Bending Letters — From Old-School to Full Automation

James Cross is North American product manager at AdamsTech located in Boulder, Colorado, distributor of the SDS ChannelBender Series machines throughout the Americas.

Though not always called "channel letters," fabricated or illuminated letters have been with us for nearly 100 years. Adolph Gast applied for the first patent for an illuminated letter on December 26, 1924. Since the 1920s, a seemingly limitless number of channel letters have been built using a variety of tools, materials, and techniques, but one thing is certain: illuminated letters have come a long way in what has been nearly a century of evolution.

Change is Slow

Historically speaking, change has come about as a slow process inspired by creative artistic vision and facilitated by gradual improvements in materials and technologies. Generally speaking, groundbreaking innovations in channel letters and their fabrication have been few and far between. However, a handful of innovations introduced in recent years have been so paramount that nearly every sign manufacturer has had no choice but to adopt them in order to remain competitive.

Old-school channel letter fabrication was a time consuming, cumbersome, laborious process of template making, measuring, notching and bending, nearly all of which was done by hand or with manually operated hand tools. For decades, a jigsaw was about the only power tool used in the channel letter building process. Essentially each letter or logo was a custom, one-off piece of fabricated art representing the blood, sweat, tears, arthritis, and carpal tunnel of a skilled craftsman.

The Old-School Process

For about 50 years, the fabrication process went as follows: a template would be drawn on paper and traced onto sheet metal, which would then be cut by hand to make the back panel of a letter using a jigsaw, scroll saw, or even hand shears. Then the wall of the letter would also be formed with heavy paper, the bending locations marked on the paper, and then the markings were transferred to a flat strip of metal, so the fabricator could identify the location of sharp corners, straight sections, gradual curves, and small, tight arcs on the wall of the letter, which is known as the “return.”

Once the return was marked, the fabricator could finally begin the tedious, manual process of shaping and forming signs and letters. Typically, sharp angles were bent one at a time using a hand brake or finger brake, then curves or arcs were formed using a number of different tools or jigs, depending on the fabricator’s preference.

A few common tools used in forming curved sections of channel letters included “pipe trees,” or specially designed bending tables. Pipe trees were stands that were usually fabricated in-house that contained what resembled tree branches. The "branches" were made from various diameter steel pipe which the fabricator pushed the material against to create smoother, more consistent curves of different radii in the letter return.

Other fabricators preferred to use a bending table with either vertical metal spindles of different diameters, or metal pipes of various sizes which stowed one inside the other. When needed, the fabricator would telescope the appropriate diameter pipe outward and form the curve by working the material against the pipe.

Bending and notching of the “flange,” which was used to connect the wall of the letter with the back panel, was also done by hand. These notches numbered in the dozens—if not hundreds—per letter, depending on its size. Needless to say, this was quite an arduous task. Regardless of a channel letter fabricator’s preferred tools and methods, the process was almost entirely manual, and therefore agonizingly slow and costly for both the sign company and the sign client.

The Modern Era

The mid-1990’s introduced the first truly groundbreaking advancement in the fabrication of channel letter returns in about a half century: automation. The first machine designed and built exclusively for the automation of bending channel letters was the Accu-Bend machine from Computerized Cutters Inc (CCI). The Accu-Bend went on to become the industry benchmark in the sign industry for a number of years.

Shortly after the introduction of the CCI machine, a company called Arete was formed. Arete operated under a very different business model. Rather than a single, integrated channel letter solution like Computerized Cutters' Accu-Bend, Arete offered several different machines, each of which performed an individual task, thereby offering a more affordable, a-la-carte alternative to channel letter automation. For example, a customer could purchase an Arete machine that only performed the task of notching of the channel letter. The customer could later add a trim cap machine, or a flanging unit. Many sign shops found this more economical, piecemeal approach to be quite attractive from a capital investment perspective. Arete did well for a number of years until the company was dissolved in 2010.

Later, around 2005, a company called CLN of South Florida introduced two machines for the automation of channel letters. One would notch and flange the coil material, and the second machine could be programmed to bend the already notched and flanged material.

Around 2007, the South Korean company named SDS introduced their ChannelBender brand machines to the sign industry for the notching, flanging, and bending of traditional channel letters as well as Trimless channel letters. SDS had previously established automated metal bending expertise in 1995 with machines designed for other applications, so the move to channel letter forming machines for signage was a natural progression. AdamsTech is the exclusive distributor and technical support provider for the SDS Easy Bender and ChannelBender Series machines throughout the Americas.

Lighting Options Through the Years

From the 1930s through the mid-1990s the only lighting options available for signage were neon, incandescent, or fluorescent. The limitations of these channel letter illumination solutions available at the time dictated the size and depth of channel letters for decades. Typical letters were 4” to 8” deep and about 16” tall or taller.

Then along came LED technology which spawned another groundbreaking revolution in channel letters. LED technology began developing in the mid-20th century, but it wasn’t until after the year 2000 that LED illumination truly became a serious rival to traditional lighting methods. Since that time LED technology has evolved about as rapidly as that of the microprocessor. LEDs have become smaller, more effective, more versatile, lighter, brighter, less expensive, and more reliable.

Today, this reliable, long-lasting light source can produce a broader range of colors with much greater consistency and a much improved accuracy of light dispersion. Today's customers look for smaller, sleeker, low-profile letters, and sign manufacturers are simultaneously looking for anything to make their operations more efficient, while also reducing costs. Longer burning LEDs, and smaller, lighter letters all mean lower shipping and packaging costs. Warranty and maintenance costs are likewise reduced by the longevity of LED lighting.

Efficiency = Profitability

Sign manufacturers today are under tremendous pressure to be exceptionally efficient in everything they do in order to compete in what is now a global marketplace for channel letters. Lean manufacturing technologies and processes are essential to sign companies’ profitability and ultimately, their survival.

Universally, they are finding that the now antiquated bending machines that have served them well for 10 or 15 years are significantly slower and less efficient than new channel letter forming machines that use more modern technologies, advanced engineering, and more precise manufacturing tolerances.

For example, old bending machines would waste three or more inches of material per letter, whereas some new bending machines using more modern technology have reduced waste per letter significantly by reducing waste to as little as 1/4” of material. This may not sound significant, but for shops turning out a few hundred letters every day, the savings is huge.

Some modern bending machines produce output that is so much more accurate that hand finishing labor has been reduced by 30 to 40 percent relative to early generation automatic benders. Older machines simply can’t bend stainless steel with any degree of accuracy. Some of today's higher-end machines can even process unforgiving materials like #8 polished stainless steel, as well as increasingly popular Trimless materials.

Trimless Materials

These Trimless materials can eliminate the need for the trim cap, which has been used to attach the letter face to the letter return for decades—and everyone despises working with it. These new Trimless technologies allow sign companies to produce cleaner-looking letters faster and more efficiently than old-school trim capped channel letters.

The win-win for manufacturers is the fact that Trimless letters are seen as a premium product and can therefore command a premium price, regardless of the fact that the costs to produce them are the same or even less than traditional letters. Lastly, modern bending machines have a much smaller footprint than the larger earlier units from the mid-'90s. Today’s fully automatic machines require an entire working area as small as 6’ x 12’.

Even the trim cap process has been successfully automated to a degree. Though many have tried and failed at manufacturing a trim cap processing machine that actually works, there are one or two that work quite well. For example, the Easy Trimmer from SDS/AdamsTech processes trim cap extremely quickly. This kind of performance goes a long way toward eliminating the bottlenecks that occur at the trim cap station of nearly every sign manufacturer around the world.

Signs and channel letters in particular have become such an integral part of people’s daily lives that many people outside the industry simply take for granted the role channel letters play in helping customers find their way, and identify the business or destination they are trying to locate. From the largest professional sports stadiums and big box stores to the local dry cleaner, bistro, veterinarian, or post office, people have come to depend on channel letters to help them find and identify buildings, businesses and shopping centers they frequent throughout their daily lives. Likewise, businesses have come to trust their corporate identities to signs and logos manufactured as channel letters. The law of the jungle is the survival of the fittest, and the key to staying fit for sign manufacturing companies is to improve manufacturing techniques, invest wisely in new, more efficient equipment, and utilize innovative materials and processes that help make their products stand out.

(All images courtesy of AdamsTech)