There was once a time when almost everything was done manually. Some would call those the “good old days.” The practice of scrubbing clothes on a washboard, writing letters with a fountain pen, and painting signs with brushes was just how things were done.
Then came the technology boom. Automated processes allowed companies to output products as a faster rate, with more accuracy than ever before. Soon, manual production was seen as "vintage"—rendered archaic by today’s modern advancements.
Of course, we in the sign industry know that there will always be a place for handmade designs specific to displays and signage. We value much of this as an art form—customized, one-of-a-kind pieces. By and large, however, automated processes have made life much easier for most sign makers, especially in the field of channel letter fabrication.
“To be competitive in channel letters today, you need to be able to automate the process,” says Carl Ondracek, president of Computerized Cutters Inc., a manufacturer of automated letter bending equipment. “The most time-consuming area is in the manual layout, notching, flanging, and bending of channel letter aluminum returns. A channel letter bending machine can eliminate about 80 to 90 percent of the labor time involved in this process.”
Automation vs. Manual
For a business that produces several sets of channel letters per day—such as a channel letter wholesaler—a channel letter bending machine should be viewed as an essential piece of equipment that must be reliable throughout the production process.
“We have the best equipment money can buy,” says Warren Sciortino, owner of Colorado-based channel letter wholesaler LetterFab LLC. “Everything is computerized, and that’s the only way a wholesaler can operate.”
For sign makers who put out a lower volume of letters and lean toward more customized work, they might have a different manufacturing method; albeit more time-consuming and hands-on. Theirs is a manual technique.
“For a skilled craftsman,” starts Kevin Kane, sales manager at CLN of Florida Inc., “they use a pencil, a ruler, a square and a sheet metal brake. With these tools, you can produce one letter every 30 to 45 minutes depending on the complexity of the artwork. People usually learn this trade by watching or working beside a craftsman as an apprentice.”
But speed is something to consider, especially with work involving strict deadlines.
“Equipment has evolved to take the skill out of the job,” Kane continues, “and the tools needed now are a CNC Router table, CNC notching machines, an CNC Auto Bending machine and an automated fasting machine. CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control. With the use of this equipment someone with little skill can produce over 200 letters per day.”
Of course, price-conscious customers are not only concerned with time savings but cost savings as well. All totaled, “Automation can cut the costs by 50 to 75 percent over manually bending,” says Ondracek.
In addition to a bending machine for producing this type of work, Ondracek also notes that a CNC router is also required, and should run hand in hand with the automated channel letter machines. "The next piece of equipment would be a clinching machine to help eliminate the time needed to drill and rivet the aluminum backs onto the aluminum channel letter return.”
This may sound like a lot of equipment, but when a full arsenal is in place, the advantages can be tremendous.
When looking at channel letter equipment, there are several factors to consider when making the move to automate. Ondracek, whose company introduced the first automated channel letter bending machine in 1995, says that there are several advantages: increased speed, higher precision, less waste and, he adds, if you can get all that at an affordable price, you'll be that much better off. His new Accu-Bend Ace machine, he says, is far less expensive than other available units.
The Wholesale Model
As alluded to previously, wholesalers can play a big role in channel letter production. Sciortino attributes his company’s popularity to the idea that the industry is shifting away from in-house manufacturing due to better costs when buying wholesale.
“A local sign company could get a job for 50 sets of letters and (the customer will) say they’ll need to have them done in a month or two,” Sciortino explains. “Typically, they might be able to make their own letters, but they can’t make 50 sets.”
For retail sign makers, wholesalers can help keep the overhead down by offering lower prices at a much quicker turnaround rate.
“They have all of the latest equipment,” says Sciortino, “trim cap machines, channel bending machines, routers—everything you’d need to produce channel letters at a good cost.”
According to Sciortino, most retail companies take an hour or two to make their channel letters, whereas LetterFab can do the same job in six to eight minutes. Kane testifies to the speed of this equipment by pointing to his company’s most effective offerings.
“CLN of South Florida has taken channel letter fabrication to a higher level,” he says. “We wanted to make the fastest process in the world, and have achieved that with our CNC Auto Bender. And it’s the roll forming tools that really set CLN apart from machine in the marketplace. Roll forming the radius makes for a smooth and fast process. This machine produces one letter every two to three minutes.”
This type of efficiency with equipment was not always the case. Over 45 years ago, when Sciortino began in the sign business, things were done much differently.
“I’ve been in every phase of the sign industry,” he recalls. “I remember when everyone was using a Gerber Signmaker III. I’ve seen everything progress. When I started, everything was being done by hand.”
Today, customers are sensitive about deadlines and cost. Who do they go to when they need a quick job at a lower price? The wholesaler.
“When I got into the wholesale side, I thought this would be a pretty good market down the road,” says Sciortino. “And now we do work in every state. Two years ago we opened another plant in New Orleans, and it gave us additional distribution. Our goal is to get a channel letter project out in three to five days. Other companies might take a week to two weeks.”
The Value of Speed
The value of speed—when it comes to completing channel letter projects—cannot be overstated. It’s one of the most important elements to customers when they decide to place a sign order. Clients want projects done on time, and they want them done right.
“The first word out of a customer is: ‘How long is it going to take?’ If you tell someone six weeks and someone else can do it in two weeks, it’s a big difference,” says Sciortino.
And if speed wasn’t enough, there are equally important elements of quality and accuracy to be considered.
“Now we can do a four- or five-inch channel letter with the equipment we have—where years ago the lowest profile letters we could do is 12 or eight or nine inches,” says Sciortino. “With the new equipment, you can do a nice small channel letter and put LEDs in there.”
This focus on accuracy also becomes relevant when a channel letter needs replacing. If a sign maker is doing a job by hand, it is much more difficult—and time-consuming—to manually travel to the project site, take a pattern of the sign, re-create and replace it. Wholesalers, on the other hand, can replace a part in a snap.
“If I did a Wendy’s sign 10 years ago and the ‘W’ breaks, the location might call me up to replace it,” explains Sciortino. “We have that location on file, along with how many LEDs were used, the size, etc. All we have to do is go into the file, re-create the part and send it out there.”
Channel letter production has certainly changed throughout the years. As Kane says, “You can use many different tools it all depends on your skillset.” But with all of the new innovations on the market today, which can add value to a sign job, it’s imperative to stay on top of the latest solutions. Kane warns, “You have to keep up with technology or you fall behind and become one of those dinosaurs.”