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Wow! Full-Color ADA Signage Using a UV Printer

The ADA sign market can be a very lucrative one for sign makers. When you consider that the ADA regulations mandate that ADA-compliant signage (including Braille and tactile elements) are required to designate permanent rooms and spaces in public buildings, you can see the enormous opportunity there is to provide current and potential customers with signs they are legally required to have.

The market is certainly there but the drawback is that creating ADA signage is a rather involved endeavor, requiring special equipment, materials, skill and time. However, there is a relatively new way to tackle this market: UV-LED printing.

With UV printing, you can add elements like logos to the design portion of an ADA sign. Photo courtesy of Direct Color Systems.

With UV printing, you can add elements like logos to the design portion of an ADA sign. Photo courtesy of Direct Color Systems.

If you’ve looked into UV-LED printers, you know that the equipment is rather expensive and if you can’t find a high profit product line you can make money with, you won’t be able to see your return on investment any time soon. ADA signage is certainly one area where you can make very economical signage that carries a larger than usual markup.

There are a great many things you can print with a UV-LED printer. I’ve printed acrylic, golf balls, tape measures, ceramic tiles, glass panels, metal, wood, paper, plastic, rubber, vinyl, fabric, key chains, phone covers, plaques, house numbers, clocks and a host of other objects. Other people have printed T-shirts, glassware, water bottles and who knows what else.

The problem isn’t what you can print with a UV-LED printer, which is virtually unlimited, it’s what you can find a significant market for. Even if you can print all the things listed above, if you only print one or two at a time, it will take a long time for the machine to pay for itself. You need to find at least one major market that will keep your printer busy all the time. It also helps if you can find a product for that market that has an unusually large profit margin.

One such market is the ADA signage market. Although laser engravers and rotary engravers alike can make really nice ADA signs, few do. There are several reasons why so few engravers pursue the ADA signage market.

The photograph on this sign from Direct Color Systems was printed on the back side of the material while the raised lettering and Braille was printed on the front.

The photograph on this sign from Direct Color Systems was printed on the back side of the material while the raised lettering and Braille was printed on the front.

First, it can be very intimidating. The government regulations can be confusing and difficult to understand. Second, you need a special software package and tool to create Grade 2 Braille using the so-called “Raster” method and it’s expensive. (I know of one source that sells an entry level package which is close to $2,000.) Third, although these signs can be made using a rotary engraver alone, the sign requirements specify tactile lettering that has a straight edge (not beveled) which is easier to achieve using a laser engraver, and although holes for Braille spheres can be made using a laser, the software is designed to be used with a rotary engraver. All of this means anyone serious about making ADA signage would find it advantageous to have both a rotary and laser engraver. Also, making these signs is very labor intensive. If you do many of them using these machines, you almost have to have someone dedicated to doing nothing else.

Finally, there is the design issue. Creating a nice-looking ADA sign isn’t as easy as it looks, especially if you are like me and have limited creative capability. My ADA signs all come out ugly. Designing anything other than a basic piece of plastic is beyond my ability—maybe you are in the same boat. Finally, who do you sell these to? Most engravers are not comfortable working with architects and interior designers or writing bids months in advance for signage that goes in a building that doesn’t exist yet.

You can control the height of raised lettering and Braille by specifying the amount of ink to be printed. Photo courtesy of Direct Color Systems.

You can control the height of raised lettering and Braille by specifying the amount of ink to be printed. Photo courtesy of Direct Color Systems.

These are all daunting considerations and only the adventuresome are willing to take them on. That leaves a fairly open field for those who are willing to take on these and other challenges to capture a very lucrative market.

Many of those who offer ADA signage farm it out to the experts. Companies like Accent Signage (www.accentsignage.com) specialize in ADA-compliant signage and can produce finished products with lower costs and higher efficiency than most engravers.

While the most recent guidelines do allow for more design freedom than in the past, there are, of course, some rules you shouldn’t break which mostly involve the tactile letters, pictograms and Braille. What goes around those elements can be just about anything, including lighting.

This example from GCC America, Inc. shows a raised pictogram and Braille created with a UV printer.

This example from GCC America, Inc. shows a raised pictogram and Braille created with a UV printer.

As I understand the requirements for ADA-compliant signage, here is an overview of the regulations you must adhere to. (See the sidebar accompanying this article or visit www.ada.gov and check out Sections 206 and 703 for more specifics.)

1.      Each sign must have an area to accommodate the required tactile lettering, Grade 2 Braille and pictogram if one is called for. The sizes of these elements are dictated but the area above, below and around this area can be decorated to meet the customer’s wishes.

2.      You must have tactile lettering that rises 1/32” off the background of the sign containing the name of the room and the room number (if applicable). Letters shall be all upper-case and between 5/8” minimum and 2” maximum in height. Only sans serif type can be used for raised lettering. No script, italic or fancy fonts.

3.      The lettering, pictogram and Braille must be a matte finish (non-glare) on a matte background.

4.      There must be a high degree of contrast between the lettering and pictogram, and the background. (Braille does not need to contrast with the background.) There are scientific calculations as to what works and what doesn’t, it basically amounts to black and white, dark brown and light beige, sky blue and navy blue, etc. Nothing shiny or reflective is permitted on this portion of the sign.

5.      Some signs require a pictogram which is a basic symbol designating areas like the gender of a restroom, handicap facilities, no smoking, stairway, etc. These should be 6” tall and as wide as necessary.

6.      A border, if used, must be separated from the text, pictograms or Braille by 3/8”.

7.      You must have Grade 2 Braille (there are other types so be careful) centered directly under the tactile lettering. The Braille must have 3/8” of clear space on all four sides. The Braille dot height should be .025”-.037” high and must have a rounded top and round base. Most Braille software is designed to control the spacing to within regulations.

True graphic design freedom is a major advantage of UV printing. Photo courtesy of Mutoh America, Inc.

True graphic design freedom is a major advantage of UV printing. Photo courtesy of Mutoh America, Inc.

Just for fun, I’ll give you an ADA sign quiz. Chances are, you know a lot more than you think:

Question 1: Can you use clear acrylic as a sign blank? No. Not unless you have some other contrasting background behind the acrylic. Clear acrylic by itself provides no contrast and it usually has a gloss finish.

Question 2: Can you use black acrylic as a background? Maybe. If the acrylic has a matte finish and you use a light colored high contrasting material for the lettering, you can.

Question 3: Can you use white metal for the background? Maybe. White metal comes in both high gloss and matte finishes. Only a matte finish is acceptable.

Question 4: Can you use a stylish font so long as it doesn’t have any serifs? No. No fancy fonts. Stick with Arial, Gill Sans or a similar font. No rounded corners, serifs, italic or lower-case letters.

Question 5: Can you print a dark background on a white glossy material before printing the lettering? Yes. As long as the background is a matte finish and in a contrasting color.

Question 6: Can you use tactile lettering or artwork other than for the basic information? No. You should not use anything that will distract from the main message of the sign. Remember, the person reading your sign will be looking for what is tactile to find out what room the sign is next to. Anything tactile other than the room identification information will only be confusing to the reader.

Question 7: Can I use two shades of gray for the tactile lettering and background? Maybe. Unless one is very light and the other very dark, there probably won’t be enough contrast between the two. The same is true with any color combination.

Question 8: Can I use a stylized first letter for the room name? No. All tactile lettering must be upper-case and in the same font and size.

This Braille and lettering was printed using the new XpertJet 661UF flatbed printer from Mutoh America, Inc.

This Braille and lettering was printed using the new XpertJet 661UF flatbed printer from Mutoh America, Inc.

Why UV Printing?

You can meet all of these requirements and still create beautiful signage using a UV-LED printer. A UV-LED printer changes a lot of things compared to using other methods, and offers a lot of advantages—major advantages.

One of those advantages is complete full-color design freedom. The big drawing point of UV printing in general is that it allows printing true full-color images. So, instead of creating boring generic “two-tone” signs on ADA engraving plastic as has been done so much in the past, now you can add color—color logos, photographs, multi-colored backgrounds and more—that’s not possible with most other methods. Think about restroom signs in an upscale restaurant or room and elevator signs in a hotel. Now you can easily incorporate their logo—and color match it to boot—in keeping with the business’ upscale image and branding while meeting ADA requirements. You can use borders, inlays, photographs, logos—just about anything in the sign design as long as you keep them away from the tactile lettering,

In addition, instead of relying solely on standard ADA sign plastic, now you can print on a wide variety of materials, such as acrylic, plastic, metal or exotic substrates like marble, slate, glass or wood.

 Then there is the fact that the process itself is completely simplified, super quick and virtually automated. You don’t have to use multiple machines or special cutters or any of the other things required to produce Raster Braille and self-adhesive tactile lettering. You can do it all quickly and simply using a UV-LED platform.

Just design the sign, specify in the software what needs to be 1/32” thick and send it to the printer. In about five minutes (depending on size, etc.), you will have a finished sign, Braille and all, whereas producing an ADA sign using other methods might take a half hour or more. It is just that simple. The software will do most of the work for you in the design phase and the printer will do the rest.

You can dress up an ADA sign with photographs and colors, and still make it compliant with the regulations. Photo courtesy of GCC America, Inc.

You can dress up an ADA sign with photographs and colors, and still make it compliant with the regulations. Photo courtesy of GCC America, Inc.

How Does It Work?

So, can a UV-LED printer really “print” raised tactile lettering and Braille? It can and, better yet, it’s really very simple. The process uses multiple passes of the printhead to deposit the ink and the super-fast drying ability of the UV lamp(s) to form a raised surface of ink. Each pass lays down more ink on top of the previous layer to create raised lettering and Braille dots. Then the LED lamp that rides directly behind the print head immediately cures the ink so it doesn’t have time to disperse.

In essence, the printer is creating something like a relief map with hills and valleys. All of the tactile graphics need to be 1/32” high and the Braille needs to be .025”-.037” high (hills) whereas the full-color designs can be basically flat and micro thin. These printers are printing these designs using droplets of ink. The magic lies in the printer’s ability to accurately dispense ink droplets ranging in size from 3 picoliters (3/1,000,000 of a liter) up to 20 picoliters which in turn allows you to control the depth and height of the raised lettering and Braille. Larger droplets are needed to provide larger relief and vice versa.

Using a DCS printer, it takes two passes to achieve a 1/32” high “pile of ink.” I can’t say if all UV-LED printers are capable of this feat or how many passes it might take to build the right height of ink. Unfortunately, I don’t have firsthand experience with other brands. The DCS brand printer uses white for the first pass and then adds a color on the second pass. This is because the white ink has far more “body” to it and can build a thicker layer in a single pass than the other colors of ink.

Full-color photographs add a great deal of appeal to ADA signage. Photo courtesy of Mutoh America, Inc.

Full-color photographs add a great deal of appeal to ADA signage. Photo courtesy of Mutoh America, Inc.

In Summary

Being able to print an entire full-color sign, whether it is a 2” x 10” or a 12” x 12”, in just minutes and know the specifications meet the ADA requirements each and every time takes the ADA and Braille components from complex and demanding to commonplace and simple. It moves the labor requirements from highly skilled to almost anyone can do it with a little training. And even then, most of the training is in the area of software.

With this move away from the traditional ADA sign-making methods involving multiple machines, multiple sheets of material, multiple setups and the need to add Raster dots, plus tedious weeding and cleanup after cutting and typically only two colors to a single-step printed sign with multiple colors that can be replicated as many times as needed in only a few minutes per sign is a game changer.

As for cost, all of the labor and at least two sheets of plastic, plus the cost of the device and software for inserting Raster dots compared to a single sheet of substrate (metal, plastic, wood, etc.) and a small amount of ink cuts cost dramatically. This means while others have to charge huge prices for their ADA-compliant signage, you can match or beat their prices and make far more profit than the competition that is still using the old methods. More profit margin means you can pay off your printer faster and take home more which is the object of being in business.

Most importantly, UV-LED printing allows you to offer a much nicer looking sign, in full-color, than those still offering signs made using rotary engraving ADA engraving plastic. Even if your competition farms out their work and achieves really nice designs, you can produce your signs at a much lower cost since you don’t have to pay the extra cost involved in someone making the signs for you.

About the only way you can go wrong is if you try to undersell your competition unnecessarily. Sure, you might undersell by a tiny bit but there is no reason to give away very much since your signs will probably look better, take less time to make and cost you far less to produce. The advantage here isn’t about underselling your competition, it’s that you can produce a stunningly better product for less money and take more profit home with you!

As was stated earlier, recovering an investment as large as that required for a UV-LED printer requires more than the occasional printed product. It requires finding a fairly large and lucrative market that can assure you of both recurring orders and a large number of profitable products as well. With the average cost of one of these printers hitting the $20,000 range or more, one needs to find one or more specific product lines to keep this workhorse busy. With the high cost of ink and its short shelf life on top of the large investment, serious consideration should be given to how one is going to make this equipment pay for itself before the money crosses the table. ADA signage is certainly one possibility.

No longer are multiple machines needed. No longer are they labor intensive. No longer do the signs have to be boring, utilitarian, plain Jane pieces of plastic stuck on a wall. Now you can add color—full color—and let the UV printer do the work.

Wow! Full-Color ADA Signage Using a UV Printer
J. Stephen Spence

Copyright © 2020
As Printed in July 2020, Volume 46, Number 1, The Engravers Journal

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