Longview is a northeast Texas city of about 80,000 residents about 60 miles due west from the Louisiana state line. But, for a city our size, the local industrial base is fairly healthy and remarkably diverse, though the oil and gas industry is certainly a major factor. Eastman Chemical, LeTourneau Manufacturing and even Caterpillar are some of the players here, and we do work for them as well as many other smaller manufacturers and fabricators making everything from satellite antennas to street sweepers, and from oil storage tanks to granite counter tops.
None of this makes Longview all that unique, as many mid-size cities have more industry than one might realize, even if they are small shops and factories. And, for the enterprising sign shop, many of these small manufacturers are potentially very good clients who are glad to do business with a local vendor if they can provide them the sign and marking products they need when they need them.
And, perhaps the most important aspect of all this, is that the types of work that small manufacturers routinely need fits well with the three characteristics we like to see in the kinds of work we do and want to do more of.
What are these three all-important criteria? Simply put, I want to build our sign business on work that (a) has a consistently good profit margins, (b) which I can train someone else to do, and (c) has a good likelihood of being repeated regularly in the future. If all of the requirements are met with a group of clients and segment of our business, we are going to try hard to move forward in that direction if we can.
For local manufacturers, and even those that are not so local, the typical jobs we are asked to do are really fairly simple, but require certain types of equipment and know-how, as well as commitment to providing prompt, reliable service and quality workmanship. The products we make are a wide variety of decal products, usually simple and digitally printed (laminated and unlaminated), and small metal signs, tags and placards, either screen printed, engraved or both.
These metal products can be anything, from company logo medallions to engraved serial number or registration plates, to simple numerical tags for labeling hundreds or even thousands of valves in an oil and gas facility.
Back before the first of the year, we produced one order of 3,000 aluminum tags, about 1″ x 3″ in size, each engraved with a six digit number, and then powder coated flat black over the engraving. These valve marking tags had to be readable but totally non reflective because of the flame detecting devices that continually monitor the facility they would go in. Our client was a local division of ExxonMobil, and they were happy with the product we made for them and we expect they will need a lot more.
For that job we made a special rack of several aluminum carousels that held many tags for powder coating. Each rack contained four disks or carousels, each holding 30 tags, for a total of 150 tags per rack and several racks could be powder coated (or painted) at one time.
Figuring out the best way to do something for projects where the number of items may be hundreds or even thousands is sometimes the fun and interesting part of these jobs, but once done the repeat performance is as simple as been-there-done-that.
Nearly all the decals we do for our manufacturing clients are quite simple and digitally printed, some we know to keep in stock for quick and profitable turn-around. From brand name decals, high-performance vinyl transfers, to safety markings, all of them will likely be re-ordered time after time.
Some decals may be designed to be placed on a machine to record a service schedule and need to be written on. Virtually all decals can be written on with a “Sharpie” marker, but if the client wants to be able to write on them with a ball point pen there is a simple way to make them “ink-receptive.” We simply print the decals on normal stock, then before weeding and cutting individually, they are sprayed with a light coat of SuperFrog Clear in an aerosol can.
When the clear dries, they are weeded and cut up as we normally would. This “ink receptive” coating actually works pretty well and allows the service guy to write on them with most any pen he happens to have in his shirt pocket.
A small amount of the decal jobs we do are screen printed, which we do in-house. But, a lot of the metal tags, name plates, and serial number plates are screen printed. Even a small and very basic manual screen printing setup would do these jobs, which are printed with enamel inks (NazDar 5900 series) and air dried. They must be allowed to dry and cure well, which takes at least two or three days or longer before we feel good about handling them or boxing them. They will be dry in less than 24 hours, but are easily scratched until cured completely.
These metal signs or tags are typically printed in strips one tag wide, but several tags high and later cut into individual items. Some will be applied permanently with double stick tape, but others will be riveted to their product during assembly. This means we will have to punch holes in their corners or some other pattern before giving them to the customer.
We have an old Roper Whitney sheet metal hole punch, Model 7A with a bench mount, and we built a base to attach it to. This base has an elevated table top that allows the work to be flush with the surface of the punch, and it also has a guide made of 3/16th steel that can be moved around and simply clamped in place to locate holes exactly in any place we need the holes to go. This simple and infinitely adjustable old unit has been used to punch holes in many thousands of small tags, signs and placards.
Some of these metal tags for our manufacturing customers are either totally or partially engraved. We may just be engraving a serial number and a date, or we may engrave the entire design through anodized, painted or powder coated finishes.
Depending on what type or thickness of metal we are engraving on, and what kind of coating we are engraving into, we will have to make adjustments in tooling, or depth, or rotary engraving rpm’s and so forth. But the fact that we can provide engraving services gives us an edge on getting the jobs our manufacturing clients need. Virtually all of these jobs will be repeated as well, so the settings we use and every detail of how the job was done is saved in the computer file we worked from. And the pricing we set will allow us to maintain a good profit margin on work that may involve a good bit of time for a skilled member of our staff to do.
Over the years we have picked up more and more of the types of work illustrated in this article, though we seldom go out and make sales calls. These jobs are a valuable part of the mix of signwork that comes through our shop, and I am sure we could and should be out selling and finding a lot more of them.
Though we rarely go out and sell, one thing we have tried hard to do is meet the requirements of our clients and be consistently reliable. I am certain small to mid-size manufacturing companies would rather deal with local vendors if they could, and a number of times through the years we have been called when they have run out of stock from their usual source and don’t have time to wait. Typically, we can setup and produce that job for them, and meet their deadline, and once we do it is seldom that don’t get to do that job from now on.
And that is just how we like it, because we know these types of work, and this group of clients is very key to our growing sign business. And I believe there is a lot more out there for us and for other sign companies who see the value in serving their local manufacturing facilities and are committed to being the reliable vendor these clients are always looking for.