High-Tech Small Towns Light Up the World

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Turning off the billboard lights in London’s Piccadilly Circus, says the BBC, is quite rare:  during World War II and solemn occasions such as funerals for Churchill and Lady Diana.  In January, this iconic illuminated attraction was switched off for renovation.

BBC photo (January 16, 2017)

Mock-up of renovated Piccadilly Circus

Soon, visitors to London will see a new dazzling high-resolution display in Piccadilly Circus, curved outward and nearly 147 feet wide (17.56 meters high by 44.62 meters wide).  Some 100 million people pass through Piccadilly Circus each year.

Thousands of miles from London, skilled workers are building a new electronic sign for Piccadilly Circus in South Dakota at a tech company called Daktronics.

Daktronics is manufacturing the new display for London-based Ocean Outdoor, which operates the popular site on behalf of Land Securities, the UK’s largest Real Estate Investment Trust.

Digital lighting — literally — is a bright spot in US manufacturing.  Based in Brookings, SD (population 23,000+) sign-maker Daktronics exports worldwide.

Daktronics product testing in Brookings, SD                                                                           


Daktronics was founded in 1968 by electrical engineering professors Al Kurtenbach and Duane Sander.  In the early days, their business was run out of a tire repair shop.  By 1971, Daktronics developed the patented Matside wrestling scoreboard.

The founders wanted to create job opportunities for young people at South Dakota State University in Brookings; the company has hired more than 1,000 graduates.

Watch CBS News special “The Small Town Behind the Biggest Scoreboards.”

This year, 11 of the venues in the men’s college basketball tournament feature Daktronics’ lighting, including the University of Phoenix arena, site of the 2017 NCAA championship game.

Daktronics’ scoreboards are ubiquitous on high school sports fields nationwide, as well as roadside electronic (digital) billboards and official traffic signs.

In London, the company’s manager (Patrick Halliwell) says Daktronics is humbled to be selected to update one of the best-known digital billboards in the world.

Part of broader trend

Daktronics’ success in the global economy is part of a broader trend.

Watchfire Signs, based in Danville, IL (population 33,000+), has exported digital billboards to more than a dozen countries.

Watchfire’s Kim Weninger, vice president of operations, explains the assembly process to US Senator Dick Durbin in Danville, IL (2016)

In Utah, Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO) also built electronic billboards.  In 2015, Samsung Electronics acquired YESCO’s electronic sign plant in Logan, UT (population 50,000+), renaming it Prismview.

Workers in Utah made:

  • The new vertical LED display in Madrid’s busy Plaza del Callao
  • Video-audio signs for the transit system in Australia
  • The scoreboard at Rogers Place arena in Edmonton, the largest high-definition scoreboard in the National Hockey League (NHL)
  •  An 8-foot by 14-foot electronic display at India’s National Science Center

Madrid’s Plaza del Callao                                   

From Duluth, GA (population 29,000+), Formetco exports billboards to Central and South America, Europe, Australia, Algiers, and the Middle East, and plans to expand to other global markets.  The Georgia-based company has sales representation in the UK, Mexico, and Egypt.

Formetco’s digital billboard in Cairo at Ghabbour Auto, Egypt’s largest auto dealer.  The electronic billboard was assembled in Duluth, GA, shipped from Atlanta.

Piccadilly Circus: lights on this fall

The first electronic ads appeared in Piccadilly Circus in 1908; Perrier was the first brand to be illuminated.  Coca-Cola began advertising there in 1954.

The lights were turned off in 1939, complying with WWII blackouts, and were not back on until 1949.

The current downtime will be much shorter; the new high-res display built by Daktronics will debut this fall.  Six advertisers will share this premier ad space, including Coca-Cola.

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