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Automated Letter Benders

As trade suppliers continue to dominate the letter fabrication sector, Harriet Gordon looks at automated letter benders, asking if they provide a viable way to bring the work in-house

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Kyle Giles says that at William Smith, a large portion of the manufacturing process is still reliant on craftsmen but that the channel letter bending machine helps cut and manipulate the extrusion in the first instance

Learning your letters

American politics have dominated the headlines in recent years, with Donald Trump’s first term in office rivalling Brexit in terms of media coverage. Indeed, some of reports to come out of the White House make Britain’s tumultuous exit from the EU seem uneventful by comparison. America is a vast country, and its news – its disasters and triumphs – do seem correspondingly greater, and inevitably more dramatic.

The size of this great nation also impacts the shape of its sign industry. At roughly 40 times the size of Britain, it can accommodate a greater number of large sign-makers. This, in turn, means that these bigger companies can invest in bigger, more expensive technology. One area of the industry that reveals this sizeable difference between Britain and the US is sign-letter fabrication. America has many more sign businesses that have the space and capability to invest in automated letter benders, meaning a significant number choose to bring letter construction in-house.

In the UK, however, this area is still dominated by trade suppliers. Automated letter-bending machines often cost over £40,000 and so are a major investment for small to medium companies (as well as some large ones). As the trade suppliers I speak to in this feature make clear, a sign-maker has to be confident that the demand for letters will produce ROI, as well as have the expertise to ensure success. For your average sign-maker, it is very difficult to make the economic argument to bring sign letter fabrication in-house, and there are a number of trade suppliers only too happy to assist instead. I will talk to a few key players in this sector, asking about the benefits of automated letter benders and asking who, if anyone, should consider bringing the job in-house.

Go your own way

For those plucky few determined to go it alone in the letter fabrication sector, there are a few options available. Computerized Cutters, for example, sells its Accu Bend brand through Channel Letter Benders in Leiden, the Netherlands. Automatic Letter Benders exports into the UK from its base in Bialystok, Poland, and Korean-headquartered SDS distributes its systems through Domino Sign in France.

The letter bending machines available now are much better than the ones available even a couple of years ago

As already stated, however, there are many things to consider before making such an investment. Graeme Hoole, director of The Sign Group, explains: “The letter bending machines available now are much better than the ones available even a couple of years ago. They’ve overcome the stigma of poor quality results and how temperamental they were. They’re now a quality machine that can be relied on. It won’t ever replace the quality of handmade letters, but the big advantage for us is speed.”

He continues with words of caution: “We can produce the returns on the machine much quicker than can be done by hand, but the returns that come out of the machine are only 90% done, and this is where having skilled letter makers is crucial, as the quality of a letter is definitely in the finish which only comes with experienced hands.

“If we were a retail sign company, and I was looking for advice on whether getting a bending machine was the right move for us, I’d just ask myself a couple of questions: Do we sell enough letters to justify the outlay, the space for the equipment and room for the stock coils? Do we have the skill set within the team to be able to finish the letters to a high quality? Do we have time to learn if it isn’t something we’ve done before?

“If any of the answers to the questions above is yes, then go for it! The skills for finishing built ups isn’t something to be too daunted by, but equally it shouldn’t be dismissed as a formality. It will take time.”

Applelec’s Armitage says the process of hand bending letters relies on skill and craftsmanship rather than being machine driven, as although automated machines are effective for mass quantities they create only limited font styles

Andy Armitage, Applelec’s head of signage sales, agrees that an important consideration companies should have when contemplating bringing letter manufacturing in-house is staffing procedures: “As built-up letter making is a skilled discipline, which is passed down from person to person and not something that can be easily nor quickly taught, it can be a lengthy process to source the correct members of staff. The same bench top tools that were used 50 to 60 years ago are still being utilised today. The process of hand bending these letter types relies on skill and craftsmanship rather than being machine driven and although automated machines are effective for mass quantities, these machines are restricted to creating limited font styles.

“Another factor with automated machines is that these must be manned throughout the manufacturing process by a trained and skilled letter bender, who would be able to foresee and avoid any potential issues that may occur during the machine manufacturing process. Aside from staffing considerations, other factors would be to ensure that the company has a constant flow and demand for built-up letters on an on-going basis to make in-house manufacturing commercially viable and cost-effective.”

Armitage does, however, concur that in-house letter manufacturing can have a number of benefits for companies, such as enabling organisations to be more in control of their workflow and workload: “They can be less reliant on third parties. Along with gaining increased work flexibility, in-house letter manufacturing will possibly help companies to cut costs as labour fees will be absorbed within the organisation.”

Learn from the experts

If you are looking for evidence of how automated letter benders can assist letter fabrication, look no further than the trade suppliers that use this equipment. Kyle Giles, marketing executive at William Smith, asserts that the investment has definitely been worth it: “Some companies prefer to rely on old fashioned methods, making the signs entirely by hand, and although this tradition is great and still viable, it is labour intensive and can slow manufacturing processes down.

Giles from William Smith say making signs entirely by hand is labour intensive and can slow manufacturing processes down

“We tend to mix it up, a large portion of the manufacturing process is still reliant on craftsmen but the channel letter bending machine helps cut and manipulate the extrusion in the first instance. As a result of this we have increased capacity.”

He continues: “Cost is an obvious factor to consider. Any machine costs money and sometimes these can be significant figures. Ensure it is going to be financially viable; is a machine warranted? If a business needs to increase its capacity in order to meet demand, then it could prove to be a wise investment. But it could also work the other way round: a business does not want a machine sitting idle after investing heavily.”

Hoole from The Sign Group picks up on this point. His company invested in Accutek AT1, as he candidly explains: “We bought our machine from China: there, I said it! We bought the equipment from China. Now, half of the parts in the machine are from Germany, but it is a quality machine, and we’re very happy with it. However, we did visit the factory before committing to the purchase, but that might not be possible for one-man band businesses.

“I would recommend at least going to visit the letter bending companies in the UK to have a look at the machines and see if it’s something you think you can deal with. If they have a machine that you like, at a price you can afford then go for it. If you have the time to look further afield, there are brilliant deals to be had. Significantly, our machine still has a service contract on it from a UK company, so the worry of the machine breaking is no more worrying than any of the other kit.”

He continues: “For those that are tempted by the machine, we’re happy if they want to come and visit us to have a look at how it works. We won’t be ‘training’ people, but you can come and see it in action.”

A helping hand

This generous offer from Hoole is only the starting point of what the trade suppliers can assist you with, in the letter fabrication arena. While offering their guidance to those considering bringing the job in-house, all the firms in this feature will gladly do the work for you, if you prefer.

Received wisdom is that you should visit a letter bending company to have a look at the machines before you make any decision to invest

Giles from William Smith outlines what a trade supplier can offer in this sector: “As a trade supplier we offer an extensive range of signage, and in particular built-up letters. All fabricated in-house, we cater to bespoke specifications and can appreciate no two signs are the same. General letter types include the classic 3D Letter, halo illumination, rim and return and face illumination. A wide range of finishes can also be applied to sign types, making them completely unique.

“Additionally, as a partner of Make it Happen we host the industry acclaimed ‘Education Programme’ each month.

Attendees get a full factory tour and demonstration of how equipment operates, this includes our channel letter bending machine.”

William Smith offer an extensive range of signage and in particular built-up letters

So for those still cautious about making an investment in an automated letter bender, there is certainly no rush. UK trade suppliers continue to dominate in this sector, and not for no reason: their competitive pricing can make it hard to justify such a significant outlay on the machinery to bring it in-house.  

O Factoid: The basic Roman alphabet is used by about one hundred languages, with slight variations. Some versions contain as few as twenty-one letters, some as many as thirty. O

The other point to be aware of is that things are changing in this area. Giles explains that new options and innovative ideas are always coming into existence, an example of which would be the trending signage type known as corten steel.

Applelec’s Armitage agrees, citing the progression of 3D printing as creating a new manufacturing revolution: “Due to the possible capabilities of these machines, it will be interesting to see how letter-making progresses in the future and the opportunities that arise within signage as a result of 3D printers.”

This is exactly the thought-process of Graeme Hoole, although his prediction for the future for letter-making comes with a confident caveat in favour of tried and tested products:

“There’s exciting things afoot with built ups. I’m thinking particularly of the current push in 3D printing and slimline illuminated solutions like NeonPlus. Yet people will never completely move away from stainless steel, aluminum and brass built up letters. There will always be a call for it.”


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