Sign of the times: Danville company working hard to dazzle Las Vegas

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Large LED signs being assembled and tested at Watchfire Signs in Danville, currently manufacturing the largest video display in the world for Fremont Street in Las Vegas. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much in common between the glitz of Las Vegas and the grit of Danville.

Vegas is a thriving desert metropolis, world-famous as a gaudy adult oasis floating on a sea of gambling money. Danville, a small community of modest homes, is a once-thriving town that has never been the same since the GM plant shut down 30 years ago.

Wealth is on flashing display everywhere in Las Vegas. Five years ago, the U.S. government called Danville the cheapest place to live in the United States.

What could the connection be?

The flashing signs are the giveaway.


Go to Danville, 120 miles south of Chicago. Turn down Maple Street, to where it dead-ends with the unfortunately-named Bahls Street, a source of never-ending guffaws from truckers making pickups and deliveries. There you will find Watchfire Signs, which right now is constructing the largest digital display in the world, a $30 million, four-block long, barrel-vaulted, 130,000 square foot video screen that, when complete, will form a canopy above Fremont Street in Las Vegas. Pedestrians below look up and see light shows, advertisements, and various visual entertainments.

Watchfire employs about 320 people manufacturing and selling LED signs. If you drive down the Kennedy, you’ve already seen their work: Watchfire manufactures video billboards for JCDecaux. The company began in 1945 as Time-O-Matic, producing grids of bulbs under bank signs telling the time and temperature. The company also created flashing signs for Vegas casinos.

They’ve grown considerably over the past decade, discarding their mechanical-sounding name, and now tackling the biggest sign ever attempted, beating out 15 other companies worldwide that bid on the job.

“For a company like ours, this is a huge project,” said Steve Harriott, president and CEO. “For any company — it’s the biggest screen in the world.”

The company began manufacturing the giant screen last month. To observe the process, you must put on an anti-static smock and booties before entering the state-of-the-art assembly room.

Once inside, a series of automatic machines take spools of LEDs — light-emitting diodes, semiconductors that give off light when current flows through them — and arrange them in grids on square FR4 fiberglass boards, along with the wiring and electronics that feed those LEDs, soldering them on, waterproofing with silicon.

“You keep adding more and more value to the board,” said Kim Weninger, chief operating officer.

The LEDs are bunched into trios of red, blue and green — the Fremont job will require almost 50 million LEDs — forming a single pixel of light when seen from a distance. LEDs do not burn out, like light bulbs, but gradually die over time, which is why the current Fremont Street display, put up 14 years ago, is being replaced.

A large part of the operation is dedicated to testing circuits at every stage of assembly. It’s a lot easier to pluck out a bum LED immediately after it’s installed than when it’s 90 feet above Fremont Street.

Thus the actual assembly from a bare board to one covered with LEDs and electronics would take eight minutes, if sent directly through the line. Factor in testing, and the process can take almost two days.

“We have a lot of testing,” said Weninger. “A lot of process control. Most of what we find we can fix. We scrap less than 20 grand a year.”

This in a company with annual revenue of over $150 million.

The completed boards are sandwiched between a supportive tray and a protective cover. They are then screwed in place on frames — assembled and painted in a different part of the factory — using special latches designed by Watchfire, bolts that can’t be over-torqued.

Watchfire just test-shipped the first panels — loading them on a truck, hauling them to Indianapolis and back, then assessing. It hopes to start installing them in Vegas by the middle of April — the Fremont mall, which draws 20 million visitors a year, will remain open, along with its zipline, with the work being done from 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. The company hopes to finish the project by September, but CEO Harriott says he expected similar jobs in the future — perhaps cladding buildings in LED advertising, in the way now done mostly in places like Times Square or the Ginza in Tokyo.

That’s looking too far ahead. Right now, Watchfire is focusing on one thing: Their display is set to debut in Las Vegas on New Year’s Eve.

“That’s going to be a great day,” Harriott said. “Everybody wants to go and see it.”

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