Sunday, February 13, 2011

Variable Message Signs (VMS) and Polycarbonate

Over recent months we have had a large number of customer contact us regarding Variable Message Signs (VMS), also known as Dynamic Message Signs (DMS), and the use of Polycarbonate for these signs. These signs are often used as traffic signs to warn drivers or give special information.

The signs often consist of a bank of either yellow or red LEDs behind a protective Polycarbonate front shield. The Polycarbonate is used to protect the sign against impact damage and environmental conditions.

Most of the questions that we get asked relate to a technical standard such as the European Standard EN.12966 for VMS. The main concern relates to the test, which simulates reflection of sunlight when the sun is at a low angle in the sky (5 or 10 degrees). In this situation, the sun is reflected off the Polycarbonate shield to the driver and partially obscures the light coming from the LEDs, making the sign difficult to read.

The sign can be made easier to read by either reducing the reflection of the sunlight or increasing the amount of LED light transmitted through the sheet – either by increasing the LED brightness or increasing the light transmission of the Polycarbonate sheet.

The test apparatus used for EN.12966 is shown in the picture accompanying this blog post [Please click on the picture to enlarge]. The principal of reducing reflection and increasing transmission is the same as that discussed in our previous blog posts with the exception that we are not concerned with the entire visible spectrum. We are specifically concerned with how the Polycarbonate interacts with the Yellow LEDS (wavelength 635 nm) and the Red LEDs (wavelength 590-595 nm) for the vast majority of VMS.

The problem that most VMS manufacturers have experienced is that they frequently buy general purpose Polycarbonate sheet, that has not been optimized for VMS, from distributors or manufacturers that are not aware of the options available. Much of this material has been produced with the idea of minimizing the production cost; as a result there is often large amounts of second grade (regrind) material in the product. As discussed in our previous blog posts, this regrind has the effect of lowering the transmission across the visible spectrum and in particular in the yellow region of the spectrum used by the yellow LEDs of VMS.

The first method improving the visibility of VMS signs in low sunlight is therefore to use an optical grade of Polycarbonate that has been design for VMS use, such as grades offered by HighLine Polycarbonate. The next method is to reduce the reflection and increase the transmission by the use of specially designed coatings. The added advantage of these coatings is that they improve the UV and weather resistant performance of the Polycarbonate, preventing the material from yellowing over time, which would also reduce the transmission in the yellow part of the spectrum. The coatings also add scratch resistance to the sheet, which is important in a road traffic environment.

The following table shows the effect of using a high quality VMS Polycarbonate and using an anti-reflective hard coat. The sheet used is 3mm / 0.118” thick.

Yellow LED Transmission

Uncoated GP Polycarbonate (*) 83.8%

Uncoated VMS Polycarbonate 89.0%

VMS Polycarbonate with anti-reflective hard coat 91.0%

VMS Polycarbonate with anti-reflective hard coat outside and optical coating inside 93.6%

Red LED Transmission

Uncoated GP Polycarbonate (*) 86.0%

Uncoated VMS Polycarbonate 89.7%

VMS Polycarbonate with anti-reflective hard coat 92.0%

VMS Polycarbonate with anti-reflective hard coat outside and optical coating inside 95.5%

[* the GP Polycarbonate was purchased from a distributor and was produced by a major manufacturer as their standard product].

For Yellow LEDs it is therefore possible to increase the transmission by 8.6% [91.0/83.8 = 8.6% increase] by using a properly designed Polycarbonate with an anti-reflective hard coat, for Red LEDs the increase is 7.0% [92.0/86.0 = 7.0% increase].

For both color LEDs the anti-reflective hard coat is also able to reduce the reflection by 25%.

The combination of the increase in transmission and the reduction in reflection significantly increases the readability of the signs in sunlight.

A further option to improve the performance is to use an advanced optical anti-reflective on the inside surface. The use of the advanced optical coatings is not recommended for the outside surface, as they are not suited to use in a dusty and dirty roadside environment. By using these materials on the inside surface the transmission for yellow LEDs rises to 93.6% and the transmission for red LEDs rises to 95.5%.

These figures give an increase in transmission of 11.6% for yellow LEDs and 11.0% for Red LEDs. They also reduce the reflection by 56%. One question that has not yet been completely answered is whether the additional cost of an optical grade anti-reflective is justified by the performance advantage over an anti-reflective hard coat.

The other option for VMS is to use an anti-glare hard coat. At the moment we are investigating the performance of these materials in this application. Anti-glare materials are different from anti-reflective materials in that they scatter the light to reduce reflection; so while you can reduce reflection you also significantly lower the transmission and the clarity of the sign. It remains to be determined whether the loss in transmission is acceptable. At the moment we are very reluctant to recommend anti-glare coatings for VMS applications even though we are able to provide anti-glare coatings.

To summarize, for VMS signs it is important to use a Polycarbonate sheet that has been designed for VMS applications rather than use general purpose Polycarbonate sheet. With an anti-reflective hard coat the transmission can be increased 7.0% for red LEDs and 8.5% for yellow LEDs and the reflection can also be reduced 25%.