3D Printing in the Architectural Sign Industry

June 22, 2022

Technological advancements have had a major impact upon the sign industry the past ten years…in printing, cutting/fabrication equipment, software applications and more. Even AI has entered our world, transforming digital signage and improving how content reaches target audiences.

3D printing is another relatively new(ish) technology around which there always seems to be a lot of interest and discussion.

Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with how 3D printing is being used within industries such as medical, consumer goods, aerospace and automotive. Transformative! But, how is 3D printing impacting and being utilized within the sign industry?
3D Printed Turbine
3D Printed Skeleton of Foot
Dimensional Graphics / Channel Letters
This would be the obvious, right?
Industrial-grade 3D printers have been put to use printing dimensional graphics and channel letters for the past several years. While this is not APCO’s area of expertise, we don’t believe the 3D printer manufacturers have seen this technology take off with signage fabrication as quickly as expected. I imagine this will evolve over the coming years however as equipment prices drop and production speed improves.
Displays / Novelty Items
We’ve also heard of sign companies investing in 3D printing equipment with the intention of producing dimensional graphics in-house but finding greater benefits producing custom items for unique, project-specific applications. These may include items for retail environments or tradeshow displays...or just miscellaneous crap! We all know how much a lot of people love crap.

And/or, there’s also the benefit of using 3D printing just to create a sense of excitement and buzz for a sign company…helping elevate its brand and broaden its reach within the market.
3D Printing in the Architectural Sign Systems Industry
There may be a time when interior sign plaques and systems are entirely 3-D printed, but from a cost and production time standpoint, I think that may be a while. We’ll see.
Even with that aside, 3D printing has had a significant impact on our business the past 7-8 years. We run several printers virtually 24/7 and use them primarily in two ways:

1. Small-Run Plastic Parts
Injection molding can be very expensive and time consuming on the front end, with mold fabrication and then high-quantity minimum orders. Price per part is of course low, but unless using large quantities over an extended period of time, injection molding just doesn’t make sense.

3D printing has provided a perfect solution for us in this regard. It’s enabled us to print a wide range of specialized parts needed within our modular systems. In addition, we’ve been able to quickly design and print components to suit the specific needs of a particular project.

While most of these 3D-printed components are behind the scenes, they often have a major impact on the product’s performance and functionality for our customers.

2. Prototyping
APCO has a long history of product development, and product design has always been our passion.

Historically, developing a new product was a slow, expensive and time-consuming process…and there were risks involved.

With many of our products incorporating aluminum extrusions, we would sometimes have to gamble that a particular design that worked on paper was going to perform as expected in reality. In these cases, we would pull the trigger on an extrusion die without any real testing. Risky, but sometimes necessary. Generally that worked okay, but if design modifications were needed, that was an expensive endeavor!

In this capacity, 3D printing has been a game-changer for us, dating back to 2014 with the development of our award-winning Elevate system. Since then, we’ve relied heavily on 3D printing for our exterior AluTek system and interior Aspire, and Legacy systems as well, proving out functionality and performance before sinking money into dies and/or molds.

And, with these in-house prototyping capabilities, we’ve reduced the time from design conception to market launch by anywhere from 30%-50%!

While not yet at the point of 3D printing entire signs, I think that time may be coming. In the meantime, we’ll no doubt continue to expand the role of 3D printing in our business as much as possible. Always exciting to see the evolution of technology in this industry!