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Modern Day Gold Rush: Don't Be LED Astray

While the actual individual LED on an LED wall may last 10-20 years, based on the 100,000-hour maximum when looking at all the parts, and not just the LEDs some panels can be expected to have failures much sooner.

Let's look back to 1848, where it all started; gold was found and the news quickly spread. That led to this country's mass migration of around 300,000 people to what is now the state of California. Businesses were built to support the influx of people and the costs were high.

Better LEDs use wires made with gold to connect from the diode to the circuit board.

But there was something else that was being peddled at high prices something that looked like gold, but was not more on that later.

Several entrepreneurs back then, such as a Bavarian tailor by the name of Levi Strauss, who headed out west made their money being merchants. Strauss came to California intending to manufacture tents and wagon covers, but instead found himself making pants sturdy enough for the miners to wear.

Let's turn the history page from then to the modern day, and talk about the LED video wall industry.

This is a fairly new technology, one that has been out on the market for over a decade, having really hit mainstream in the last 3-4 years.

Just like when the first plasma TV hit the market, and it was $20,000 or more, today the similar size flat panel TV is roughly $1,000. One example of a large-scale LED wall installation at a church about 10 years ago, had an estimated cost of around $3 million. Today, those screens could be replaced for roughly 10 percent of that cost.

Progress is a good thing in making products more affordable for the masses.

While the technology has moved forward significantly, there are unfortunately also new prospectors looking to make a quick profit in the market.

Now you ask is that a bad thing?

Is it not OK to go into business and work hard for a living? Well, I have been doing just that for 20-plus years, and who am I to talk, right?

Systems integration has been my life half my life, and is a passion that I have, paired with a passion for new product development and refinement.

Back to what I referenced early on, about something that looked like gold, or Pyrite also known as fool's gold. When found, this substance was often misconstrued as real gold. Many people saw the shiny appearance, and with the gold fever of the day about 170 years ago, bought into buying an iron sulfide with the chemical formula of FeS2.

Or in the simplest format it is rusty or oxidized metal. A pretty useless thing.

How is this relevant to LED video panels?

Let's cover a few basics relating to the construction of a LED panel, and talk about the costs a bit in order for you to understand the context.

When you look at a LED panel from a cost and assembly standpoint, there are a few major subsets of components that being the LEDs themselves, the circuit boards and ICs, the chassis, power supply and receiving card. In a 500mm by 500mm LED panel that is a 3.9mm model (one of the more common pixel pitches today) there are no less than 16,384 LEDs. In addition, that single panel has an average of six to nine circuit boards with a handful of ICs, one chassis, one power supply and a host of other parts to make it all come together.

Which subset of parts do you think drives the overall cost of the LED panel? As you might have guessed, it's the LEDs. They make up around 65 percent of the cost of the LED panel.

Why is this important?

This is where we have to shift gears, to answer that.

It is gold vs. copper

This is where the real gold vs. fool's gold comes into play, as there are similarities in the metals.

One of the metals has a propensity to corrode, the other does not. Have you ever seen a rusty piece of real gold jewelry? How about a corroded penny or copper pipe? What does corrosion lead to? In the electrical sense it loses conductivity and makes the part that is connected stop working.

Now which of these metals copper or gold is more expensive?

OK, so to make it all make sense, I need to dive into the details on what this is all about.

The LED itself in the video wall is made up of three individual LEDs: red, green and blue, encapsulated into one plastic housing. These three Light Emitting Diodes are all internally wired from the actual silicone diode wafer, to the outside of the plastic housing and then that is soldered into the circuit board.

Lower cost LEDs use copper wire from the diode to the circuit board. The better LEDs use wires made with gold to connect from the diode to the circuit board. One of the most interesting things I found during my research, was that the halides that are present in the plastic encapsulation process of the LEDs actually can accelerate the corroding of copper.

Why does that matter?

Let's look at corrosion, and a term that is commonly used in the computer industry MTBF. The term MTBF stands for Mean Time Between Failures. It is a measure of how long a piece of equipment is expected to last, before some kind of failure is anticipated to occur, based on history of the product. This does not mean that when this happens, the equipment has completely failed and I don't have room in this article to go greatly in depth on the MTBF discussion. I wanted to just touch on it, and share that there is a lot of deceptive marketing happening with regard to LED panels and the raw science behind how long they are expected to last.

In my research it has shown that copper wire LEDs have a much shorter lifespan. I have met with engineers from China who have talked about the copper wire LED panels having a lifespan measured in the 2-4 year range. To follow this up, I did some research on the spec sheets from several manufacturers, to find that while they advertise a "LED lifespan" of 50,000 or 100,000 hours, the MTBF is 5,000 to 10,000 hours.

While the actual individual LED on an LED wall may last 10-20 years, based on the 100,000-hour maximum when looking at all the parts, and not just the LEDs some panels can be expected to have failures much sooner.

In my unscientific data collection of LED systems out in the marketplace I have noted that some of them have very high failure rates, and others have very low.

What sets them apart? And then, how do you choose a reliable product?

In one case, there was a large 2-year old LED video wall that had been experiencing LED pixel failures at the rate of about a dozen pixels every few months. This from a panel that has a MTBF of 10,000 hours, per the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer, a company that produces parts and equipment often marketed by another manufacturer). By contrast, another LED wall, nearly 2-years-old, is a THOR: gold wire wall, has not had any significant LED failure, other than a few that were present upon the system installation, and that system has over 11,000 hours on it already.

Therefore, if you see one LED panel priced at $1,500, and another at $500, how do you think there can be such a huge price difference? One of two things, the $1,500 panel is either a much higher build quality product with gold wire LEDs, or the person selling it to you is looking to make a huge profit, on selling you fool's gold (copper wiring).

Most of the LED panels sold do not include the MTBF information, nor do they tell you if they use copper or gold wire LEDs. In their view, such details are not seen as important. Either way, they will create an image, but what you are really buying is a short-term or long-term product, depending on whether it is using copper or gold wiring.

If you are looking for the long-term solution, the THOR: brand LED panel is worthy of consideration, as it is a product with a MTBF of 50,000 hours.

To see for yourself, I have included a couple of sections of cut sheets from one low-cost American brand LED panel, and another from an OEM manufacturer, for a U.S.-based sales organization. Each example clearly states a LED lifespan of 100,000 hours, with one noting that the MTBF is 5,000 hours, and the other citing 10,000 hours.

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