it was a, you know, high end residential neighborhood. And this thing was just blasting. And the governor was so upset, he was going to shut down billboards. I can’t remember the exact time, it was in ‘9 or ‘10. Anyway, our competitor called us and said, “Hey, can you help out on this?” And so basically they moved that board to somewhere else. And then we designed a board. And there’s a news story online that shows, you know, pre and post and they’re pretty happy.
So what happens are these louvers deflect the light and focus it so it’s not going everywhere?
Jeff: That’s correct. You’re basically designing the product so light is blocked from where it’s not meant to be. Now, it doesn’t work for all situations, right? So that’s why we do the analysis first to tell you whether we can help. I will say that every time we’ve done the analysis and said that we can do it and meet these light levels, away from the highway, we’ve had a 100% success rate.
When you do the analysis, have you run into cases where they say that’s awesome, but now we’re gonna go with this other company?
Jeff: Not so far. I mean, it’s a competitive world, I’m sure someday, somebody will be able to do this and not just us.
How do you prevent other manufacturers from doing some variation of it, particularly manufacturers in Asia Pacific?
Jeff: We’re pretty tight. Like this is controlled by our team over there, but like anything, all hardware units, David, it’s all mitigated to a common standard at some point. So, you know, we continue to evolve this and tighten it up. As I mentioned, the last version that we just put up, which is actually what we’re doing today, it’s super flat, like the tolerances are so good. So your light roll off is, it’s insane actually how quickly it rolls off away from where you want it to be.
Not that it really matters, but I’m kind of curious, does this sort of hurt the viewing cone so to speak, like if you’re off access, you can’t really see what’s on the screen?
Jeff: Yeah, so what happens is that our standard product is designed with a very wide viewing angle. We use optical down angle or down angle LEDs to really try to get as wide a view as possible. With this product, the Sightline, we actually do just the opposite. We make sure that in the intended view area, it looks just like a normal board would but when you go outside of the view area, it gets dark very quickly. The new version we have, the transition zone between awesome and almost dark is 8-12%, it’s so small, so yeah we’re very proud of what the team has been able to do.
Wow. So if you’re using this technology and I live in an area where there’s nothing but trees, but if I did, you could see this going up and even though it’s relatively close, it would have a nominal impact on light pollution?
Jeff: Absolutely. It’s amazing, the roll off. Afterwards, I’ll send you a couple of videos that can show you. It’s quite crazy, actually.
And how are you marketing that? Was it just direct to customers?
Jeff: Yeah, we’ve been working on this for quite some time. We have had test situations in the market and quite a few boards across, actually all parts of North America. And now we’re going really aggressively because we’ve got what we call the final form. I can’t think of anything that could make it better. So we’ll be aggressively marketing it. OAAA has been terrific. IBO has been terrific. We’ve presented to both groups. Our team’s available, and we presented to, I think, about 30 different municipalities. We worked through the billboard companies and they asked us to come in and we’ll present them on their behalf. We’ll write application reports for them, permitting offices etc.
I assume that a number of “how I billboard” projects have been refused by local city councils and municipal governments in general because of light pollution issues. Do you have any sense of how often that happens?
Jeff: I don’t, David. It’d be a speculation on my part to say but I will tell you that well over half of our Sightline applications are situations where they have been not approved for with regular, but we’ve been able to turn that around with online application. And then we have some operators, you know, the great community people, they’re actually using this proactively, without being asked. “So listen, I think there may be a problem here. Here’s what we’re going to do.”
You may have said it but I missed it. Do you do indoor stuff as well?
Jeff: We do. Yeah, indoor is a growing market. We have actually two different lines within the Vision IQ indoor area. One is your typical flat-panel that goes from 4 millimeter down to .9 millimeter. We have 13 different pixel pitches in that range. And that scales to whatever you want, and that can also be curved corners. We are actually close to an acquisition of an act of a transparent technology that we’re going to port to our Vision IQ control system, so that we’re hoping to announce in the next couple of weeks.
Is that the mesh stuff for film?
Jeff: Mesh and pox and a variety of different things because what we’re seeing on the indoor side, when you get into with an AV integrator or a sign company, they will be working with a building or casino. They want an integrated solution, they’ll want digital outside, digital inside, combination of LCD and LED and I think you’ve seen it overseas, they have so much more of this mesh and film type of technology that we do here as of today anyways.
Yeah. I like the transparent stuff, I often write about how it looks great, and, you know, it’s really crisp now and everything else. The problem is, it often looks like crap from the inside. So, I think it depends a little bit on how you’re using it and where.
Jeff: Yeah, well some of the newer stuff and some stuff that we’re evolving here, you have to think that through. So you have to make sure that for instance, you know, from the back, you have as much transparency as possible to the color of the subframe matches the volumes and the rest of it’s in the decor of it. So it’s more of an architectural type, you know, solution versus just a pure sign solution, if that makes sense to you.
So, if I’m out and about, in the old days when we were allowed to travel, where would I see, you know, kind of a signature reference, media resources display? I’m thinking of, I’ve mentioned Sacramento Hard Rock, but also is it at the Avengers Station or Marvel’s Avenger station in front of Planet Hollywood?
Well, not PlaNET Hollywood. What’s the one, Treasure Island? Treasure Island!
Jeff: Yes. So that’s a typical one. In Toronto, of course, we’ve got many spectaculars, Niagara Falls. we’ve got a 110 foot tall there. In terms of billboards, I think, we’re in over 110 cities now in North America so, you know, we’re pretty much in every area from super hot and moist like Florida to dry like Phoenix to Yukon for super cold and where you are, David and that’s Halifax harbor. It has its own unique challenges with salt air fogging, so yeah. We’ve seen it all. (Laughter)
Yeah, as soon as you go outside, it gets challenging.
Jeff: Yeah. That was kind of a benefit though, honestly, because, you know, we have had issues over the years and we’ve evolved through that. And I’m kind of glad we’re in all those different geographies because we’ve seen the implications of solar load and salt air fogging and moisture and temperature changes in Alberta, where at a time it could change 30 degrees celsius to 60 degrees in half an hour in Calgary, so that that creates other challenges.
Yeah. All right, Jeff, thank you so much for taking some time with me. It’s been great to catch up.
Jeff: Likewise, sir, always a pleasure. Thank you.
Dave Haynes is the founder and editor of Sixteen:Nine, an online publication that has followed the digital signage industry for some 14 years. Dave does strategic advisory consulting work for many end-users and vendors, and also writes for many of them. He’s based near Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Canada’s east coast.