In the Trenches: Plane Ride Back to the Future

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.

My two sons are co-owners in our CNC cutting and powder coating services company, across from the sign shop here in Longview, Texas. They run the place much more than I do, and sometimes they run each other crazy as well.

I suppose that’s to be expected, for even though their genetics are much the same, their personalities are totally different. This was easily proven the other day as the three of us piled into Slade’s pickup to start our drive to Dallas Love Field to catch a jet headed to Atlanta. 

Sloan, six years Slade’s senior and in his mid-thirties, was not a happy camper. Instead he was nervous and irritable as he does not like to fly at all, and Slade had made the travel arrangements for the three of us. About then Sloan was seriously regretting it.

“Slade” he said, “if the plane we’re on crashes, I’m going to kill you.”

“Sloan, that might be hard to do, as your seat is right next to mine and if you get killed so will I.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. But when we get to heaven, I’m going to kill you all over again!”

Their dad, having generously delegated himself to the back seat, was getting a good laugh out of his two handsome and vastly different boys, one a pilot himself and the other who’d much rather drive. But, the trip to the FabTech Show, possibly the largest fabrication and industrial equipment show in America, was way too far, and way too soon, and we weren’t driving.

The trip was actually fun and the flight uneventful, and over the next two days the three of us spent hours looking at all kinds of amazing equipment, some we were interested in, and some that was just danged interesting. We were actually doing some shopping for WPC, as we’ve done before. Because of trips like this, my little sign shop gets to play with some great equipment across the street, and the boys keep my name on the dotted line adding to their arsenal.

They cannot remember what I remember; that is opening a business in a rented un-airconditioned 1,200 sq. ft. building, which was way too big because beyond a couple of work tables about all it had in it was some paint and brushes, a borrowed compressor, an old Sears table saw, a $50 Lincoln welder. Computer? A computer was a pad and pencil, and software was the cotton T-shirts I wore to work each day.

In reality, our real purchase, which had already been arranged, was a single piece of CNC cutting equipment, way larger than my truck and more expensive than my house. It was a CNC fiber laser made by Trumpf, which we thought until then just about owned the market for such incredible equipment.

Not so. We saw more than a dozen manufacturers of similar laser machines, waterjets like the two we have are now made by a score of players, and we witnessed a veritable army of welding robots that had come to Atlanta from all over the globe. This old sign maker’s head was spinning to see what technology has done over the years. Even my boys worked hard to process a fraction of what was there.

One thing’s for sure, the industrial revolution has yet to slow down. Instead, it seems to have accelerated amazingly and unexpectedly over the last 20 or 30 years. We see this in the sign business, too, but for the sign maker there is an expanded view that may or may not have been taken in. The three of us took in that view in Atlanta and are still trying to process it a bit.

Ten years ago, we had made a similar trip. That foray into Chicagoland pretty much changed our lives, so our recent trip to this amazing show was somewhat of a journey back to the future. The physical destination had shifted a bit, but it was the future just the same, and we have to try to be a part of it.

I realize this is much easier when the second generation is involved. For my two boys, their talents and their partnering with the old guy, who’s from somewhere in the distant past, from a land far, far away, I am truly thankful.

Thankful for that, and for a safe flight, and for not having to referee the first knock down, drag out, in heaven. I’ve done enough of that here, but it sure was worth it.