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This is not your father’s neon sign

Like the debut of neon lettering, leaps in technology are creating a revolution on storefronts across Canada. Advances in digital printing, LED lighting and HD video displays, to name just a few, are transforming the world of business signage.

Take the $26,000 creation that Landmark Sign Ltd. of Langford, B.C. recently made for The Rock Wood Fired Pizza & Spirits in Red Deer, Alta. It includes hand-painted aluminum, bevelled PVC on the face of the channel letters "to give them a forged looked," and real bricks glued to sheet metal, said the company's production manager, Richard Jennings.

"Everything we can do is in that sign," Mr. Jennings said.

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One of the biggest changes in the industry is the debut of cheap digital printers, said Tim Bezner, president of Westmount Signs & Digital Imaging of Waterloo, Ont. These printers can create two- to three-metre-wide photo-realistic graphics, and their affordability has enabled small companies to enter the sign market, resulting in fierce competition.

Video displays are making waves of their own.

"The top trend in signage right now would be LED message displays," said Karl Murray, a sales representative with Fine Lines Signs. His company recently installed a $120,000 sign at Toronto's Seneca College that has two high-definition LED message centres.

A sign can range from $50 for a poster to $20,000 to $200,000 for a splashy pylon sign with multiple message centres, industry experts say. The pricier signs are relatively rare, however. "A lot of big box stores use them," Mr. Murray said.

LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, are also catching on. Low energy LEDs are replacing neon to both illuminate sign faces and form individual letters.

Technology has even changed how sign makers create those letters, known in the business as channel letters. In the past, they would be painstaking welded into shape. Now sign makers can fashion them more efficiently out of flexible aluminum rolls.

"Instead of welding them out of aluminum, you bond them … and illuminate them with LEDs as opposed to neon," Mr. Bezner said.

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Much of the creative magic at sign shops today is done with computer-controlled, or CNC, router tables. These machines take designs created using computer software and cut them out quickly and accurately from space-age materials.

"Routers have been around for as long as electricity has been around, but once they added the CNC aspect of it, then you can get really exact, repeatable results," Mr. Bezner said.

Another innovation is laser cutting, which Mr. Bezner says enables intricate details beyond the capability of a router table.

"You can really create amazing things with no skills," Mr. Bezner said. "That's the biggest thing. If you've got somebody who knows how to design in Adobe Illustrator, once you put that into the computer, the craftsman has been removed from the equation to a certain extent."

There is still creativity in the design and fabricating, Mr. Bezner added. "You just don't need the fine arts capability. That's the difference."

When Alf Styan of Triad Sign in Victoria started in the sign business 30 years ago, he might have spent an entire day hand-painting the store hours on the window of a McDonald's restaurant. "Now we just print them and stick it," Mr. Styan said.

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Triad still bends glass tubing for neon signs. But that is also becoming a casualty of technological advances. Triad used to keep a neon bender fully employed in the 1980s. But today, the company might go an entire week without bending any neon.

"It's a trend that will come back again," Mr. Styan said.

Tammi Derkson, however, disagrees. Neon will one day be obsolete, predicts Ms. Derkson, sales manager for Access Signs Inc. of Longueuil, Que. The glass tubing is fragile and often breaks during transport. And neon uses far more energy than LEDs, which are coming down in price. "There's very little maintenance on LEDs," Ms. Derkson said.

Green power is also catching on. For about $25,000, Thunder Bay Sign & Install Inc. put up a sign for the local Catholic school board that includes a message centre and is powered by wind and solar energy.

"We just did a supermarket, which is solar and wind powered as well," said Mr. Boshcoff, president of Thunder Bay Sign & Install.

Brett Aho, creative director for Electra Sign Ltd. of Winnipeg, said the sign industry is going green like many other industries. That even applies to those revolutionary printers.

"We've just bought a totally green large format HP printer that uses a new technology that uses latex inks," Mr. Aho said. "It's all water-based, environmentally safe. You don't need masks or filtration systems. Very cool stuff."

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