While digital printing has garnered an understandable share of enthusiasm and interest in the sign industry, traditional techniques and new signage applications are quietly flourishing under the radar.
Digital prints have made tremendous strides in longevity and outdoor durability, but many feel they do not offer the permanence of engraved materials. "There are some applications, like outdoor office and corporate signs, that just can’t be done digitally," according to Gary Young, owner, The Sign Shop Inc.
Nor can digital prints offer motion, sound, variable content, and the ability to make instant changes in signs already installed like a digital display can, observes Jeff Hemmingway, co-founder, Storming Images, LLC. Prints are passive, not proactive.
While many sign shops have been investing in, or expanding, their digital printing capabilities, other technologies such as CNC routing, channel letters, LED, flat panels, neon, and cut vinyl continue to enjoy brisk demand.
Eye of the Storm
To hear entrepreneur Jeff Hemingway tell it, Storming Images LLC had a serendipitous founding. "A company I was running at the time got a call to advertise in a movie theatre," Hemingway recalls. "I asked if there was any way to change my ad on a regular basis or use video, and they said ‘we’ll get back to you’ and never called me back."
Intrigued by the possibility of offering a more robust ad solution for theatres, Hemingway and business partner James Mueller wrote software that would offer movie theatres the ability to display ad content that incorporated motion and the ability to be remotely managed. In 2004, Storming Images was born. The name refers to the firm’s ability to shoot content down to displays, like a lighting bolt, Hemingway says. After its incorporation, the business quickly expanded beyond its theatrical origins.
Today, the company offers several software solutions for managing digital displays—a remote Web tool named RemoteMediaManager.com and a desktop client named Admanager—as well as a full service digital display business. "We will design a complete digital solution, everything from procuring the panels to networking and installation," states Hemingway.
One of the firm’s signature installations occurred in the Wings Hockey Stadium in Kalamazoo, MI where 16 flat panel displays show a variety of local ad content—both static JPEG images and motion video. Behind each display is a networked computer—the ad machine—that feeds data to the display. "This was a custom fixture, we had to make these screens hockey stick proof," Hemingway says. The entire project took eight weeks. The signs have endured three years worth of stick-wielding hockey fandom, he adds.
While the company sources and installs digital displays and the requisite accessories, the software that powers and manages the ad content is how Storming Images earns its keep. Indeed, the software is screen agnostic and can work with any display technology. The business model has two sources of revenue. The first is a one-time sale of the software, with a maintenance contract. The second is a monthly fee-based Web monitoring program.
A former police officer, Gary Young purchased The Sign Shop, then a part of an ailing franchise chain, in 1994. Young had bought and sold several businesses while he was an officer, but something about the sign business attracted him.
"I liked the sign business because it was clean, there were no environmental issues associated with it. It just seemed to click," he explains. Over a decade later, he’s still at it.
Located in Dallas, TX and serving the greater Dallas/Fort Worth market, The Sign Shop Inc. offers a range of products—engraved signs, acrylic three-dimensional letters, vehicle wraps, monuments, apartment signs, corporate awards, decals, and magnetic signage.
"The only thing we don’t do is electric signs," Young says. He estimates that digital printing is roughly 40 percent of the business. He employs four printers, an HP Designjet 1055 and a 5500; and a Roland SolJet-SC540 and the AJ-1000 eco-solvent printers. The side of his business outside of digital printing is also thriving, he states, especially routed letters and engraved products, such as corporate awards.
One of the upsides of the digital printing push has, paradoxically, boosted the non-digital side of the business. As more firms concentrate on digital, there is a greater opportunity to offer engraved or alternative signage on a business-to- business basis, Young observes. The firm purchased a MultiCam router and has been able to sell routed output to many print providers without the capability, Young says. "We’re the only shop with a router in the area, and we get a lot of business from that."
The key to Young’s business is that everything is done in-house, no out-sourcing.
"This gives us control over the quality and the timing," Young says. "If we need to work late, we work late. If we need to work weekends, we’ll work weekends." Jobs that can typically take competitors up to eight weeks to finish are completed in two at The Sign Shop, he adds.
The company is focused on growth, he notes. "We reinvest 60 percent of the profits into the business," Young says. Some of that investment will go to upgrading digital printing technology, he adds. "We’ll probably buy a flatbed printer." The company will also invest in alternative methods as well, especially engraving and a new routing table.
While digital printing is meeting a number of needs, Young says he expects demands for more traditional signage will remain strong. Indeed, keeping up with the changes in digital printing technology is its own unique challenge, Young says. "I can’t see routing changing much," he adds.
Theresa Evans left a two decades-plus career in the banking industry to purchase her own Sign-A-Rama franchise just several months ago in March 2007. While not exactly a linear move on the face of it, Evans notes that her background in banking marketing and customer service served her well in the transition to a new industry.
Why signs, versus, say, a McDonald’s or Subway? "I don’t like the food business," she laughs. That said, Evans notes that thrown into the deep end of the pool of business ownership, she is still learning. "I really like the business," she says, "and I enjoy learning new things."
Her Sign-A-Rama franchise, located in a 1,800-square-foot facility in a busy Tampa Bay, FL strip mall, offers a mix of products—with digital prints on an Encad NovaJet 750 accounting for roughly 30 percent of her workload. The majority of the firm’s business is cut vinyl which includes window letters or vehicle letters for local businesses. They also offer aluminum and real estate signs.
She uses a Vastech plotter and does the vinyl cutting by hand. Most of the traditional equipment, which she says is serving the business well, was recently updated and will not be the focus of future investments. Instead, she plans on eventually building out digital capabilities. "I do see myself buying a digital printer with the ability to do contour cuts," she says.
Going forward, Evans sees demand for both digitally printed signs and vinyl. While digital printing is all the buzz, it’s not without its own challenges, she observes. "Digital is really feast or famine," while the traditional products have a more predictable demand curve, she says.
Living in Harmony
While digitally printed signage has captured the imagination of print buyers and providers alike, demand endures for alternatives to meet needs—like long-term durability or a unique aesthetic—that digital cannot compensate for.
Sign shops have opened their arms to new digital printing technology while still keeping traditional sign making methods alive. Techniques such as engraving, neon, and channel lettering are still in wide demand.