Digital signage, both on-board and on the wayside, continues to evolve to keep up with today's 24-hour consumer. In a world of wireless technology, transit agencies are able to give customers accurate information faster than ever through these integrated systems, which will only become more advanced in the coming years.
Readability steadily improves while component prices fall — making these more high-tech signs slightly cheaper to buy than just a few years ago. The type of information delivered to riders, whether in bus or rail, is changing to fit a society that wants everything at their fingertips. Aside from convenience features, goals in safety and ease-of-use help to shape the direction digital signage companies move toward in offering reliable products to their customers.
Flip-Dot Takes Back Seat
Aluminum signs that sit idly by a bus shelter or the flip dot signs that predate the wireless age are becoming a thing of the past, though there are many agencies around the world still using both, and there are many bus shelters, for example, where a digital sign might not be necessary. So, while agencies weigh rider satisfaction with which stops really need a digital sign, how much functionality the sign needs and what the budget allows, the technology just keeps getting better.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are replacing the outdoor flip-dot technology, where small metal discs with black on one side and a bright color on the other sit atop a black background. Once powered, the discs flip over to show the bright side and are able to remain in place without power until the message needs to change.
Before LED signs, these flip-dot signs had low nighttime visibility, and because they're made out of all moving parts, the maintenance on flip-dot signs can be excessive. LED signs, on the other hand, are made in a solid-state manufacturing process — decreasing any necessary maintenance. LED technology isn't new, but requires less energy than when it first debuted, and how it's used is becoming more and more intricate.
Luminator, a lighting and communications design and manufacturing company that serves bus, rail and aerospace industries, announced in July a new technology called "Surface Mount LEDs." In these signs, the LED lens is flat, instead of cone-shaped like the traditional lens. This design allows the sign to be read from angles without losing any of the intensity of the light.
"The biggest advantage on the viewing angle is that it allows us better readability because it's brighter on an angle, so if you're looking at the sign from a side angle you'll actually be able to see the sign better, especially for the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) community," says Daniel Kelleher, Luminator's VP of sales and marketing.
Another positive effect of Surface Mount LEDs is it decreases the amount of materials used for each LED, thereby lowering the overall system weight by 20 percent for any sign that uses the technology, according to Kelleher.
Hanover Displays, another manufacturer of electronic destination signs that has nearly quadrupled in size since it arrived in the U.S. market, is able to tightly pack the LEDs, which gives the characters more definition, such as in the different font options, and better readability. According to Dave Williams, sales director and owner of Hanover Displays, the company's ability to pack in the LEDs is due to the fact that it makes all its own parts - allowing clear oversight of the radial insertion machine that stuffs and point solders each LED into the board. Luminator also manufactures all its own parts.
"One of the key reasons Hanover has experienced such longevity and product reliability is in the manufacturing technique, and that really has to do with the fact that we manufacture our own boards," says Brandon Curtis, sales manager for North America, adding that the company had to make substantial investments in the manufacturing process but that the return has been worth it. "The whole process has been automated."
Weighing Needs, Costs
Overall, manufacturing costs of the signs are going down.
"Components are getting more affordable and the market is competitive," Kelleher says. "Whether it's signage or seating, there's increased competition; it's an aggressive market in a tight economy."
Dave Turney, CEO of TwinVision, agrees. "Prices have come down on destination signs because it's so heavily driven by solid-state technology components; as volume goes up, cost goes down," he says.
The lifetime of LEDs hasn't changed much in the last few years, with the average at around 100,000 hours, or about 11.5 years, for when an amber display is at half-brightness. With options in color, agencies can also choose to code routes through different color selections.
Color LEDs, however, aren't as frequently chosen as amber lights, which is probably due to the higher cost of the sign and the lower lifetime rates. For a color Hanover Displays sign, for example, half-life occurs after about 70,000 hours versus the 100,000 for amber lights. "Amber has always been the easiest to read and lasts the longest and is most reliable," Curtis says.
Williams cites the individual color LEDs as being pricier than amber.
"You not only pay more money for the sign up front, but even our 10-year guarantee becomes five years, and that's because the color LEDs go out faster," Williams says. "And, the funny thing is that all these signs that have all these features and benefits - most of the agencies don't use it anyway."
Luminator's color signs are also more expensive than amber, according to Kelleher.
"You have to ask the question[s] 'What's the purpose of the sign?' and 'How does that help?'" says Turney, who also sees companies frequently turning away from color features.
Other problems can arise, as well, in choosing a color product due to different regulations in different states. For example, red and blue bus destination sign colors aren't allowed on the front of the vehicle in the state of California.
"We spend a lot of time on the front end making sure they understand the technology and what they're getting," Williams says, adding that most of Hanover's European clients use color just to accent or outline, but that the destination text usually is in amber.
Hanover Display's controller also allows the agency to download bitmap images or a free-draw program, where users can select individual LEDs to light up or not. But like the color feature, "most agencies go with the amber sign with a simple message," Curtis says.
Vehicle location-based services are also offered by TwinVision and Hanover Displays, which allows them to work with an agency on all aspects of the sign technology, though typically a vehicle is already installed with an automatic vehicle location (AVL) system, such as a global positioning system.
"Transit agencies certainly need to be a little more careful in the beginning of these processes in determining what they need," Curtis says. "Funding is obviously a factor, so I think it's important for them to do a needs-analysis and know what works best for their agency."
AVL technologies are becoming cheaper for smaller agencies using commercial wireless companies, such as AT&T or Verizon, but larger agencies tend to invest in privately owned networks. "A lot of smaller agencies looking to get AVL can deploy the systems if they can do commercial wireless," Curtis says.
Through wireless Internet, digital signage companies are able to integrate all boards into one operating system. Before, an agency would have to send out a fleet of people with "flash cards" to update each and every sign manually. Today, though, an operating manager can update every sign at the same time without ever leaving their office chair.
Luminator has had a new sign controller, the ODK4, on the market for more than a year. The controller allows users to easily monitor the health of each sign. If a power supply goes down or anytime an LED goes out, for example, the controller sends a detailed error log file wirelessly to the maintenance personnel. This feature makes maintenance runs more cost effective since signs wouldn't have to be checked individually because the issue, such as how many lights are out at a particular sign, is already known. Transit agencies in New York and Washington, D.C., are beginning to update to this integrated function, according to Kelleher. "All our people are transferring over to the new system," he says.
TwinVision has a similar diagnostic controller that works with its signs as well — offering a centralized data panel for monitoring the system's health. In updating messages on the sign, TwinVision is looking to go wireless, but currently sign messages do need to be updated via USB stick, according to Turney.
Integration is deepening for Luminator, which is working on a product where vehicle diagnostics and monitoring and digital signage reports could all be sent together to the GM or maintenance department.
For indoor liquid crystal displays (LCDs), which are also becoming more affordable, some larger agencies are looking to use them to gain revenue. With high graphic representation and audio features, LCD signs on board or within stations can deliver rich information to patrons, whether it's a map of the next stop or about surrounding businesses. Agencies can sell local advertisements and display them graphically or through audio.
Luminator already markets a system like this, called INFOtainment, which is up and running in Las Vegas and going onto 500 buses in Dallas, as of press time. In Las Vegas, for example, a bus with INFOtainment allows a customer to watch a map of the area they're in or a public service announcement, and as they approach large businesses, such as Caesar's Palace, an ad will pop onto the screen. Luminator can also help provide advertisement for its clients. Kelleher says it's about more than ads and entertaining features, but also about making sure riders can get connecting route or service disruption information immediately.
Kelleher cites this advertisement and entertainment on-board system is already popular in Europe, where the company has shipped 12,000 systems, and it's just a matter of time before more major U.S. cities adopt something similar.
Solar energy is another feature that's allowing some agencies to put signage where they hadn't been able to before due to a lack of access to power. Luminator offers its clients a few selections for solar powered signs.
However, some companies think that solar power technology still has a ways to go before it's completely reliable.
"The amount of power a sign requires is relative to the size of the panel," says Curtis, adding that if it's a large sign with a large panel, "Having a giant eight-foot panel on a pole next to your shelter isn't all that attractive."
He adds that the panels aren't always the easiest to install, and only year-round sunny regions can depend on solar as the only energy resource.
Regardless, Williams and Curtis agree that there's a growing interest in solar energy and that it's on Hanover's long-term plan.
TwinVision currently has a solar powered sign in field testing and plans to release it soon. In regards to the demand, "it's too early to say" Turney says.
Improving Customer Relations
For Hanover, because it manufactures its own products, the company is able to deliver high-volume orders in a quick turnaround time. "From a customer's point of view, if they want 50 systems delivered in a short lead time — we can deliver that," says Curtis, adding that every customer is supplied with free spares, so there's no wait time if a sign needs to be repaired.
"Having a bus pulled out of service just immediately equates lost revenue," Williams says. "So when [an agency] has a problem, they pull the spare off the shelf and this gives them as little downtime on vehicles as possible."
Software and training is also part of Hanover Display's customer service policy. For example, Hanover is sure to make any new products workable with older software programs, so that it can work with the flip-dot signs the company still manufactures. "Once an agency buys a system, they shouldn't have to continue to write checks to make it work properly," Curtis says.
As well, Hanover Displays offers more than 200 different sign types at a 10-year warranty for amber products and it doesn't set a price structure since many agencies need a mix of different signage. "We have a flexible strategy when it comes to pricing and it has been successful for us so far," Williams says, citing that the savings through lowering manufacturing costs are passed onto the customer.
Luminator offers a standard warranty of three years for its products. Kelleher says that he's confident in the direction the company is heading and looks forward to the upcoming technologies that focus on integration because of the ease-of-use features this adds for the agency.
"Technology is becoming more mature, where things can be integrated onto the system with the bus," he says. "We're at a stepping stone, and it takes years to evolve, but it's moving."