By Eric Peterson | May 27, 2014
Military technology and equipment
"NORAD's where the company started," says Mervin Perkins, the founder and president of Display Devices.
When projectors' bulbs burned out at the aerospace defense facility, then located in Colorado Springs' Cheyenne Mountain, quick replacement was critical -- lest a stray missile cross the screen while it's dark. Display Devices projector scissor lifts cut their downtime from 2 hours to 15 minutes.
While it's moved away from the military market, the company still does the same thing as it did in the early days. "A lot of what we do is finding a solution to a problem," says Perkins.
Melding electrical, mechanical, and audiovisual expertise, Display Devices makes a wide array of innovative, often custom products for Fortune 100 clients, municipalities, airports, and "anybody who can rub two nickels together," jokes Perkins.
The company broadened its military-centric command-and-control-room focus in the face of budget cuts in the 1990s, moving into automated equipment for newsrooms and other film and video production environments. Its Eagle Pan Tilt Systems, developed in partnership with Hitachi, became a broadcasting industry standard, and the company continues to make them.
In 2005, Perkins and company moved into the theme park market with a projection system for Universal Studios Orlando. By the end of the decade, Display Devices landed a marquee client in Disney Parks and Resorts. They had approached Perkins at a trade show about enclosures for video projectors and wondered if he couldn't make one that worked underwater for the park's World of Color show at Disney World in Orlando.
They did just that, and much more, for the entertainment giant. More recently, Display Devices installed a projection system on the park's iconic Magic Kingdom Castle that allows for one-time projections of kids whose parents pay the requisite upcharge or Christmas lights to come on with the flick of the switch.
Another manufacturing specialty is outdoor informational kiosks and advertising. Display Devices has built high-brightness outdoor displays for newsstands in New York City, toppers for bank kiosks, and custom electronics for 10,000 B-Cycle "bike docks” for the popular bike-sharing operation in Denver and other cities. Kiosk Information Systems and Cemusa, a global leader in outdoor advertising, are among its partner.
Outdoor displays often need to cut through sunlight as well as resist the elements. Most commercial displays are below 500 candelas per square meter, but the market standard for high brightness is 1,500 to 3,000. "Ours are as high as 7,000," Perkins touts.
High-brightness displays produce a lot of heat, Perkin notes, so custom cooling systems are a key piece of the puzzle. Electronic reporting helps keep malfunctions to a minimum, and the system will turn down the brightness if it starts to overheat. An automated shutdown keeps displays from burning themselves out.
Under most conditions, "You can still maintain the revenue engine," says Perkins. "If it gets really bad, it shuts down entirely."
Soon you'll see Display Devices' handiwork on the 16th Street Mall in Denver, in the form of interactive directories with high-brightness displays. The company is also making outdoor displays for RTD's rapid-transit project on U.S. 36.
Beyond Colorado's borders, a high-profile project of note is an electromechanical billboard for a major soft-drink brand that's set to debut in Times Square in 2015.
"It'll be the world's largest robotic device," says Larry Duarte, one of the company's top engineers. "It has more than 1,700 motors in it. They're all operated under custom software and firmware."
The company also has developed an expertise making cutting-edge point-of-purchase and trade show displays out of tech both high and low.
"Everything is going digital," says Loren Brinton, Display Devices' marketing director. "Maybe we don't -- maybe we include metal and wood."
Perkins describes an "attention-getter” the company made for the Discovery Channel that featured a spinning monitor on top of a tank turret rotating in the opposite direction, so the image remained in the same place.
Display Devices was evicted from its Arvada facility in 2013 to make way for light rail, and moved to Golden. Its new building is one of two buildings at Rocky Flats still standing at the same location before the cleanup.
The move was "super-disruptive," says Perkins. The upside? "We improved some things. We have a much nicer building in a beautiful area."
Challenges: Specialization in several different market niches. "Our biggest strength is we do a lot of different things," says Perkins. "Our biggest weakness is we do a lot of different things."
Knockoffs represent another challenge. "We've invented a lot of things other people have made money on," laments Perkins. "When something becomes successful, that's when you have to worry about it."
To combat this, Display Devices works with offshore partners on higher-volume projects, he says. "We can do design, development, and first article and then offshore production.
"It really comes down to finding that sweet spot where international manufacturing does not come into play, whether it's lower quantities or custom work," says Director of Sales David Schmitt.
Opportunities: A potential command-and control center for its digital display systems. "All of the equipment we sell has reporting capabilities," says Perkins, envisioning a remote office handing problems.
Needs: "Better management," laughs Perkins. "We suck at management."