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Shop Talk: Improving Sign Shop Efficiency

Rick Williams

Rick Williams owns Rick’s Sign Company, a commercial sign shop in Longview, Texas. He has been in the sign industry since 1973 and has been a contributing editor to Sign Business since 1986. Contact Rick via e-mail at ricksignco@aol.com.

A commercial sign shop, because of its incredible diversity of work, may well be one of the hardest businesses to run efficiently. I know that has been the case through my 42 years. But that does not mean that I don’t work to improve this unpleasant (and unprofitable) characteristic any way I can.

For this Shop Talk let’s looks at several small ways to improve productivity, efficiency and therefore profitability in a typical commercial sign shop. These ideas, and others like them, may only save a step or two at a time, but added together make a difference in the ongoing struggle to get the work done as fast and profitably as possible.

One thing that I know helps us is, keeping a great inventory of standard fasteners and other sign hardware handy and organized well enough to find things when they are needed. I know this is valuable because our other business tends to lean on the shop for help in the hardware department regularly.

The Containers

Shown in Photo 1, in several places around the shop I have wall-mounted hardware bins, made from .040 alum cut then formed on a brake. Small food storage containers are put to good use, and in our large hardware storage shelf system in the back of the shop, a variety of clear plastic containers are used very efficiently. These are bought from “Uline,” and we keep plenty in stock of just the right sizes.

Photo 2 shows what a significant inventory we maintain, and keep adding more. Just the elimination of wasted time running to a hardware store or home center probably adds up to hundreds of dollars of saved time each year … if not much more.

For vinyl graphic jobs out in the parking lot, or out on location, keeping a really good kit or two stocked at all times is essential. We have kits that are made from leather tool pouches that belt to your person, and tote kits that can be carried around with you (see Photo 3). Very often I have both in my work truck, or ready to grab and go at any time.

If we are out in the parking lot photographing a truck or van we are to put graphics on, or large crane on a work site and so forth, we don’t actually take a lot of measurements, which can be lost or misread. Instead a simple yardstick with a shop-made magnetic backing is set in place to give a fool-proof scale reference. If I am quickly snapping photos of all sides of one vehicle or another, I will just set the yardstick in each photo and leave the tape measure alone. Scale the yardstick, and the rest of the photo will be sized correctly. I may use a tape when depth of field variations need to be addressed, but often don’t take a single measurement.

Ready-Made Templates

On the subject of saving measurements, but doing accurate work, it is common for us to cut a coroplast template when producing CNC cut letters or logos, and temporarily secure them in place to save quite a bit of tedious lettering, or even dealing with a clumsy paper pattern. One template can go between two lines and show perfect spacing of all letters on each line (Photo 6 & Photo 7). This method of placing letters accurately is very helpful when working with an arch or radius (Photo 8).

We have only had a laser engraver-cutter for a couple of years, but a handy side for it is making similar letter placement templates of thin poster board, cut with the shape of the bottom (or top) of a line of text very precisely. These laser-cut templates are made very quickly and for very little cost, and are often much more user friendly than large paper patterns.

Lately I have had some installs where I am placing one large panel, maybe up to 5’ x 10’ on top of another, and all done from a one-man bucket … with one man in it. This can be quite a handful to do, and making the panels line up perfectly can be a bit of a challenge. However, if I make some small angled brackets, used temporarily along the top edge of the bottom panel, I can set the upper panel in place and it will wedge itself right in place. Any slight adjustments east-west are easy, and the upper panel cannot slip off and fall or even try to get away from me, and no time is wasted or panels risked.

Job Proposals

Sometimes profitability is improved depending on how a job is proposed to the client in the first place. I have a fondness for cut out lettering jobs where a bold shadow ties the letters together in large groups. The installation of these jobs is much faster and, yes, more efficient than dealing with a considerable number of individual parts.

Photos 13 through 16 are good illustrations of these labor-saving jobs, which are a sign installer’s friend in every way. The job we did for Nichols Transportation includes nearly 30 letters, but consists of only four parts that have to be installed. For obvious reasons the display we did for the “McDaniel Building” was much easier done that way, and so was the wall we installed for our client “Tidwell Tire.”

One thing that can waste time many, many times over a year, or even several years, is not having all the information of a client collected and in one handy place. I don’t want to have to go access an accounting program to get the phone number, email address, or the correct spelling of a repeat customer’s name. So, I put every single detail in the layout of each job itself, and in the proofs that are sent back and forth. The next time a client calls, I can cut-and-paste this collected data in seconds and seldom waste time collecting these details again. This is so important, my employees are going to be given a hard time if they don’t follow my example in this aspect, and good habits like this really do impact a sign shop’s efficiency quite a lot.

One last item worth mention goes again to the subject of computer cataloging of handy information, and that is having a lot generic sign information in one place that can be found and accessed quickly. In my computer it is the “aa-danger” file, but the name does not matter. What matters is that I can grab safety, warning, danger and other types of generic signs very quickly. My file has been created over several years and I find myself going to it several times a week. I also add items to it regularly and all of this makes for efficient layout work, at least more efficient than would otherwise be the case.

And every single way I can get more signwork out of my sign shop's workday is worthwhile and important to our bottom line, which can be a pretty fuzzy line these days. If you have other ideas that would be good to share, I welcome you to email me anytime at ricksignco@aol.com. With your permission, they might be used in another “Shop Talk” installment.