LEDs: ‘Channeling’ More Opportunities to Sign Makers

Technology advancements continually improve the way sign companies conduct business. One of the segments of the sign industry advancing quickly due to new technology is the electrical sign industry, and specifically, the illuminated channel letter segment.

By Johnny Duncan

Box Letters 
Channel letters have become the most commonly used of all types of electric signs. The term “channel letter” was coined for letters with deep sidewalls and recessed light sources that channel the illumination’s direction. Today, neon signs and illuminated channel letters are synonymous because most outdoor signs installed in past decades consisted of covered channel-letter signs lit with neon tubes.

There is a vast variety of manufacturers of channel letters across the US and the world. Channel letters can come ordered to your customer’s specifications from a factory or material can be purchased along with products on the market now that allow you to create letters in your own shop. The materials used for channel letters are improving as well. New acrylic face materials with more color choices are entering the market faster than ever before.

LEDs are semi-conductor materials that convert electrical energy directly into light. These little light sources have plenty to offer lighting designers, but there are limitations to this seemingly extraordinary light source. The light is very directional, meaning by itself LEDs are not a good source for general illumination. Advancements in technology have created green, blue, red, and amber lights and the long-awaited white light LEDs.

LEDs can’t compete with neon in the general sign market, in terms of lumen output per linear foot for direct light applications. But they can be competitive in certain types of signs and displays like channel lettering. Ron Wallace, Vice President of Marketing with SloanLED, states that “LEDs have impacted the manufacturing lead times for channel letters. Without the lead times normally associated with neon production, the illumination materials for letters can be obtained nearly instantaneously. Most leading sign supply distributors are now stocking LED components and power supplies. The fast assembly and installation times further reduce the total time required to manufacture and install a set of channel letters when using LEDs.”

Solid-state design renders LEDs impervious to shock, vibration, frequent switching and environmental extremes. With an average life span of 100,000-plus hours (11 years), LED lamps operate more than 20 times longer than the equivalent incandescent lamp. LED lamps produce almost no heat and require 80% – 90% less operating power than equivalent incandescent, making them easy on the environment as well as easy on the bottom line.

LEDs help to streamline the assembly of channel letters too. Shawn Strange, Senior Project Director for AgiLight, a lighting technology and product development company, has seen tremendous advances in streamlining the assembly process. “LEDs, with their flexibility in size and design open up new products through various form factors.” AgiLight developed its SideWinder products to be either side or back illuminated because of the new breakthroughs. The side illumination allows manufacturers to make letters that are slimmer and smaller, while still providing even illumination and with a combination of halo and front illumination effects from the same ultra-thin channel letter.

Although many LED manufacturers predict their products can last as many as 100,000 hr, that number is dependent upon several of operating factors. LED lumen depreciation is affected by a variety of environmental conditions, such as ambient temperature, humidity, and ventilation. Control methods, thermal management, and current levels can also shorten life.

Chuck Harder, Vice President of Lighting Technology, Westinghouse, offers yet another perspective on the changes occurring. “LED technology and the evolution of electronic transformers is just a couple of the positive changes to occur over the past five to ten years. The former may have driven the latter. With the introduction of low voltage LED channel systems from multiple reputable manufactures, we now have transformer options with neon tubing that can run as efficiently as some LED systems, TFT and Ventex just to name a few. The old fashion core and coil is still the workhorse in the day to day maintenance system but with an eye on the environment and energy savings, most large program managers may now be forced to only consider environmentally green, low energy solutions for large program rollouts.”

The Marriage 
The combination of new channel “cans” and improvements to LED lighting are helping the channel letter segment of the industry offer a higher quality of signage opening new markets worldwide.

“Channel letters will have maintenance issues of some kind during their life,” states Harder. “However, lifetime ownership for a set of quality LED letters will be less maintenance than ever. As LEDs continue to take root and confidence rises, more shops will continue to specify LEDs with no reservations.”

Steven J. Vaccaro, Marketing Manager with Cyro Industries offering acrylic sheet products for channel letter products, believes that the marriage of LED lit letters is just beginning. “As the costs come down, more and more channel letters will convert to LED. I predict that 90% of channel letters will be LED within the next five to ten years.”

New technology will have to improve on the letters as well. Vaccaro states that there will be a new trend to reduce the size of the cans. “The cans have been about five to six inches deep, partly out of habit to allow the light from the neon to reflect off of the walls properly. This also allowed heat to dissipate. But, with LEDs, there is less output of heat. The challenge now is to see how shallow we can make the channel cans while creating a face material that will perform.”

Shawn Strange agrees that the size of the cans will probably be reduced in the future, “It will be interesting to see how new nano-materials play into this equation. The future may well be ultra-thin solid-state sheets that allow letter illumination that is essentially flush with the wall or surface. LEDs will certainly become more efficient and lower cost, which will drive usage for more and more applications.”

The Honeymoon
The good news here is that millions of dollars will continue to be spent on R&D to improve on the technology of LEDs. This means that not only will LEDs eventually replace conventional lighting in homes and businesses, but that the sign professional will be able to offer more durable, long-lasting products that will continue to increase their customer base.

Whether you are looking to offer more for your customers in the channel letter arena or wanting to break into this market segment, the advancements in design and materials are making it easier for you to do so.

As Wallace of SloanLED points out, “For those wishing to enter the channel letter market, the timing has never been better. With many qualified channel letter wholesalers, the advent of automated cutting, bending and welding machinery and the ease of using LEDs for illumination, it is much more feasible for a new player to bring quality products to market.”

“Complete penetration of the large retail new construction market will take place in the near future,” says Harder. “Only small owner/operators will still be building with neon. Mom and Pop outlets will also still be producing neon on a just-in-time basis as well, but we will continue to see a decline in channel lighting due to production labor cost savings vs. LED. A neon tube needs to be custom made where LEDs in most cases come ready to install out of the box.”

While the opportunities continue to grow for those interested in the channel letter market, caution should be applied to any new venture. While new products are being developed, not all have been field tested over long periods. It is wise to learn all that you can about LED illuminated letters and to talk to those already in the industry.

Ron Wallace offers this advice: “Of course, there is much competition, so there are no guarantees. And the well-established providers of channel letter signs have many advantages, so the new supplier will need to emphasize creativity, quality, reliability and service. On the other hand, many newer providers have done an excellent job of embracing the benefits of LED lighting, setting themselves apart as experts in this technology and effectively selling the benefits to the end-users. Another piece of important advice is to do your homework when choosing an LED supplier. This is definitely not a product category where choice should be determined by price alone.”

Harder suggests that a sign professional not offer just one solution, but to diversify. “Offer many choices from neon to LED and maybe even fiber optics in some applications. Also, shop around for multiple wholesale channel letter sign shops to build your letters for you. Neon is not dead and will never die. A well processed tube can last for well over 20 years if not more! Neon will find a new niche I’m sure in the more artistic shops.”

“LED is the future and savvy purchasing agents are becoming more educated every day in regards to this technology. If you do not have LED in your portfolio then you may be perceived to be a shop that is behind the times. There is a huge network of wholesale channel letter companies that specialize in providing just-in-time delivery. Having a solid relationship with two or three of these companies will give a shop the flexibility to quote multiple products. Where one shop may only offer a certain line of LED their competition may offer another line of LEDs. Either way a menu of choices is critical when lead times start getting stretched from just-in-time to two weeks or more.”

The future of channel letters will change, but with that change will come exciting opportunities for sign companies and their customers. Now, customers will have even more selections offered as quality improves with illumination and with the quality of the letters.


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