A Breakthrough year
Neon signage is very much ‘in-vogue’ with demand set to grow. But with European legislation potentially banning it in its current mercury-containing state from 2020, some sign buyers are demanding an alternative. Enter The Sign Group, which has developed an LED-based alternative, Neonplus
The days are dark and short and the wind is biting here in the South West, but as an industry we are firmly back on the way to a warmer economic climate. It seems that each and every sector is experiencing an increase in sales volumes and demand, whether that is sign-writing or super wide-format graphics. Clearly a recovering economy is helping to drive this trend, but so is a long over-due investment cycle, a myriad of government initiatives designed to stimulate manufacturing growth and capital investment, and not to mention the banks finally starting to ease-up issues around cash flow and loans. But in addition to all that is the fact that the technology developers in our sector, from materials to cutting tools, are all pushing the envelope in terms of what is possible.
“The last year has been phenomenal,” says Graeme Hoole, director and production manager of The Sign Group, adding: “The figures don’t lie, and we have seen our sales volumes of LEDs triple since the end of 2013.”
Hoole outlines that a key trend he sees continuing to accelerate in 2015 is the dominance of LED-based signage solutions and the innovation that comes with it. Indeed, he explains that the days when you simply glued in some LEDs behind an acrylic face and hooked them up to a power source are rapidly becoming history.
Hoole continues: “We and many other companies like us are continuously pushing the boundaries of what is possible by combining sign-making techniques with the latest LED lighting technology on the market. This year we have launched Neonplus, which replicates neon using specially developed LED light tubes and controllers. SGLightSheet is another example, which has been very successful where unique design and cool understated design is the requirement.”
With the motto, ‘big enough to cope, small enough to care’, The Sign Group is indicative of a trend in itself within the industry that will no doubt develop across 2015. A new wave of media savvy suppliers and sign-makers alike are growing up that run cohesive and well-run brands, and have also diversified their offering across multiple sectors—something that is the norm across the pond.
Again, this has been made possible because funding is more readily available, but also because the business is there to be had. In addition, the technology that underpins it has come down to a much more affordable price point. A case in point, Hoole reveals the company has just taken the wrapping off an industrial Tekcel EXR 3 x 2m router/cutter that adds to the existing V Series already in place—making it one of the few companies in our sector to possess two of these behemoths.
Supplied by Complete CNC Solutions, this is a sector that is also set to undergo important changes in 2015, as players like the aforementioned company are bringing to bear a range of new cutting edge technology.
“Sign design trends are necessitating that finishing is becoming increasingly complex,” says Julian Sage, managing director of Complete CNC Solutions.
He adds: “In addition to our well-known Tekcel brand, we have also added Protek to our stable, which is a very important development in the span and depth of our offering. The key trends we are experiencing is that sign-makers are realising that just investing in a light-weight cutter limits their long-term expansion plans. But the latest precision routers can cut with perfect precision and also handle heavy duty production in the future with a huge array of substrates.”
Sage advises that demand for routing technology will grow in 2015 because sign-makers are becoming increasingly aware that they can move from using a subcontractor to bringing production in-house, without the expense this would have incurred in previous years.
Sage concludes: “We are able to help customers with zero knowledge in this sector by educating them, putting the technology through its paces, and inspiring them to take that step up. The relationship then continues as we provide ongoing support with every-thing from machine upgrades, to marketing, and application expertise. Another key facet is future proofing, as we make sure that on both day one and day 100 the machine will not come up short.”
Brave new world
Another driving factor is that online technology and easy-to-use software means that businesses can create marketing portals that help them to reach an audience that is not limited by geographical location. This extended reach has also been bolstered by the growth in the number of competing courier services in the UK that provide an alternative to the major players.
Looking at The Sign Group it is a case in point. Its offering now spans a dedicated LED supply business WeLoveLEDs.co.uk, its new Neonplus wing, and SGLightSheet. From a business that tottered out of the recession fighting cash flow issues and a very tough market, it shows just how well the market has bounced back.
“We are just a very passionate team, but success means working 14 hours a day on a regular basis and employing every piece of technology and savvy we can to punch above our weight,” says Hoole. He adds: “I really was impressed by a recent project we did at Newmarket races for Juddmonte. The sign was 1m high and used brilliant green LEDs for the logo using our Neonplus product. There was a lot of white lighting, but when we flicked the switch the whole room went green. The LEDs were so bright that we had to use a dimmer to allow the white spot lamps back into the game.”
This sign created for Juddmonte’s hospitality tent at Newmarket races was so bright that it overwhelmed the interior white lighting and created an eerie glow. The Sign Group were in the unusual position of having to dim the brightness of their installation to make it work
Hoole highlights that another trend which is set to develop momentum across 2015 is marketers increasingly turning to exotic signage solutions to help differentiate their brands.
The Sign Group’s Graeme Hoole says his staff are able to ‘see the shape that things need to be’ and often work 12 to 14 hours a day to make sure every job is just right
He concludes: “One of things that we feel we need to develop in the year ahead is the number of weird and wonderful bespoke projects we do. It is a strength of The Sign Group that we are happy to test things when we are approached by big customers. We invest in research and equipment to produce these projects, but then still have them and the knowledge to offer these products at an affordable price to smaller sign companies. Over the years we have built up quite an arsenal, and in addition to all the core technologies a sign-manufacturer needs we are capable of doing advanced 3D milling and vacuum forming.”
Wrap to the beat
Technology innovation in the sign-materials sector has also gone into overdrive, a trend that started in 2013, and has continued to gather pace. Looking down the barrel of the year to come, it seems likely that one of the key areas of ongoing innovation will be with materials that fit very specific niches instead of being a coverall.
“One of the biggest milestones for us was the introduction of Metamark MD-X material, which was a real game changer for the industry too. It reoriented people’s attitudes and made things a lot easier for the sign-maker when applying graphics to difficult surfaces,” says Metamark chief executive officer, Paul French.
MD-X is part of the first big wave of self-adhesive vinyl products that have been designed specifically for vehicle wrapping and graphics. It not only has low initial levels of tack, but allowed wrappers to evacuate air from trapped bubbles much more easily—negating the need to messily pop and smooth down imperfections or even remove a whole sheet and start again. This has now become a standard attribute of the latest wave of products, but players such as Metamark are taking innovation a step further and developing materials that suit even more specific needs.
(Above & below) Distributed in the UK by Complete CNC Solutions, the Protek Unico TT embodies the evolution trends underway in this technology bracket
French continues: “A good example is where vehicle wraps are going to be used for temporary promotions. You may need to wrap a large fleet very quickly, and then remove it all again in a just a few weeks. So the attributes you need in a vinyl is a low-price, ease of application, and clean removal, rather than very long-term durability.”
French reveals that 2015 will also see the sector continue to bring out products that are more targeted for specific applications and needs of the wrapper/sign-maker. He also highlights that recent changes to legislation, where motorists have to now declare a colour change to insurers, has not impacted the sector adversely.
“This is an issue that has been managed at the point of sale by the sign-maker, and has affected a very small subset of customers,” says French.
A colour-change or vinyl graphic does not raise the insurance premium in the majority of cases, and so is mostly a box ticking exercise of declaring the change. However, where graphics and stickers point to the fact the car is souped-up in some way, including racing numbers and enhancement badges, then this can affect premiums. Although considering that those customers who want this type of customisation are petrol-heads willing to spend thousands on performance upgrades, then a small premium adjustment is unlikely to scare them off.
Want a Morgan Spitfire? Well, now you can request one with a bespoke livery.
This application of Metamark’s digitally printed vinyl showcases that vehicle graphics has shot out into a myriad of niches
However, the new legislation does point to one very interesting fact. There are now so many vehicle wraps and colour-changes on our roads that government and insurers actually have had to cater for this trend—a very encouraging clue to the ongoing growth rate of the market across the UK.
Instead of having materials that ‘work just’, they need to ‘just work’”
But what of the development trends gathering momentum within the materials itself? French weighs in: “There are two main streams of development. The first is to make sure that materials are keeping up with the rapidly evolving hardware in terms of digital print technology and that they simply do exactly what it says on the tin.
“Printers keep getting faster and they can increasingly lay ink down at finer resolutions. This has a knock on effect in that the material has to be up to scratch to make the best of these enhancements. This means that instead of having materials that ‘work just’, they need to ‘just work’. And this is because right down to their chemical formulations they have been designed with the latest production and application processes in mind. Metamark keeps a contestant eye on even the smallest tendrils of development in the market, especially in terms of design and creative trends.”
Metamark’s chief executive officer, Paul French, advises that increased order volumes across the board speak to a growing vehicle graphics and wrapping market
French concludes by explaining that the second area of development is on highly durable products that can wrap a fleet of work vehicles and allow them to retain their resale value by protecting the brand new finish underneath. Returning to his previous point, one of the biggest drivers of the creative end of the vehicle wrap market is the idea of ‘mass customisation’. This trend is sweeping all fields of consumerism, and basically means that you buy a commoditised product, but are able to put your own individual stamp on it from an array of customisable options. Covering everything from laptops to trainers, it has also obviously reached vehicles. A perfect example is the new Peugeot 108, which can be customised with an array of both paint effects and vinyl bling.
As referenced by French, another key driver of the sign industry is of course wide-format digital printing. But in addition to printers getting faster, more reliable, and capable of much finer print resolutions, they are also becoming a lot cleverer. With many top players in the field experimenting in this area, a good example of one which has made good use of the latest technology to automate and monitor processes is Roland DG. Chief among these developments in 2014 was the VersaExpress RF-640, aptly launched with Albert Einstein lookalikes on all its promotional imagery.
The Roland VersaExpress RF640 was launched by the wide-format printer manufacturer to high-acclaim, and has been one of its most successful products. With remote software control as standard, it represents the spearhead of a new automation trend in the sector
“This has been phenomenally successful and really has hit that sweet spot of the market place due to its performance balanced with a sub-£10,000 price. This is especially true of those who already have equipment and want to add in extra capacity to their operation,” says Rob Goleniowski Roland DG UK’s business manager of Sign and Graphics.
He continues: “Being able to keep your eye on the machine when you are not there gives, smaller companies especially, peace of mind to leave it working and walk away to do other work, allowing you to both improve productivity and efficiency.
If the right material is on the roll you won’t even need to be in the same room to set a job running”
“You are already starting to see odd enhancements come in from a variety of manufacturers. Wide-format’s future will see the printers no longer need a hard wire connection, and you won’t necessarily have to have a computer sat next to them, you could do the controls off a tablet or phone. In fact, if the right material is on the roll you won’t even need to be in the same room to set a job running.”
Goleniowski also reveals a very interesting insight into the general state of the UK sign industry, explaining that its ink sales are up across the board, which indicates a higher volume of output as a whole from the sector. He expects this trend to continue into 2015 and beyond, based on his own experience of market cycles.
O Factoid: The birth of numerically controlled machines, predating computer numerical control, is generally credited to John T. Parsons. Working with Frank Stulen, he developed a system using punched cards, number maps, and human relays that was the prototype system which eventually led to the computer controlled printing, cutting, milling and routing systems in use today. O
Another key area of growth for the market in 2014 that has been swamping all the headlines is the growth of the soft signage sector. This is testified to by each and every major player in the sector launching new equipment. This includes Roland DG, which unveiled its first ever dedicated dye-sublimation printer in the form of the Texart RT-640.
“A trend that has already reached an initial level of maturity on the continent, it has come across to the UK now. It is a market that has huge potential and is growing massively and now for the first time we have a dedicated end-to-end solution that will allow a much greater swathe of sign companies to bring production in-house,” comments Goleniowski.
The final key trend in this core sector has been the ever more intense battle being waged between its all-round players. In no particular order this includes the likes of Agfa, Mimaki, Roland DG, Epson, Mutoh, Seiko, EFI, Durst, HP, Canon, and Fuji. And this does not even scratch the surface of the myriad of niche sector players who concentrate on one technology bracket, be it flatbed like Jetrix and Gandy Digital or textile printing such as Hollanders or MTEX—not to mention the growing numbers of Chinese-manufactured machines with new UK-based distributors.
The Wallace and Gromit’s Thrill-O-Matic ride at Blackpool Pleasure Beach needed a quirky prop vehicle to enhance the experience. This is just the type of commission that is seeing the wrap market go from strength-to-strength says Metamark’s Paul French
“It is brilliant for the customer because it forces us as manufacturers to raise our game and provide an enhanced value-add service,” says Goleniowski, who adds: “In some ways it is actually better for us because increased numbers of competitors highlight just how comprehensive our extended offering is in comparison.”
The top sign man at Roland DG does however urge caution for those considering an investment in 2015, advising them, ‘not to forget the basics’. Of course the latest advances will give advantages in all sorts of areas, but he advises sign-makers to make sure they are taking care of the bread and butter that the company and its reputation was built on.
Remember what got you to where you are today, keep your eyes open for opportunity, and don’t be afraid to take that next step”
Goleniowski concludes, summing up perfectly the battle plan sign-makers should adopt for what is sure to be a bumper year: “Remember what got you to where you are today, keep your eyes open for opportunity, and don’t be afraid to take that next step.”
Brownings predicts ongoing textile boom
The sales director of sign industry supplier Brownings, Richard Vincent, has predicted that 2015 will see an ongoing increase in the volumes of soft signage being produced.
His view is based on the boom in sales for the company’s products in this area, including its flagship Tex Sign display frame system, which has received high acclaim from the industry since its launch at Sign and Digital UK 2012.
“We have now finished development of a 60mm profile illuminated system, which we are very happy with. It so important to develop a product that really is fit for purpose, as so many systems out there have just been bodged together and end up just bleaching out graphics, or changing the colour profiled of graphics as they don’t use the right lighting for the job,” says Vincent.
He adds: “We are now back-lighting with either LED-modules or light sheets, as the market is always demanding thinner and thinner products. So we responded to that, and it has been a really interesting project marrying materials, framing systems, and cutting edge lighting technology to create one cohesive product.”
The company has also produced a double-sided, non-illuminated version of the Tex Sign system, which is now available off the shelf and is produced in-house by the company. Vincent explains that this significantly reduces the cost of the system while significantly improving its quality and short-notice availability.
“Overall we have seen major growth in 2014, and I see this upswing in demand continuing to climb in 2015. I think this because there is increasing awareness in the market of soft signage, and its attributes,” says Vincent, adding: “We have also evolved to become very efficient, and we are able to turn jobs round very quickly. As a company we also work in partnership with our customers, and if we can help them grow and improve their professional image then we grow with them.”
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