Digital printing has come a long way, yet traditional sign shops still enjoy a healthy product demand—despite digital’s growing presence in the market.
According to business owners, architectural signs, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) signs, channel letters, and electrical signage are all faring well, even in a tough business climate. While many sign shops continue to embrace digital printing, there is no let-up in the demand for traditional signage.
"It’s still a growing business," says Steve Carpenter, owner, Archetype Signmakers.
For traditional sign businesses, bringing on a digital printer does not simply mean courting new markets, but bringing new technologies, capabilities, and efficiencies to existing traditional products.
"It’s a natural fit," observes Ben Van Houten, director of sales, Wensco, a supplier serving the traditional sign market. Van Houten notes that most of his traditional signage clients are eagerly looking to diversify, particularly local and regional shops that don’t compete for national electrical sign contracts. "In the future, every traditional shop will have a digital printer," he predicts.
However, it’s not only traditional shops embracing digital. Some digital printers find value in continuing to use traditional services to complement existing digital offerings, Van Houten shares.
The Architect of Archetype
Carpenter founded Archetype Signmakers—based in Eagan, MN—and has worked in the sign industry "longer than he likes to admit." The years spent creating interior and ADA signage have not diminished his appetite for new technology. Carpenter, who founded Archetype in 1999 shortly after selling a successful interior sign business, jumped on the digital wave earlier than some of his traditional signage competitors.
His goal for Archetype is "not to be the biggest sign company in the world" but to have a few, core national accounts "and service them to death," he explains. With four million dollars in revenue, 30 employees, and a new 25,000 square foot facility, the philosophy continues to deliver.
Among Archetype’s customers are Ameriprise Financial, Caribou Coffee chain, and Wells Fargo Home Mortgage. Accordingly, Carpenter admits he grew his business and his roster of equipment evolved with his customers’ requests. Archetype initially added digital print with an Hewlett-Packard (HP) solvent printer, accounting for roughly ten percent of his business. Today, Carpenter says digital printing touches 90 percent of the work they produce. In fact, much of his digital work is used in the production of what would typically be considered a traditional sign.
Menu boards are a case in point. Prior to purchasing a EFI/VUTEk QS2000 UV flatbed, Archetype would silkscreen boards in mass quantities. Today, silk screening is all but obsolete, thanks to the high resolution of the VUTEk QS2000. Other interior signs, like "order here" boards were once produced with cut vinyl on a Mimaki USA, Inc. plotter, which is still in use. Now, more and more are digitally printed.
Vinyl projects are another example of traditional production techniques being swapped for digital. "For the exterior illuminated signs, instead of reverse weeding on black, we’ll digitally print onto translucent vinyl." The company uses a Gerber Scientific Products, Inc. Sabre router for vinyl work.
Even ADA signage is spruced up thanks to digital, Carpenter notes. The company now offers reverse printed plastics with custom colors and patterns. "In the past we had a fairly limited menu to offer our customers," Carpenter observes. But the addition of the flatbed, "really opened up a whole new way of providing variety to our clients. I’m either enhancing the products I always offered my customers, or I’m giving them more for their money."
Digital printing also breaks down barriers between Archetype’s engraving and printing businesses. The firm’s two engraving machines run eight hours a day, making ADA signage from the outset. "The difference is that today, about half of them have background patterns that were printed digitally first."
The company also uses the EFI/VUTEk UV printer to print directly to lower cost plastics that are then cut-to-shape. "This method is half the cost of a ready-made sheet, so it’s helping me lower costs," shares Carpenter. For work at hospitals or museums, which were once silk screened, the VUTEk QS2000 is used to print directly to Alcan Composites USA Inc.’s Dibond. The finished graphic is then mounted to a permanent fixture "at a fraction of the cost."
Carpenter sees future investments in both his traditional and digital print capabilities. "We want to make signs faster and take the cost out of it. Our customers don’t want to wait eight weeks for a sign." Carpenter is very satisfied with the resolution of the VUTEk QS2000. "You can’t beat the quality, and I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of demand from our customers for higher resolution. Instead, we’re looking for speed."
Despite the rise of digital, Archetype frequently cuts vinyl and continues to manually paint signage. Painting remains "an integral part" of any sign shop, says Carpenter.
The firm’s Mimaki plotter continues to be used as well. "I thought digital would do away with cut vinyl, but there are just some applications that require it." For instance, he says, any signs that need replacing in the field or for applying graphics on glass.
With both traditional and digital methods available, Carpenter cross-trains Archetype’s staff on both vinyl cutting and digital print. "At the end of the day, it’s all about putting finished graphics on a substrate," he concludes.
At the Apex
Gary Gebhardt cut his teeth in the market selling signs door-to-door in the 1970s. In the intervening years he worked his way through various sales jobs before splitting off from a previous employer to start his own business.
The job ended on a sour note and Gebhardt was determined to prove himself. "I was the goose that laid the golden egg," he recalls. "When I left, I told them that they shouldn’t expect to see me as a greeter at Wal-Mart."
Instead, 33 days later Gebhardt purchased a struggling Apex Sign USA in Flint, MI.
"When I took the shop over there were 13 employees," and a business geared principally at MI customers. Gebhardt changed the company’s focus toward national work. What he sought to deliver was a high level of management.
"Today, we are very detail oriented. We’re not after big box stores. The clients we cater to are doing 20 to 50 sites per year," explains Gebhardt.
The company produces and installs a range of outdoor signage including architectural signs, internally illuminated, channel letters, and face lit and reverse lit neon/LED letters. The company boasts a MultiCam, Inc. router and an ACCU-BEND by Computerized Cutters, Inc. for channel letters.
Since Gebhardt assumed the reins, the firm tripled its sale volumes and nearly tripled its workforce, which operates in two shifts at the company’s 14,000 square foot facility.
As the company’s traditional signage business grew, Gebhardt decided to bring digital work in-house. He purchased a Roland DGA Corporation VersaCAMM VP-540 54-inch printer/cutter and a cold laminator from Royal Sovereign International.
Though he originally expected to tackle more conventional digitally printed work such as floor and vehicle graphics, the printer delivered immediate impact to his traditional work. "The digital portion of our business did not develop exactly along the lines we expected," Gebhardt relays. Instead, it juiced the creativity of his existing offerings. "We now provide more intricate designs for traditional signs."
Since the addition of digital printing to his traditional portfolio, Gebhardt continues to see strong growth. "Our digital side is increasing every week. The printers run around the clock." The company produces a lot of vinyl and hopes to add a dedicated sales person to drive more digital business, "once we catch our breath."
Despite the surge in digital, Gebhardt has no plans to write off traditional signage. He believes the traditional market is still strong. The company plans to invest in a new router. The company will also build out its digital infrastructure, most likely with wider printers, Gebhardt shares.
A mere seven years ago, Thor Holder and his wife Lisa were not in the sign industry, but the restaurant business in Seattle, WA. When they decided to change business ventures they were pointed to an available Signs By Tomorrow franchise. Holder, whose background is in architecture, jumped at the chance to start a new business. "We took a look and thought it was a very exciting industry," he recalls.
Initially, his firm stuck with traditional indoor and outdoor dimensional and electric signs. "We took a wait-and-see attitude with digital," Holder recalls.
When the duo picked up stakes, selling their Seattle franchise and moving to a Signs By Tomorrow in Houston, TX, they made the digital plunge. Alongside a Gerber EDGE, the company added a Seiko I Infotech, Inc. printer and later, an HP Designjet 9000. Since then, "digitally printed products are constantly a large part of what we do," Holder notes. About fifty percent of the company’s work is either all or incorporates an element of digital print.
"Digital printing really brings the art back into sign making," Holder says. Adding digitally printed elements to dimensional, routed signs allows the company to offer a bolder array of styles and color to customers.
While digital certainly continues to improve the business, Holder says the traditional side is increasing as well. "Digital is nice, but everybody and their brother can do it. When you get into carving, ADA signs, tactile signs, and dimensional, it’s a different part of the brain," he comments. It is the difference between the artistic and the analytical. "You need to be able to think dimensionally. You can’t just hit a button and say ‘route.’"
Dimensional signage is the company’s strong point. The heft of a routed, traditional sign will always appeal to corporations looking to bestow an aura of professionalism to their lobbies or offices, Holder notes. "Dimensional will always have a place in the market."
The company recently completed a dimensional lobby sign for Lone Star Land Partners, a TX realtor that blends a number of the company’s capabilities. The HP Designjet 9000 solvent printer enabled the company to easily apply a gradation of colors—printed onto PVC—behind a routed image of the state of TX.
Another example of the company’s integration of digital and traditional work was a lobby sign for AET. They printed green and blue shades on vinyl, and applied the substrate behind acrylic and brushed glass.
Holder predicts that flatbed printing will only drive the integration between traditional signage and digital print. The traditional sign business is well on its way down the digital path, he says, "if we’re not there already." Traditional work remains solid in Holder’s mind, "after printing onto all kinds of substrates, what’s left for digital to do?"
A New Tradition
As traditional sign shops jump onto the digital bandwagon by adding printed flourishes to pieces it makes sense for digital print providers to engage in turnabout. Wensco’s Van Houten notes that while some signage—neon, for instance—requires a steep learning curve, a variety of interior and exterior signs are tackled with a router, a flatbed, and a willingness to experiment along the intersection of old and new.
As digital printers penetrate into the traditional sign market, they look to complement traditional techniques. As sign makers who adopt digital learn, it is not an either/or equation, but how best to please the customer in this growing industry. Housing both printing capabilities allows sign shops to excel in this changing market while aiding customers in achieving success.