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New Technology for the Sign Shop

New Growth Opportunities for Shops and their Customers

By Steve Aranoff & Robert FitzPatrick

The recent International Sign Association Expo (ISA) in Orlando, FL highlighted a variety of opportunities available to those involved in all levels of the graphic arts. The sheer ability to provide an extraordinarily wide range of hardware and signage solutions is energizing to both those looking to enter the signage arena and those looking to expand their current business.

Showcased at ISA were new products designed to provide current businesses with more capabilities. On the other end of the spectrum, vendors displayed simplified products targeted toward traditional sign shops looking to enter digital print.

The show proved that it isn’t about competition between print service providers (PSPs), but instead becoming focused on growth opportunity. Whether your niche is vinyl, wooden, or aluminum letters in static signage; LED lighting; or wide format printing—nobody is more knowledgeable and better able to provide customers with readily available solutions than the PSP. The outcome means more business for both parties.

Staying Traditional
Moving around the show floor, opportunities in all fields were endless. This included traditional signage. All the usual metal and plastic letters and the complete signs that use them were present. Vinyl letters were cut out on a whim with reasonably priced vinyl drum cutters. There were also the usual wall- and stand-mounted lobby type letter signs. Engraved wooden signs were still for sale—some mass-produced and others available as special request orders. Small and relatively low-cost engraving machines—from tabletop to four by eight foot routing areas—perfect for lettered signs made out of any material, were also on display.

Bright Lights
Lit signage was also predominately showcased. Surprisingly, we saw virtually no neon signs. They were replaced by easy to produce, colored, bendable strips with LED lighting behind them. The mass produced flexible light strips found in homes today now seem to have taken over the custom sign market, making neon-like signs of every possible description readily available. There were also walls of LED sign displays—some large enough to be used in a ballpark or coliseum. The smaller ones can easily be programmed by your computer to contain messages of your choice. Also, backlit printed signs no wider than two thicknesses of printed material were shown. With full flexibility, these signs can be bent around posts and walls—creating new marketing opportunities.

Media Options
Media and the applications used with it also stood out at the show. There were vinyl vehicle and building wraps. Solid vinyl for some applications and adhesive-backed vinyl for others. Also popular were vinyl enhancements—overlays with sparkles and shine to give pre-existing applications a refreshed look.

Multifunctional Hardware
Besides media, actual hardware—from printers to finishing devices—were in abundance. Wide format printers for paper, vinyl, fabric, and more—up to 48 inches wide—were running and superwide format printers for similar materials—up to 16 feet wide—were shown.

The opposite end of the spectrum included companies displaying flexible material with laminating machines allowing rigid signs to be produced with lower cost printers.

Another range of solutions allowed for printing on flexible or rigid materials and cutting or routing the print to the exact shape with vision-based cutting and routing systems. These multifunctional systems target the sign shop owner looking to add-on to a current business or easily start a business from the ground up with one simple machine.

Some of these systems cater to the sign shop with a background in traditional signage just venturing into print, while others took the opposite approach. They paired digital printers and cutters into attractive packages allowing new customers to start off with an eminently leasable print-and-cut solution that can still do traditional sign, woodworking, and architectural elements.

Others offered print-to-cut solutions for those mainly in the printed sign and graphics marketplace looking for full flexibility.

Software Solutions
Finally, many wide format RIP vendors demonstrated complete solutions allowing designers using Adobe Illustrator, for example, to fully and automatically layout tightly nested images for cost effective printing. At the same time, programs allow users to create a fifth color representing a cut file that is identical in layout to the short run prints. This capability allows the designer to take responsibility for the production of specialty graphics, in much the same way that they’ve taken over definition and production of documents through the use of page make-up software and PostScript.

A Daunting Change
Basically, ISA showed that anything you can dream of—from the traditional to the avant-garde—is now produced in a timely and cost effective manner despite quantity requests. Yet, it seems as if the traditional sign shop still looks at the new technologies as competition. Many PSPs become concerned that their competitor will master the trade before them and steal customers, resulting in the PSP shying away from new technology. Their mindset becomes, "If my competitor already has a handle on the technology, why would their clients consider using my shop instead?"

If a PSP embraces the new, they can make significant inroads into their customer base by providing more company signage solutions and keeping more of these solutions within their own ability.

Will many sign shops move in this direction of diversifying and expanding their offerings? There are daunting obstacles and experience shows few already in the sign business are inclined toward innovation. For example, in the non-rectangular specialty graphics market, we know of a no-steel rule die company that embraced the newer digital die cutting technology to provide lower volume and/or higher complexity cut-to-print solutions to their customer base. Yet, the function of this new technology is to provide the same kind of finishing services to a printer as the older technology. Why are they so reluctant? Even in a service bureau approach this is quite an interesting market to move into. Many printers would really like to have the comfort of trying it before buying for internal production and there is virtually no place in the country where this can be done. After ten years, we are only now seeing the first movement into short run digital finishing as a business opportunity.

One company actually set up such a service bureau some years ago as a way to get internal expertise in new finishing technology and to generate clients for these products. Over a period of more than six years, it provided services to printers within a 100-mile radius. They were able to prove to these customers the validity of digital die cutting and over this time period sold more new systems than you can imagine.

A Win-Win Situation
On the basis of ISA’s success and other first hand evidence, we see a marvelous opportunity for traditional sign shops to expand their wares to include new technology and bring their businesses to the forefront of modern technology, rather than sit and react to the marketplace. It isn’t necessary to embrace every technology. Yet, adopting new services shows a vested interest in helping your customers develop the best possible solutions to meet their signage needs. Selling more to an existing client because you know how to help them costs you less than attracting more clients with detailed, timely, and costly marketing campaigns. It also provides an incentive for the client to continue to do more business with you. It’s a win-win situation for both.

Jun2008, Digital Output

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