Identification products such as signage and badges are a crucial component
of everyday society. When you think about it, without signs parking would
be chaos, you wouldnt be able to find your doctors office
and you would probably lose track of what hole youre playing on
the golf course! (Okay, maybe the latter isnt so bad.) Likewise,
badges help people avoid awkward situations (what was his name?) and can
even be necessities, especially for security purposes.
The Latest & Greatest
By all accounts, many of the traditional standby materials in the industry are still widely used, but there are some newcomers that are gaining popularity as well. Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN, offers a complete line of plastic materials for rotary and laser engraving. Interestingly, black on white is still the biggest seller for sign-making, says Margaret Johnson. Most of the badges we do are either white with a black core, gold with a black core or with a blue core. We tend to sell much more of the simple solid primary colors than the newer variety of materials that are out there, but customers still want new, so all of the manufacturers continually try to bring new products to the market.
Johnson Plastics also offers Unisub sublimation blanks for products like sublimated signs and badges. We often get requests for unusual badge shapes for sublimation. It might have a domed top or a state shape, says Johnson.
Innovative Plastics Inc. (IPI), Algonquin, IL, manufactures plastic engraving stock for rotary and laser engraving as well as other marking methods like silk screening and hot stamping. Id say that our fastest growing line right now is our Gold Coast line, says Don DAntonio. This plastic stock line features several different cap colors and marble patterns with a bright gold metallic modified acrylic core designed to resemble brass when it is laser or rotary engraved. It looks very rich and it fits into a lot of different signage areas, interior-wise, and it works very well for badges, he says, adding that this type of material is also ideal for specialty signage applications, such as point-of-purchase (POP) displays in jewelry stores. The material provides a nice impressive, expensive look for not much money.
IPI also manufactures a relatively new product called the Night Reflectors, a plastic material that reflects brightly in the dark when light shines on it. Available in six different colors, the material is designed for rotary engraving and can be used indoors or outdoors. This line is used for dog tags and for signage application such as parking lots, warehouses and caution areas, says DAntonio.
Rowmark is another major engraving stock manufacturer in the recognition and identification industry. Rowmark offers a variety of materials to the sign maker, including ADA Alternative®, which is a material made to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act; Ultra-Mattes, also, can be used to create ADA compliant signage and is outdoor weatherable along with Textures, a durable and dirt/scratch resistant material that holds up in high traffic, industrial or outdoor environments.
Laserable materials are probably the most-requested in the engraving industry right now, says Rowmarks Jennifer Perry, although most large format sign makers use routers and prefer to work with thicker-gauge, more rigid products.
Leathertone, Inc., Woonsocket, RI, manufactures the EZ GRAV line of plastic engraving materials which is sold in full, half and quarter sheets for use in sign- and badge-making. The company offers interior and exterior products for both rotary and laser engraving, metallic plastics, an ADA line of appliqué and substrate material (both rotary and laser) as well as reverse engravable materials.
The traditional rotary engraver is still quite popular, but in the past few years, the demand for laser engravable plastics has taken off. Most engravers have both rotary as well as laser engraving machines, says Leathertones James Rubenstein.
Horizons Inc., Cleveland, OH, offers something outside the realm of plastic engraving stock with its core product called the MetalPhoto line. MetalPhoto is a unique photographic process that can be used for making signs, badges and other identification products. The technique involves exposing the light-sensitive MetalPhoto material to UV light with a film positive or negative and then processing the metal to create a subsurface image. The result is a very durable product that can even be used outdoors. Thats our core product, explains Zeda Blau. Thats the product that is most widely used in the nameplate business. But its also used in exterior signage, zoo signage, arboretum signage, architectural signage and more.
There are huge applications for MetalPhoto in those fields. The MetalPhoto process can be used to put everything from text to halftone images on signs and creates an extremely durable product. Because its a photographic product, its a little daunting for some people, and perhaps some new technologies are faster, but the fact remains that there is nothing as durable as MetalPhoto and nothing as high resolution.
Horizons also offers printable aluminum products with multiple applications, including signage and badges. AlumaJet, for example, is an aluminum material that you can actually feed into your inkjet printer just like paper. The thin aluminum product works with J-feed printers (printers that feed from the top), including Epson, Lexmark and Canon models, allowing you to print high resolution, full-color images directly on the substrate. After the piece is printed, the image is protected with a laminate covering to create interior signage and badges as well as plaques and awards. It can be used anywhere you would want to put color onto an aluminum substrate, says Blau. Horizons also offers a thicker substrate designed for inkjet printers with a straight pass-through feed, including models such as the new Epson 4000.
Horizons AlumaMark material is designed for laser engraving applications. Available in silver, gold, brass, bronze, aluminum, etc., the material turns black when exposed to a CO2 laser beam. This material is suitable for interior signage applications and Horizons has also recently introduced AlumaMark precut badge blanks in two sizes: 1" x 3" and 11/2" x 3" (available in silver and satin brass finishes).
Identification Plates, Inc., Mesquite, TX, is another manufacturer specializing in metal materials. ID Plates carries a full line of metals for signage, badges and ID products, including brass for interior use and stainless steel and anodized aluminum for interior and exterior use. They also offer acid etching and screen printing services for creating custom identification products.
Whats Not So Hot
For the most part, traditional sign materials have remained fairly stable sales-wise, although industry experts do point out that there is a trend away from high gloss plastics as well as those that are strictly rotary engravable, i.e. not suitable for laser engraving.
The satin materials are staying flat. Its an interior product that has a little bit of a glare to it so it shows scratching, says Don DAntonio. Margaret Johnson also points out that this material is not laser engravable because of the thick cap and ABS core.
Nash Industries Ted Uibel agrees that satin materials are still used, but arent as popular as they once were. From my perspective, I think matte finishes have become more popular than the shinier finishes if, for nothing else, the reduction of the glare. If its shiny, you are getting reflections and glare off of it and its harder to read and thats why people prefer matte finishes.
Alan Burgess, Gravograph-New Hermes, Duluth, GA, says, Our top-selling material for signage is Gravo-Tac in the matte finish because of ADA compliance. This material is laserable and can also be used for rotary engraving. Weve seen a decrease in two-ply products that are limited to rotary engraving only and limited for indoor use only.
Several industry suppliers noted a decline in the use of woodgrain plastic engraving stock, not necessarily from lack of demand but more in terms of lack of supply. In general, we see a falling off in the woodgrains. The industry sort of started with woodgrain and now we see that as less popular. Part of it is that the foil for woodgrains is getting more difficult to come by, says Margaret Johnson.
Ted Uibel agrees, One of the problems with woodgrains is that a lot of them have disappeared. Even the people who want the woodgrains cant get them anymore. A number of the foils used to make the woodgrain materials have just vanished. Thats something that has happened with a number of the woodgrain colors over the past years.
New For 2005
Never fear, manufacturers are hard at work coming up with new and better materials for making signs and badges. Most manufacturers have revamped some of their current linesadding new colors, textures, designs, etc., and have introduced new products in response to industry demands, such as additional laser engravable substrates. Heres a look at what you can expect in 2005.
Earthtones, Granites Deluxe, ColorCast Acrylics and Heavy Weights are all new products Rowmark has recently introduced for the signage markets. Rowmark has several new products queued up for release in January of 2005 and more to follow as 2005 unfolds, says Jennifer Perry.
Were expanding our laser line. Our laser products are currently our top-selling products. They are growing by leaps and bounds, explains IPIs Don DAntonio. DAntonio also sees a current trend toward reverse laserable products which provide a very interesting, subsurface look. Since there hasnt been a great deal of variety or choice in these types of materials, IPI plans to expand the line to include a reverse laserable mirrored acrylic product, available in gold and silver and a second line tentatively called Gem Stones, which is a reverse laserable plastic with a marble pattern. Both materials can be reverse engraved with a laser and then paint filled to provide a very unique look.
ADA signage is another area of focus for some manufacturers in the industry, including Gravograph-New Hermes. In 2005, we will focus greatly on materials that can be used for ADA compliant signs, says Alan Burgess. We will have new colors, including translucent products that can be used for ADA compliant signs and back-lit signs. We are the only company offering a full line of ADA compliant signage (raised letter and engravable) for outdoor use. Also new for 2005 will be an exciting range of sublimatable materials to be used in conjunction with the Gravo-Tac product line.
Making The Mark
When it comes to making signs and badges, we are seeing some of the same basic trends as other areas of the industry, such as personalizing awards and gifts. Mechanical engraving is still very much on the sceneJohnson Plastics points out that rotary engravable plastic is still its top sellerbut there also continues to be growth in laser engraving.
Traditional rotary engraving is still very popular, although laser engraving continues to grow, says Jennifer Perry, Rowmark.
I would say there is definitely a trend into laserable materials because the proliferation of laser equipment is very strong and has been for a number of years. So, naturally, manufacturers have to provide materials to meet those needs. That trend is not new this year, of course, its been going on for several years, states Ted Uibel.
Sublimation is not as widely used for signage and badges as processes like rotary and laser engraving, but it is gaining some interest for these applications. Sublimation is coming on strong for signage. The ability of four-color is becoming quite popular, says Johnson.
One of the drawbacks to sublimated signage is its inability to directly create ADA compliant signage. Rotary engraving combined with Gravo-Tac engraving materials is the perfect combination for ADA compliant signage. We see a lot of growth potential for this type of signage for the future. Sublimation is of high interest right now but its growth may be limited due to its lack of ADA compliance, says Alan Burgess. Some sign makers are, however, combining technologies to create ADA signage; for example, using rotary or laser engraving for the Braille and raised letters and sublimation to create colorful graphics. Plus, Jennifer Perry adds, sublimation can be a great tool for creating decorative name badges. Sublimation is another method of producing name badges that is sometimes overlooked, yet a variety of shapes and sizes offer a plethora of colorful options, she says.
Of course, these arent the only methods being used to produce signage and badges. Routers are used for larger signs, screen printing is another popular method that can be used on its own or in conjunction with engraving and hot stamping is still a very common method for putting shiny logos on badges. Identification Plates also offers custom acid etching and screen printing for signs and badges.
Don DAntonio pointed out that, although not a marking method per se, a lot can be done with thermobending plastics, especially in the area of display and POP signage. For example, IPI relates how Firestone created a unique display for its tires by screen printing its logo on brushed aluminum plastic and then thermobending the plastic to create a curved header. The sign features cutout sections to display the actual tires and is mounted on the wall. Its an inexpensive way of making displaysthey are making thousands of these. They have the look of metal but the ease and economy of plastic, he says.
Putting It All Together
Of course a personalized name badge really has no purpose unless the individual can wear it and thats where badge findings come in. Suppliers in the industry offer a variety of badge components, including safety pins, magnetic clasps (rated as the most popular by many suppliers), bulldog clips and clutches with tacks.
Badge holders and badge frames are also popular badge components that can dress up a badge dramatically. Rowmark, for example, offers Identifiers name badge holders in five sizes and three traditional finishes, and Gravograph-New Hermes has a complete range of metal badge frames, magnets, pins and clutches. We will be adding a line of gold magnets and a new range of badge frames to our product line for 05, says Burgess.
In the same vein, sometimes a perfectly engraved sign blank isnt enough; sometimes it needs more embellishment and a great way to do that is with a sign frame. Don DAntonio says that, particularly in the U.S., there has been a major trend toward using frames for signage to add visual appeal. Not only can a frame add to the value of the sale, but it can also be a great marketing tool. A great way to make signage look better and more impressive or even give it a certain image is to frame it or put it in a holder of some sort, he says.
The JRS Company, Covina, CA, is one of the largest manufacturers of sign frames and holders, offering a variety of lines and looks to fit a variety of budgets. Several distributors in the industry, including Nash Industries, IPI and Johnson Plastics, carry the companys product line. JRS manufactures some very, very unique products that really take a simple piece of plastic and, for not a lot of money, turn it into signage that looks a lot more expensive, says DAntonio.
One of the new lines that JRS has introduced is its Curves sign framing system, a series of aluminum frames that are curved to provide interesting architectural appeal. The wall-mounted frames accept 1/16" plastic inserts and are available in standard sizes but can also be manufactured to custom specifications. Its quite a nice, new look, says Margaret Johnson.
JRS has also introduced a plastic framing system designed to accommodate paper sign inserts printed on an inkjet or laser printer. Once the paper sign is printed, pop it into the frame. A clear plastic lens slides over the top to protect it and provide a professional look.
Horizons Inc. has also introduced a new aluminum sign system called AlumaSigns. AlumaSigns consists of modular sign frames that you can snap apart, insert the sign blank in and then snap back together.
In keeping with the sign framing trend, Gravograph-New Hermes has unveiled new products to its sign framing line as well. We offer a full range of plastic modular frames in seven different colors and two different corner shapes. We also offer a range of aluminum modular frames in silver, black and gold as well as a full range of Slatz Sign Systems.
Can I See Your ID?
Badges imprinted with a photograph, i.e. photo IDs, are another segment of the industry, although they typically have more specialized applications than standard name badges. Photo badges are not, in most cases, used for general identification purposes, but they do have significant applications. In fact, they are nearly a necessity for businesses concerned with enhanced security features.
One method for making photo badges is to use a thermal digital printer, such as the Millennium from Direct Color Systems. In addition to printing full-color photos, graphics and text, these printers are capable of printing encoded data onto the magnetic strip of special badge blanks that can be read by magnetic and optical security scanners. Most material suppliers offer compatible blanks and substrates for these printers. IPI, for example, has plain white, gold and silver blanks. The company also sells two- and three-ply plastic blanks featuring a white cap and a colored core so, in addition to thermal printing, the material can also be engraved. In some cases, traditional sublimation is used to create photo IDs, although to a lesser extent since it does not have the security coding capabilities.
Horizons Inc.s AlumaJet inkjet printable aluminum is another product that can be used to create photo ID badges. AlumaJet is ideal for badges because you can scan a picture of a person and print it on the badge, says Zeda Blau.
Another way to incorporate photographs or full-color images onto badges is through using special adhesive-backed film materials, such as those available from The Magic Touch line. You can use your laser or inkjet printer to print images directly onto the film, then transfer the film to a substrate material, such as plastic, and then use a laser to cut out the badges. So you can batch up a group of badges onto a sheet size page and with very little labor, cut out custom shapes with a laser and thereby produce full-color images, explains Ted Uibel. Its a very interesting convergence of technologies. Its not outlandish because there are so many laser machines out there and color laser printers have come down in price dramatically over the last few years.
Making The Sale
As Don DAntonio says, Anywhere that you have to identify a person or create a corporate image or an identity for the company, ID products fit in. And that opens up a lot of opportunity for our industry to sell these products.
You can start by looking for quality suppliers that will help you through every step of the process. Dealers should look for inventory levels, customer service, knowledge, support as far as standing behind their product as well as technical support, says Margaret Johnson.
DAntonio says that finding a supplier who can help with the design stage can be extremely beneficial. If you dont want to pay a designer or you dont have a plan, there are signage suppliers out there who have those capabilities and they are adding value to their products. They might not always be the less expensive of the group, but they will be able to deliver a lot more capabilities and probably at a lower price than having to hire a designer, he says.
Of course, you also need to actively sell your products to make a profit. Ted Uibel says, My first recommendation to the retailer would be to do some nice samples. Dont rely on basic pieces or things you have left over. The retailer who has a walk-in storefront or a display area of any kind has customers that tend to buy what they see, so if you show them something nice, something of quality, something maybe a little different from what the guy down the street is showing, theres a good chance theyre going to buy that. But if you dont show it to them, nobody knows that you can do it.
Selling signage and badges may take a little more legwork today as the business economy struggles to stay on its feet. But its clear that its headed in the right directionmechanical engraving, laser engraving, hot stamping, sublimation and more are all being used to create exciting new ID products. And who knows what lies ahead? As Margaret Johnson puts it, Its going to be fun to watch to see how it goes! Its becoming a more colorful world!
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