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Daktronics is a part of an ever-changing tech world

Daktronics is a company that makes some of the very biggest — and brightest — things the world sets its eyes on. 

The giant screen hung in Times Square? Daktronics. That hundred-foot screen in Moscow? That’s them, too. And so it goes for a few of the smaller things, too, from a sign at the McDonald’s in New Haven, Ind., to a scoreboard at Minnesota’s Hayfield High School. 

The Brookings, S.D., company is a big player in the digital signage game, with an early September market capitalization of about $335 million. It was founded in 1968 by two South Dakota State University professors, delivering an electronic voting system for Utah legislators just two years later. But 1974, the company had tackled wrestling scoreboards, a time and temperature display for a South Dakota bank, and built the first building on what’s still its campus in Brookings.

“If you think of the industry, we’ve been in this general business for 50 years,” said Reece Kurtenbach, the company’s president and CEO. “It’s changed from being pretty basic messaging through light bulbs and some reflective elements to being really high-resolution, high-quality photo reproduction and video reproduction.”

Along with those changes, the company’s size has grown, too. Once the brainchild of two professors, Kurtenbach says most of the company’s competition is now in China. And while the company’s products were once much more disparate — like a scoreboard versus an over-the-road traffic display — now a lot of what the company produces is starting to converge together, Kurtenbach says. What goes in an airport, or in a stadium or out near shopping is increasingly similar.

“We have to be better in many ways. An organization rarely is static and doesn’t change, and so we’ve seen ourselves growing and changing with our business. We understand more about how to build displays, certainly high-resolution displays,” Kurtenbach said. “Most of what we do is scalable, so you could build something quite small to something that would fill up a wall or a side of a building — so that’s something that we had to learn and do. And we have control systems that help our customers in the different areas that they are playing, that allows them to get the right message at the right time at the right place.”

Some of its largest products are in arenas. Kurtenbach recalls the installation of a giant “oculus” display at Mercedes-Benz Stadium — where the Atlanta Falcons play — as an example of both the scope and precision of some of its newest projects. Commercial Integrator magazine reported in January, days ahead of Super Bowl LIII — played in Atlanta — that the company would have six technicians at the stadium making sure things were running smoothly.

Kurtenbach describes it as a monolith — roughly 60 feet tall and more than 1,000 feet around, and needed to be installed without any unsightly seams or gaps “with precision within inches.”

“There’s always a thousand details in something like this, and the myriad of technical details that go with it,” he said. “How do you solve each one of those little problems? Getting it up and in place and installed, there’s always unique pieces about every site and then, of course, now that it’s there, they want to use it, and so then they need to turn it on and have it run and have it, once again, right image at the right time at the right place.”

The company is also behind what it claims is the largest center-hung video board in college hockey, newly installed for the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks ahead of the 2019-20 season. It’s about 34 feet high and 15.5 feet wide, dwarfing the display it replaced.

But even as the company’s technology changes, so, too, is the market it’s reaching. Kurtenbach points out that print advertising, as well as radio and television spots, are giving way increasingly to digital ads that can run on the big-screen products that Daktronics produces. MarketingCharts reports that the 2016 TV advertising market was $15 billion smaller than its online counterpart, and online is forecasted to be half again as large as television by 2021. 

While Daktronics products are very much rooted in the analog world, it’s innovation in digital advertising that helps boost the demand for the company’s digital platforms.

“If you walk through a venue, whether it’s a sports venue or public venue or a retail venue, you’ll see digital screens in places that, 20 years ago, you wouldn’t have imagined seeing them,” Kurtenbach said. “And we believe that will continue on if people get more used to seeing digital content and expect it and it’s a way for brands to reach people that they might miss otherwise.” 

The company celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, and Kurtenbach said there are a few key ways the company is looking to the future. At the top of the list is technology. 

“You might call ‘higher resolution,’ the pixels that create an image are getting closer together and more reliable, and so we’re working on those technologies to be able to do that. And we’ve had some recent successes,” he said.  “As you start to see screens in more and more places, they all need to somehow have content delivered to them and through them, so making it easy and intuitive and effortless to have content streamed up onto the right place at the right time, those are the two areas we spend most of our development with.”

“As an organization, this idea of change is real. The world is changing, and we need to change with it,” he added. “How can we be fast to change and receptive to change so that we’re out in front of it and not drug into it in an uncomfortable way?”