Why And How LED Studio Makes Product And End-User Education Central To Marketing Its Displays

May 15, 2024 by Dave Haynes

I have invested a lot of time in the last six or seven years trying to educate myself on LED display technology and terminology, but sometimes it feels like I have mountain to climb and I am still at base camp looking for my oxygen bottle stash.

Manufacturers and their marketers keep coming up with new terms and acronyms, and they often play pretty fast and loose with their descriptions and assertions. Exhibit A are all the companies who are marketing microLED products that aren’t microLED, and Exhibit B is the crowd of Chinese manufacturers saying they have Naked Eye 3D LED displays, when all of those visual illusions seen on displays lately are the result of clever creative and have nothing to do with the display technology.

So I have a lot of time for a UK company called LED Studio, which has made the conscious decision to educate its customers and broader market, instead of blinding that market with piles of specs and marketing  terms that few people understand. The company has resources on its website that explain the technology and clear some of the technical fog, and people who know their stuff, speak openly, and aren’t in perpetual Always be Closing sales mode.

I had a great chat about LED technology terms, what’s going on in the industry, and what really matters. My guests are Larry Zoll, who runs US operations, and Ross Noonan, the UK-based Technical Sales & Marketing Manager and the guy leading the education effort. The accents will give away who is who.

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Larry and Ross, thank you for joining me. Can you give me a quick introduction of who you are and what LED Studio does? 

Larry Zoll: I’m Larry Zoll, the president of the LED Studio’s operations. 

Ross Noonan: I’m Ross Noonan, the technical sales and marketing manager for the LED Studio.

Larry Zoll: We are a UK-based LED display manufacturer with a growing presence worldwide. 

So just for clarity, Ross is over in the UK, and Larry is in the United States right now, so they can’t look at each other and go, now you talk or whatever. 

So, I’ve known you guys for a while. I’ve been to your little demo center in London, and I know LED Studio is based in the West of London. I had a good chat with Ross at ISE, and one of the things that really struck home for me was that there was a company that was actually trying to educate the market on more than just their product.

You know, Ross, in particular, was trying to clear the fog through blogging and videos and everything else, explaining to people what this is all about because it’s a very confusing little space, is it not? 

Larry Zoll: It’s a very confusing space. I mean, Dave, you and I have known each other for a long time. I’ve always been very focused on technology and the education of technology and making sure that people understand what’s really out there because it’s so confusing. 

You know, a big part of our initiatives is making sure that we’re able to educate the market and simplify what’s out there because for a long time, this has been an alphabet soup of different options and different availability, and really more often than not tends to be more confusing than it needs to be. One of our goals specifically is to help demystify that and help people understand what they need and, almost more importantly, what they don’t need to implement successfully an exciting project. 

Is it confusing because I’m stupid or… Well, don’t answer that!

Or is it just that marketers are trying to outdo each other, so they come up with acronyms and push aspects of their products that maybe don’t matter all that much but make them sound special? 

Larry Zoll: I’ll let the marketer answer that question. Then, I’ll give you my perspective. 

Ross Noonan: I think you’re definitely not stupid. I think we’ve got people who have been in LED for a long time, and they even have to get into the nitty-gritty as to why they’re offering a product for a particular application.

You know, it is not like any other kind of technology. It doesn’t just come out of a box. I know that some brands are going down the all-in-one route, and that’s fantastic. It opens up big screens to off-the-shelf items. Still, it’s a very small part of the market, and as soon as you move away from that, there are so many different ways to do something with an LED display. There are so many different applications that basically mean that the specs are ripped up and started again. I think I mentioned this on a blog previously. You know, a consultant came to me and said, why can’t you just give me a data sheet? And the reason sometimes is that, well, because you’ve asked for a particular thing, we’ve got to go away and kind of rip that data sheet up and start from scratch.

Does it need different receiver cards? Does it need to have a different pixel technology? What is the function that you need? Where do you want to see and how do you want to see it? And then we’ll go away and create that and that can be confusing, and it’s why you’re starting to see the emergence of companies like the LED Studio who are taking the time to try and make sure the customer understands why they’re buying something and why they need it or why they don’t need it and maybe that’s a good point for Larry to jump in a little bit more on the sort of the project management side of things, and delivery. 

Larry Zoll: One of the things that keeps me very excited about this industry is that it is very high tech and it does move very fast, and that can create some confusion in what the different technologies are capable of and what they’re not capable of and why you should choose one thing over another, especially on the indoor, although the outdoor has started to make some big leaps in technology as well.

And I think that allaying that confusion and clarifying that understanding is really the responsibility of the manufacturers, or else it just becomes a mishmash of stuff, and it makes people feel like they’re stupid, even though they’ve been in the industry for as long as anybody else, but it’s a lot to stay on top of. 

When you’re dealing with customers or reseller partners, that sort of thing, are they appreciative of the effort that you’re making to kind of explain things as opposed to just kind of blinding them with terms? 

Ross Noonan: Absolutely. I mean, we sat down as a business, Larry from a strategic point of view, Rob as the owner, and myself as marketing, and we said right at the start of this two-year journey that we’ve been on to get the business.

In people’s minds, we wanted to be thought leaders and try and educate people on the response to that has been nothing but positive. You know, people are starting to come to say now I understand why I need to specify this particular product. Well, now I know the difference between what a COB pixel means for energy consumption versus an SMD because before, I would look for a diagram, and there would be 100 different versions of what an SMD and a COB pixel look like, and now something that I can digest and understand, and that’s been really exciting for us, to see people coming back and feeding back positive information, all the way from consultants to end clients.

Yeah, when I started really actively following this space, SMD was the primary way that these displays were being built and marketed, and then COB came along, I started hearing terminology like four in one and split chip and it just goes on and on. 

Is there a dominant, primary technology that is now being made, marketed and demanded by buyers? 

Larry Zoll: I think it really depends on the application like you said, but SMD, I’d still say, is the dominant general technology. But there are now a number of variations on SMD that can change the way that you implement it, whether it’s GOB that gives you that protective coating, or maybe it increases contrast. You know, it could be a flip chip that reduces power consumption and increases brightness. You know, there are a number of different common cathodes, right? There are so many different ways that you can vary that one technology. Just saying SMD is the dominant technology is a little misleading, but it’s a little understated, I guess. 

But I think very quickly, we’re also starting to see that for the narrower pitches and for micro LED displays, which we define and hope sort of the industry lands on a definition of anything under a pitch of one millimeter, you’re starting to see more and more COB and COB is becoming more prevalent because there’s more manufacturing starting to happen with it. It’s been a challenge for some suppliers to date because of the difficulty in starting up the manufacturing lines and keeping them going. But that’s becoming less of an issue. So that’s starting to ramp up. 

So what’s the core distinction between an SMD surface mounted and chip on board or COB? 

Ross Noonan: The main thing is that with surface mount diodes, it says exactly how it is. You’ve got a pixel in a package, which is then mounted onto the PCB. There are a number of components that make up that package. 

I guess the biggest difference between the two is that with COB, you’re effectively mounting the diodes directly onto the substrate. So you’re removing that little building block that mounts onto the PCB. The biggest benefit of that is obviously a reduction in componentry. That means a reduction in resistance, which then has a knock-on effect on heat output so the screen is generally more energy efficient. 

When you add a common cathode and flip chip to the COB array, you’re starting to remove things like copper bonding wires and all of the other little bits and pieces that add to resistance. I think we worked out that on, a 1080p SMD display, there were millions and millions of bonding wires. 

Larry Zoll: I think we said 20 million in an HD display, and they will add resistance. Whether they’re copper or gold or whatever, they add a lot of components and physical electric resistance.

One of the things that I sort of lean on when I’m talking to customers about this is that when you’re powering up a display, the electricity has to go one of two places. It’s either heat or light and obviously, you want as much of that to convert to light as possible because that’s how you make the display more efficient. So the hotter the display is, the less efficient your display is at creating light. So, really, what it comes down to is that by eliminating a lot of those components, COB becomes a much more efficient technology in creating light, which is good for everybody.  

I assume it also removes points of failure and does it remove cost as well?

Larry Zoll: To be honest with you, that depends on who you’re working with. I mean, a few minutes ago, I mentioned that there is a large cost associated with starting up and shutting down the manufacturing lines for COB. It takes a substantial amount of time and effort, and if it’s not something that you have dedicated space for in the manufacturing process, then it’s going to impact the price. Suppose you have dedicated manufacturing resources to COB, where you’re not switching lines and switching manufacturing processes frequently. In that case, it does have the potential to save you money on COB, even over SMDs. 

Ross Noonan: Yeah, and I guess one thing that we did as a business sort of a year ago was sit down and look at that fine pitch trend, which Larry mentioned. The long-term trend suggests that COB is going to be the dominant. Potential technology in fine pitch was that we needed to start offering COB at a price that was attractive to people who were potentially considering SMD versus COB. You know, in the past they were vastly different in price so we needed to ramp up our production line to be able to bring that price more in line with one another and make that decision easy.

When you start to add things like COB comes with a protective resin as standard as part of the pixel encapsulation process whereas with SMD, that’s an additional cost through GOB resin, all of a sudden the ROI starts to really stack up for the client. They’re really starting to see the benefits of that. Not only am I getting a more energy-efficient display, and in a lot of cases, maybe a better one in terms of image quality, but also my pixels are better protected against outside forces, accidental damage, lumps and bumps and things like that. So that’s a huge benefit that COB has as part of its standard offering that clients are really starting to see the benefit from.

How protective is the GOB or the coating inherent with COB? 

I asked because TSI Touch, a company in Pennsylvania that has started marketing an acrylic shield that you would put in front of a display. They showed somebody throwing a basketball at this shield, and I’ve always thought the GOB and the coding are terrific in that they’re going to offer some degree of protection, but they have their limits. Correct? 

Larry Zoll: Of course, it has its limits. I love the guys at TSI Touch. I’ve done a lot of work with them over the years. I don’t know if putting a shield in front of the display, if you have a GOB is necessary. I mean, we have one customer we work with that has a lot of family activities around them where kids can easily reach the displays and we’ve got with this one client, we’ve got over 15,000 modules deployed, and over the past two years, they’re all GOB and over the past two years, we’ve seen 20 of those 15,000 returned for service, which is like a 0.02 service rate, something like that. 

So, I think in reasonable settings, you know, I wouldn’t go and hit it with a baseball bat but it is certainly well enough protected for most general settings. 

Yeah, I tend to agree, but I do wonder if in public concourses in places like arenas and so on, a GOB display may be fine for people coming and going from a Taylor Swift concert. But maybe not for a Norwegian death metal concert. Different demographics? 

Larry Zoll: It’s a fair assumption. That’s a great question, though. I think everybody would really benefit if we could put together some metrics on what that protection really looks like.

One of the things that struck me walking around ISE was looking at all these gorgeous displays that were all COB or other technologies like that, in various stands, some very high profile, some you had to find kind of if you walk more towards the back of some of the exhibit halls and I started concluding, maybe right or wrong, that I don’t know that the industry really needs to get to micro LED or displays that are called micro LED, because the fine pitch, sub one millimeter, more “conventional” and all displays look absolutely fantastic. So are you benefiting that much more from the additional cost of going to micro LED? 

Ross Noonan: That’s a very good question because, obviously, as humans, we’re always in the pursuit of improvement. You know, technology was about driving the next best thing. You know, it was 1080p, then it was 4K, then it was 8K. There comes a point where this is, of course, my opinion, I think many people who have been in this industry and done what I’ve done would share that there’s going to come a point where having a smaller pixel pitch really doesn’t make that much difference. 

I mean, how often are you going to go and stand less than a meter from a screen, especially if it’s a big one? That’s just not really what’s intended for there. There are obviously some cases where maybe an immersive and interactive where you want people interacting with large format displays that perhaps a sub 1mm pixel pitch might make sense, but generally speaking, Larry and I spoke about this before the call. There are some 2.5mm is a fantastic pixel pitch for a lot of applications. 1.5mm is also fantastic. That’s why many of those big screens at the show were kind of 1.25 or 1.5mm. 

When you start to get lower than that, it becomes extremely subjective as to whether it is worth that extra $200-400 that adds for not an awful lot of benefit? I’m sure Larry’s got more to add, but yeah, I think you’re right. I think that chasing that pitch may be similar to what Larry mentioned earlier, which is cameras, and I’m sure he’s going to use that analogy in a minute, which makes complete sense. 

Larry Zoll: I think one thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that when you move from a 1.2mm pitch product to a 0.9mm pitch product, you’re doubling the number of pixels in that display. I don’t care who you are; that is going to add a substantial amount to the cost of that display, and whether you’re getting the benefit of that double the number of pixels is really a subjective question.

Yes, there are going to be applications where you’re going to want something super tight, right? If you are trying to replace interactive LCD, right? In that case, you’re going to want something that is tight because you’re going to be within that arm’s length, right? 

But if you’re talking about a conference room, a lobby, or something similar, there are plenty of arguments to keep things a little bit wider, with no discernible detriment to the project whatsoever and Ross mentioned the cameras; I feel like we’re at a point in this industry where digital cameras were 5-7 years ago where everybody was racing towards a number of megapixels, and at some point the industry, consumers in the industry realized that 20 or 40 megapixels in an everyday situation wasn’t really going to make a difference and most of the major camera manufacturers could hit a reasonable number of megapixels. So that industry moved towards, well, what were the other differentiating factors? You know, is it sensor size? Is it HDR? Is it whatever? And that’s where you’re starting to see, especially in professional cameras, since the industry sort of forking is on those differentiators, and I think we’re moving in a very similar space in the LED market. 

You know, most of the manufacturers out there now can hit a reasonable pixel pitch and do a good job doing it. So what differentiates Manufacturer A from manufacturer B is how you’re doing it. Is it the components? Is it the epoxy that you’re using for the GOB? Is it the lifetime performance of the display? Those are the start to think. Those are the things you need to start to look at in order to really differentiate the quality of what’s out there.

With micro LED, one of the arguments I’ve heard from a company that’s actually in that business is yes, right now it’s still early days, but over time, because of the way micro LED is envisioned to be manufactured, when the yields get up there that they reduce the number of manufacturing flaws, you can hugely reduce the manufacturing cost per square foot of LED by using mass transfer and effectively, I guess, kind of printing these displays. 

Larry Zoll: Yeah, and that’s one of the things I was referencing earlier about the cost associated with starting up and shutting down a COB manufacturing line.

That’s where a lot of those error rates and everything else come from. So yes, I agree. If you can keep those manufacturing lines constant, then it does have substantial impacts on that part of the process and gives you the ability to lower your prices because your failure rates are so much lower, and I think you’re right, the mass transfer is the next big. The next big, I don’t know, golden egg, and we’re seeing that now with a few small manufacturers who are coming out with, they’re called MIP displays, micro LED in the package, and MIP displays take advantage of that mass transfer process, and just, very briefly, very high level. 

You know, traditional SMD COB displays, and even DIP displays are done using pick-in-place, where you have a machine that literally picks a component off of a real place on the PCB, and it gets soldered in place very fast. I’ve seen those machines. Yeah, it’s still one piece at a time.

The big draw for MIP displays at the moment is that they can take advantage of this mass transfer process, where you’re basically taking a piece of film that has X many diodes. It gets placed onto the substrate that way, and there are advantages to it. Still, I think eventually, with the micro LED displays, we’re working towards that process there too, but that’s going to take some time, and that’s where I think a lot of the industry will eventually move. 

Setting aside really specialized applications like medical imaging, what pixel pitch is pretty much enough? I mean, I walked around ISE and saw AOTO marketing a sub-five millimeter pixel pitch, and I thought, well, that’s interesting, but who on earth needs that? 

Ross Noonan: Yes, that’s a very good question. You mentioned the screen on Langstand, and I think that was one of the main focal points because it was a fantastic screen with fantastic content. From memory, it was a 1.25mm. I don’t think it was lower than one mil.

I think it was 0.9mm. 

Ross Noonan: Oh, was it 0.9mm? 

Yeah, I think so. 

Ross Noonan: I think there’s an element that’s something to be said there that the awe and wonder that screen caused is whether we are going to get much more amazement from a screen that then is twice the resolution. I just don’t know how the costs and benefits stack up. The human eye can only perceive so much detail. 

We haven’t even gotten into talking about the content creation costs and keeping that screen refreshed. You know, that’s a high ongoing cost that many clients are not necessarily educated about, especially when we’re dealing with clients who are now looking at 8k resolution screens, and they’ve got the budget for it; you have to have that conversation with them. We’ll also have you get the budget and that content refreshed and then keep that content playing. It’s not a cheap thing to do, and you’re chasing a resolution that perhaps you just don’t need. It’s always a good conversation to have with clients. It’s what you want versus what you need.

They’re two different things, and sometimes we compromise with them, and sometimes we actually help educate them and help them pick the right thing. I mean, there’s a reason why 1.5mm seems to be the fastest-growing pixel pitch of choice at the moment anyway, and I think that 1.2mm to 1.8mm is where we’re going to see the most increase and longevity of pixel pitch sales. That’s just based on the 7 to 8 years that I’ve been doing LED and seeing it ramping up and remaining or keep doing so. 

Larry Zoll: I think that comes down, Dave, to the education that you were talking about previously, too. I recently went to a meeting where a customer was saying they’re putting this huge project together, and they’re saying, “We absolutely have to do this with 0.6mm displays. There’s no way we can’t.” We took them and showed them a 1.2mm COB, and they were absolutely blown away. 

Part of it is the education piece of it, right? I think a lot of people say they need to have the newest and the highest, the best, because it’s the newest and the highest, the best without really knowing what the potential is for what may already exist and doing that education and exposing the market to what is possible and showing them what the range is, really can help people make very well informed decisions without having to as tight as possible. 

Another interesting thing I was struck by ISE was with one manufacturer, a fairly substantial one, walking around their stand and looking at the displays and realizing they’re not even showing the pixel pitch, like, usually particularly the Chinese manufacturers, they’ll say it’s this and that, and it’s 1.4 or whatever it is. But they didn’t even have those little signs that called that out, and that struck me as, okay, we’re kind of getting beyond this pixel pitch rate race, at least for some of the people.

Ross Noonan: Yeah, it’s an interesting perspective. From a marketing perspective, it’s a great idea. Let the screen and the content do the talking, and then people will come and say to you, “Wow, that screen is fantastic. Give me some details,” and you say it’s at 1.8 mil. 

It’s going to, as Larry said, that’s a great way of showing people that sometimes resolution isn’t always the main thing. It’s all about optimization and really good content. 

Larry Zoll: The install quality is a big part of that too, but I think you’re right. I think you can potentially lean on that, and my guess is that if you had people coming up to your booth asking about the pitch of the display, it’s typically not going to be as tight of a pitch as they think it is.

What really genuinely matters, if I’m someone who’s relatively new to this as an integrator or an end user, they can be all caught up on the terminology that goes, I need a micro LED display, or as you’ve said, they need a 0.6mm, that’s the only thing that’s going to work, that sort of thing.

What actually does matter? 

Ross Noonan: What do you want to see, and where do you want to see it from? Yeah, it sounds simple, but that really is how you want to see it or how you want to interact with it? It’s probably the next set of questions. I’ll let Larry delve into it more, but that is how we always start a conversation.

What is it you want to see? Where do you want to see it from? And then let’s explore the options that are going to deliver that, in the best way possible. 

Larry Zoll: My background was in design before I joined LED Studio and the manufacturing side. I was a designer. I spent a long time in the consulting world.

I still firmly believe that technology can’t drive the design. You have to let the story drive the tech, and that’s how we approach every project. I also think that, as Ross said earlier, there are more and more companies out there doing all-in-ones, and we do them too.

There are great applications for all-in-one displays, but just as frequently, if not more frequently, this industry is still as much art as it is science, and what that translates into from a project requirement standpoint really depends on the ultimate goals for the project.

I’ve said to people when they’ve asked me that kind of question, I’m nowhere near as deep as you guys are on the LED side, but I’ve said what can really matter is quality of support and responsiveness of support and having more than just salespeople in the same country as you, but, in this discussion, you’ve mentioned a lot of things about what components are used, how it’s made, how the heat gets out, all these sorts of things that are much more technical and in the weeds, but maybe are things that people are looking for if they’re really trying to make good, informed decisions, they have to get beyond how pretty it looks on the trade show floor and find out how it works and how it’s going to last. 

Larry Zoll: No, that’s absolutely right. I mean, we haven’t even delved into the support part of it, but that’s a huge component of it too.

I mean, there’s so much out there and many different ways to buy products. I think people frequently underestimate the need for a good partner in these projects. They’re living, breathing things; whether it’s content refreshes or content management systems, they’re ultimately all computers, right? Computers will do what computers will do. So you have to have a good partner who can support you throughout its life. 

At a very basic level, everybody who’s involved in technology knows this: Yes, you can buy stuff really inexpensively from China, but whether it’s computers or media players or other devices, you genuinely are for the lower cost of getting what you paid for.

Larry Zoll: Yeah, a hundred percent. 

Ross Noonan: Yeah, and I guess the support side of things is important too, for the fact that, as Larry touched upon, we know these project products are potentially quite complex. I mean, obviously, we’ve simplified a lot of them in terms of how they are installed, but sometimes you can’t move away from the fact that you might need structural engineering; it’s not just something that you slap at the end of the project. It’s got to be project managed with architects and electricians and all these different trades. It all has to come together, perhaps to a grand opening of a large event, and so what we are finding is some of the bigger manufacturers, they don’t want that headache of having the responsibility to do that level of support, which you could claim is quite granular, having to really get involved in the weeds and making sure that you’re thinking of every potential outcome and then delivering that on-site and that leaves the door wide open to the smaller manufacturers like us who have built up a group of individuals who’ve been sort of working at the front end of LED displays. It means we can go in and offer a service that is perhaps a bit more personal, and of course, there are always problems with these projects. That’s what technology is all about solving problems. 

But we like to think that we’re quite proactive at solving those plans and innovative in how we solve problems with our technologies to make things easier, and that’s something that we pride ourselves on.

All right. I said before we even started that this was going to fly by and it certainly did. I think we’ll have to do this again because I don’t think we really covered the waterfront. We just started our little walking discussion here. But I appreciate your time. 

Larry Zoll: Thanks so much, Dave.

Ross Noonan: Thank you.

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