Sign & Digital Graphics

September '14

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30 • September 2014 • S I G N & D I G I T A L G R A P H I C S RUNNING THE BUSINESS historically. As a result, a relatively small number of sign manufacturers today have in-house neon tube bending operations; for the most part, neon is outsourced. The next major technological change was the introduction of plastics follow- ing WWII. Although plastic materials had been invented as far back as the late '30s, there was no material available for anything other than the war effort until the late '40s or early '50s. Seeking new applications for their products, plastics manufacturers, such as Rohm and Haas, saw the sign industry as an excellent opportunity. Sign manu- facturers readily adopted the product as a less expensive way to build a bet- ter quality sign. Signs that are internally illuminated with fluorescent lamps still represent a common method of sign con- struction today. Flexible materials, first introduced by 3 M, arrived in the industry in the '70s. Today, plastic, in its many different forms and flexible materials, is the most com- mon sign facing material used by sign manufacturers. Dawn of the Digital Age The '70s saw another major revo- lution in the sign industry with the arrival of the computer. One of its first applications was in the front office of MelWeb, a Florida sign company, when they installed not only the computers but also the requisite software to gather more data about their accounting as well as their manufacturing operation than ever before. Soon computers were introduced to the manufacturing environment, a move that would become as significant to our industry as had the introduction of neon. In 1983 Gerber Scientific intro- duced a vinyl cutting device—called the Gerber Signmaker I I I —at the N E S A Convention. That product and its suc- cessor, Signmaker IVB, spread across the nation like wildfire. Soon to follow were a number of more robust cutting machines used on the plant floor for met- als, woods and plastics. The sign industry was truly coming of age! Uniform knife-cut pressure-sensitive vinyl films for application to almost any surface gave the sign manufacturer tre- mendous latitude, lower cost and signifi- cantly improved quality of production. This was certainly the case with the introduction of computerization into sign company operation. Soon, Adobe and others introduced graphic design software that provided for extraordinary design freedom. Photoshop and Illustrator, just two of those software products, are still in wide- spread use in our industry today. Regrettably, these changes caused a reduction in the need for sign painters and creative artists working on the draw- ing boards of sign company art depart- ments. As companies begin to automate their production processes the result is oftentimes a reduction in the labor input into manufacturing. Enter Grand Format Then, in the early 1990s, companies such as VUTEk introduced huge digital printers for the production of billboards. Just imagine, in a few short years the thousands of billboards that were being hand painted in studios all over the U.S. were now being printed in a matter of minutes. The total transition, nation- wide, from paint to print occurred in less than three or four years! Soon, digital printing technology, albeit in a much-improved format, was being introduced for the production of on-premise sign faces. Today it's possible for companies to deliver near magazine- quality print production with outstand- ing exterior durability at competitive pricing to the electrical sign industry. Designers working for sign manufactur- ers now have total design freedom that allows them and their employers to gain a competitive advantage in the market- place through the use of creative design. Electronic Signage No single technology has enhanced the value of exterior visual communica- tions more than the advent of electronics. The most recent major product intro- duction into our industry has been the LED as a light source. LEDs are widely By 1970, flexible plastic sign materials were being widely used, as evidenced in this photo taken in that year of a sign-glutted street in Arizona. (Photo by Michael Rougier, via LIFE photo archive) During the 1980s and '90s Gerber Scientific helped introduce the sign industry to the digital age with vinyl cutters like the Signmaker IVB, and later with the Gerber Edge thermal printer.

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