Business: Stars of the screen
Business: Stars of the screen
Caroline Moss interviews Brompton Technology about becoming one of the UK’s fastest-growing export companies and setting up a Chinese division to work with LED panel manufacturers
When Brompton Technology launched in 2011, the whole team led by Richard Mead and Chris Deighton was confident its Tessera M2 LED processor would address a vital niche in the live events market. Selling the initial six-month run before production began, then seeing the Tessera M2 deployed at the Academy Awards a few months later, could be seen as beginner’s luck. However, Brompton Technology has continued to hit the heights. Last year, the company was listed in the Sunday Times Tech Track 100 as one of the fastest-growing private tech companies in the UK for the second year running, as well as in the publication’s Export Track 100 for fastest-growing international sales. And, in April, it was announced that Brompton Technology had won the prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise: International Trade.
Brompton’s founders were part of a team of designers, software developers and hardware engineers at lighting control manufacturer Flying Pig, going on to found Carallon in 2004 following Flying Pig’s merger with High End Systems. In 2011, Carallon set up Brompton Technology, with Mead and Deighton as managing director and CTO, respectively, continuing in a symbiotic relationship with Carallon, whose R&D team they can access for product development.
“Carallon morphed into a product development hub that generates spinoffs where it’s identified an opportunity, and Brompton was one of those spinoffs,” explains Mead on the Zoom call that replaced our planned face-to-face interview. “We were having lots of conversations with video techs working on live events who weren’t happy with the usability of their equipment. Often, it was repurposed broadcast and consumer equipment because video products weren’t being specifically developed for the niche live events market. We had the skills and the experience of developing products for live events, so we saw an opportunity to develop something specifically for that space.”
The challenge Brompton identified was that of touring LED walls, sometimes consisting of hundreds and even thousands of panels. “Products for install applications were being used for the fast-moving live events market, so that was the core starting point,” continues Mead. LED wall processing formats a video signal to the size and shape of the screen, adjusting colour and brightness depending on the application and environment and splitting the signal to correspond with the individual panels. “The data is transmitted via Gigabit Ethernet, and keeping it synchronised with the lowest possible latency is a huge part of the challenge. We rely heavily on FPGA technology and work with just one or two frames of latency, so it’s very fast.”
Although Brompton had planned to develop a range of video products for live events, the M2 was so widely accepted that they have remained focused on Tessera LED processing. “We’ve developed more and more features and capability within our Tessera processing range,” says Mead. All processors benefit from software updates for the product’s lifespan, including recent upgrades to HDR, where Brompton’s Dynamic Calibration technology helps deliver extremely lifelike image quality.
The M2 LED processor was followed in 2016 with two smaller family members, the T1 and S4. Another major milestone in early 2018 was the launch of the SX40 4K processor. “That got a fantastic reception and resulted in Brompton effectively doubling in size,” Mead continues. “We saw the step to 4K as about more than a new video format, with the amount of extra processing and infrastructure this required, and we wanted to make life easier for the people setting up the screens. So, we decided to output 10 Gigabit Ethernet from the processor and created a separate distribution box that hangs on the LED wall truss, taking in the 10 Gig signal and splitting it down. Some perceived us as late to market with our 4K product, but we stuck to our mantra: we’d rather take the time required to do it right. And the market response has told us we were correct to do that. We were massively backordered from the day we started shipping, and for 12 months sold them as fast as we could build.” 2016 was a big year all round for Brompton, which relocated to a larger West London premises to accommodate its growing team, as well as winning New Company of the Year at the Electronics Weekly Electra Awards and hiring Elijah Ebo as general manager, Asia.
Ebo was appointed to address Brompton’s other client base besides the rental and production companies to whom it supplies the LED processors: the panel manufacturers themselves, into whose technology the Tessera receiver card is fitted. This precipitated setting up an office in Shenzen, southern China, the heartland of LED panel manufacturers. “It’s not enough for us to work with the rental companies using the LED panels; we also have to work closely with the panel manufacturers, most of whom are based in China, to incorporate our receiver cards into their panels,” explains Mead. “It is possible to retrofit existing screens, and we did that a bit initially, but we prefer to work with them from design and build.”
Brompton’s main competitors are Chinese companies that produce relatively inexpensive processing, often developed for the volume market of digital signage, but panel manufacturers are finding that, at the top end of the market, their own customers are demanding Brompton. “From the panel manufacturer’s perspective, we are sometimes initially viewed an unhelpful distraction because they just want to make the sale,” says Mead. “But we work hard to make it as easy as possible for them to move over to using our processing, and we’ve built up a good set of manufacturers who work with us regularly. Quite a lot of them now stock Brompton panels as standard. It’s a process of wooing them over – we are unashamedly not the cheapest option. We set out our benefits: quality, reliability and usability; the need to move the wall, set it up and make it look great in a short space of time. A system that’s more usable makes that a more realistic proposition. Ultimately, we might be enabling tours to pack in more dates because they can set the screens up more easily.”
Prior to lockdown, Ebo was spending two weeks per month in Shenzen. “Luckily, the team has matured enough to work by themselves, and we’ve recruited three people during this quiet period,” he says. “We’ve gone from a team of five to eight, and we’ve taken the opportunity to train up these new employees during the relatively quiet spell, so it seemed worth taking a small risk during this time. I’d like to get back out there as soon as I can.”
A design engineer himself, Ebo decided he wanted to interface more with people, something his current role certainly demands; he’s thrown himself into Chinese business culture and learned some Mandarin. “We set up an office and started visiting people and building up relationships,” he says. “We would give a demonstration and get all sorts of reactions, from reservation to absolute enthusiasm. We were initially perceived as expensive, and ‘just’ a processor, so I took that back to R&D, who started to incorporate features that would be useful for manufacturers, adding value such as improving defects in the manufacturing process like overheating, so they can get more out of the LEDs. They would say ‘I know this panel and I’ve never seen it look like this before’; we were just driving it differently, and they liked it. Slowly but surely, we’re making progress. We’ve been invited to industry events in China like panel manufacturing conferences, to give presentations and make them laugh with my feeble attempts at Mandarin.”
Despite the office in China, Brompton is resolutely a British manufacturer. Although receiver cards and some electronics are sourced from China, its processors are assembled by hand in the company’s London workshop. Brompton’s UK home market is one of its strongest, along with North America and Australia, where it works with rental companies such as TDC, Big Picture and MediaTEC. Japan, Singapore and the Middle East are also becoming important territories, and Ebo has identified China as a potentially huge market. But with the majority of the company’s clients working in live events, the inevitable question crops up: how is Brompton weathering the Covid-19 downturn?
“Until now, live events have been our main market, so clearly that sucks,” says Mead. “Realistically, even when live events are back, it may well take six months or more before any of the rental companies are in a position to invest.” There is, however, a ray of light. “Right now, there is a huge shift in the film and TV world towards using LED walls as a backdrop instead of a greenscreen. There are lots of benefits to filming in front of LED walls – the actors and creatives prefer it because standing in a green box isn’t inspiring, the directors don’t know what it will look like until the visual effects have been done, sometimes months later, and, if something doesn’t look right, they can adjust it there and then. It also makes the lighting on the actors’ faces appear more natural than a lot of greenscreen shoots where this needs to be addressed later. It can save money in the long run on expensive postproduction. Brompton’s processing is particularly well-suited to LED being used on camera, so, together with the rental companies, we are hoping this is the market that saves us all – film shooting is getting back much faster than the touring market.”
Like touring, the invitation to the Buckingham Palace garden party to collect the Queen’s Award is on hold for the moment. But with the entertainment technology landscape shifting and new markets opening up, Brompton Technology has plenty to celebrate.