08 March 2013

The Good, Bad and the Future: Pixel Nodes

Channel Letter Sign with 8mm Pixel Nodes

8mm Tri-Color RGB Node with 12mm Case

First, a little background on the 8mm, tri-color LED node.  For anyone that has been to Asia (mainly China), you'll notice that they have many signs produced that use these nodes.  These signs are what we would, in the US, call Channel Letter signs.  In the US, we normally have channel letter sign that has an acrylic face with sheet metal sides and back that form a box, which is then illuminated with either neon (older) or LED modules (newer).  This channel letter design in the US produces a smooth clean, single color letter. 

While China also has the same type of channel letter signs, they also have the same sign but instead of an acrylic face they again use sheet metal for the face.  In that sheet metal they then punch ~12mm holes.  In these holes they install either dumb or intelligent RGB nodes.  This creates a sign that can be addressed either as a matrix (intelligent pixels) or just as a single color (dumb).  This type of sign design is nearly non-existent in the US currently.  So, why does this matter?  Well, this explains first why the physical case of nodes are generally 12mm in diameter.  It also explains why the little "fingers" that are on the side of the nodes are only about 1/16 of an inch between the top and bottom - they are design to fit into thin gauge sheet metal and pretty much nothing else. 

Here is the problem - they often are not exactly the same diameter, either from a single vendor, even within a single string or very often from vendor to vendor.  So you might have nodes with diameters of .40", .42", .44", .46" and so on.  So, if you want to make, say, a scrolling matrix panel (see sample panel video we've produced for a customer to the right) with pixel nodes. 

What we found is that when we produced these panels from ABS plastic, a hard, stiff plastic sheet, they would hold perfectly but only if you cut the hole with .01-.02" of the actual diameter of the node.  Any more and the node would either fall out or would be wonky and not point straight out.  Any less and it was impossible to get the node in at all - in fact many people had to use lubricant just to get some of the nodes in a string into the holes (which were all exactly the same diameter).  So, it was clear that if we wanted to sell a product that would hold and mount RGB nodes from any vendor, that we would need a different method of mounting them. 

At first this seems simple - just find some plastic that can hold them, right?  Well, it turns out that isn't the case.  In holding pixel nodes, you have a number of factors to consider:
  • They need to be held tightly so as not to point different directions, causing different levels of light output.
  • The material needs to be able to "adjust" to slightly different sized nodes from different vendors.
  • The material needs to stand up to UV and a wide range of temperatures (-20 to 130f).
  • The material needs to be at a cost point that the final product is reasonably priced.
  • The material needs to be strong enough to handle 5-15 pounds of nodes.
  • The material needs to be strong enough when mounted to a frame or other material to resist tearing, sagging, stretching or failing in high wind loads.
  • And finally the material needs to be easy to machine on our CNC equipment.
It's a tall order and that's why we've yet to offer a "standard", non-custom mounting frame.  So, starting in February, we spent countless hours researching the tens of thousands of materials out there that could be a possible match for the magical material so we can bring products based on nodes to you.  As of March 8th, 2013, we have narrowed the field down to two companies that make very specialized plastics that meet our needs and we are working with them to produce and test the plastics that we hope will solve this problem.  We hope to have material in the April/May time frame after testing is completed and products shortly there after.
So, what do we plan to produce with this magical plastic?  Well that's a good question.  We know that lots of you out there want a method of creating a simple scrolling matrix screen like what is shown in the video above, so that's a pretty much no-brainier - we'll offer complete kits to build exactly that. 

We also plan to offer a mini-tree that also holds the nodes and is curved like a circular tree with the nodes "studded" through out - this would be offered as a dumb and smart mini-tree kit.

As is often the case, once we have a starter product, often customers are the source of some of the best ideas out there that we could never imagine.  So, if you have ideas for a product that incorporates RGB nodes, smart or dumb, feel free to email us or leave feedback below on the blog.

29-Mar-2013 - Update:  We have released the matrix panel here:  http://www.holidaycoro.com/Pixel-Matrix-Mounting-p/265.htm

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