Wide-format Printing: How the sign industry was revolutionized

by all | 4 December 2015 2:38 pm


Photos courtesy Gerber Scientific Products (GSP)

By David J. Gerber
Editor’s Note: This article is based on excerpts from The Inventor’s Dilemma: The Remarkable Life of H. Joseph Gerber, a new biography by David J. Gerber about his father, who founded Gerber Scientific Products (GSP) and earned hundreds of patents for his inventions over his lifetime, ranging from the variable scale to the automated cloth cutter. His company became particularly well-known in the sign industry before he passed away in 1996.

As he exhibited when inventing the variable scale, Joe Gerber could look at an object that performed a certain function and reinterpret it as an entirely different kind of technological object. In his analysis of apparel manufacture, however, he demonstrated his inventiveness was broader than the arena of physical objects alone. By 1969, he had developed a method of invention that enabled him to recognize an opportunity conventional analysis overlooked by not considering the scope and complexity of reinventing multiple functions together. As he explained, market researchers had framed the issue of automation only in terms of “replacing a manual cutter with a computerized cutter;” they had not considered “the systems view.”

This method of inventing systems was characteristic of the ‘independent’ inventors
of the 19th and early 20th centuries, most notably Thomas Edison, who devised not only an incandescent lamp, but an entire system for lighting; his light bulb was merely one component in that system.

Like Edison, Gerber was motivated by a “drive to innovate” and he appreciated the “stimulating effect” of the interaction between components. In designing his automated cloth cutter, for example, he sought to simplify the traditional cutting path and improve accuracy, which allowed him to automate layout and sewing operations. During the 1960s, as he introduced innovations for automating the engineering of aircraft and automobiles and producing circuit boards for consumer and industrial electronics, he had come to believe in a method of creating systems as a means of realizing his aspirations.

Although he never used a personal computer (PC), Gerber rethought entire systems of design and manufacturing for the computer era. He reshaped the processes of manufacturing many of the products that influence our everyday lives: the clothes, shoes and eyeglasses we wear, the maps and signs that point our way, the books and newspapers we read and the colour TV screens and billboards we view.

DAVIDGERBERfig.P39 Bobbin, 1986[2]

Inventor H. Joseph Gerber’s business first became well-known in the sign industry in the early 1980s, shortly before this photo was taken.

Turning drawings into digital information
When Gerber began building machines in the 1950s, skilled labour and inflexible machinery represented the basis of almost all production. Computers, which until then had been used mainly to store and computer numerical data, rapidly gained such power that they could generate graphical shapes.

“The real breakthrough came in the 1960s, when we worked out how to connect a computer to a plotter, so it was possible to turn a drawing into digital information,” he later recalled.

Initially, that expertise was useful to the few organizations that needed the precision and data-manipulation ability of a computer and were willing to pay a high price; but Gerber was one of the first to foresee the industrial possibilities of the computer in design and manufacturing across many industries. The use of his computerized precision plotting in aerospace enabled the production of the first jumbo aircraft and on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, his automated drafting machines at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas, were used for communications analysis and to display information graphically within the mission control centre.

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Addressing tradition
Gerber’s company also transformed signmaking and outdoor advertising. Until the 1970s, most signs were made the same way they had been for centuries, with paintbrushes, chisels and other hand tools. ‘Letterhead’ artists in small sign shops painted or carved letterforms and illustrators known as ‘walldogs’ hung from roofs on a scaffolding, holding a sketch in one hand and a paintbrush in the other. Within a decade, however, the outdoors saw swaths of high-fidelity vinyl images.

David Jopson Logan, who had a technical role with Gerber’s company, embraced the idea of making signs because his group understood lettering from their experience with computerized drafting machines. Dan Sullivan, an engineer, visited sign shops with Logan’s support and stood for hours observing sign painters executing their tasks. The creation of custom signage, he reported back, was an art form.

DAVIDGERBERfig.P16 APPRAPM, ca. 1960[3]

The Gerber automatic point plotter and reader, invented around 1960, was the first truly digital machine to plot graphics, used by the military to indicate enemy placements on maps and charts.

Most sign painters’ repertoires derived from a few memorized fonts, so they had to copy letterforms for complex typefaces from style books. For that process, a sign painter would place a projector on a table across from a sheet of paper posted on a wall and trace the image of each letter. To lay out the sign, he or she would string the characters together with appropriate letter sizes and correct spacing, which could mean hours of measuring and adjusting.

After completing the tracing, the sign painter would transfer the pattern from the paper to the sign surface. This technique, known as pouncing, entailed perforating the paper along the tracing to define the pattern as intermittent holes, then placing the paper on the sign surface and blowing chalk over the perforations, so the pattern was transferred as chalk dots. Finally, he/she would paint the sign within the outline of those dots.

Logan realized he could digitize those fonts, put them on a floppy disk and use a dot-matrix printer that created an image by moving the printhead in a serpentine ‘raster’ motion like a typewriter guide. The machine would allow the user to type the desired message into the computer and print the properly sized and kerned outline of the message on paper to be pounced.

After receiving favourable feedback on the idea from sign shops, Logan and his team began working on a prototype system, which included digitizing two fonts, writing software to scale and kern and mounting the pattern printer together with a small computer on a wooden plank.

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A twist in the plot
One day, a local sign painter, Gordy Longmoor, saw the prototype. Sullivan asked his opinion and he said it would be better if, instead of printing letter outlines, it “cut them out of vinyl.” He explained that although most signboards were painted, some began as adhesive-backed sheets of vinyl, loosely bonded to a carrier liner. By scoring the vinyl sheet in the shape of the pattern outline and then removing (weeding) the excess material, the signmaker was left with an image in vinyl. The signmaker would then cover the separate characters with a wide strip of transfer tape, lift the tape that held the characters in fixed orientation and transfer the vinyl-on-tape construction onto the sign surface. Removing the tape left the vinyl graphic on the surface.

Longmoor asked whether a machine could be made to cut the outline of a letter. The engineers said there was a name for such a machine: a plotter.


The ability to digitize fonts would save hours of signmakers’ time.

Logan’s team had already invested three months in developing the raster printer prototype and, furthermore, the vinyl cutting plotter had drawbacks; the image would be limited to the colours of the available sign vinyls and some manual steps would be necessary, such as weeding the excess vinyl from the cut graphic on the liner sheet. Still, the method seemed viable. An automated vinyl cutter would allow users to compose characters quickly in various fonts, sizes, arrangements and appearances. A small drum could move the vinyl web back and forth as a knife carriage slid crosswise over it in co-ordinated motion. It would be simple and inexpensive. Logan assembled his team on a Monday morning and announced he was cancelling the raster printer project. By noon, they had started designing and building what became the SignMaker.

Sign shops were captivated by the machine, with its screen for previewing text, selection of font modules, keyboard to input, size and kern characters and small, lightweight console, which could be taken to a sign site in the trunk of a car. The vinyl that ran through the machine was 381 mm (15 in.) wide and perforated along the edges with holes that fit onto sprocket pins in the machine’s feed rollers.

The initial production run in 1982 sold out on the first day. Eventually, cumulative sales of the machines would top 30,000 units around the world.

The SignMaker changed sign manufacture from a paint-and-paintbrush system to one based on computers, data, plotters, scanners and vinyl. Because the signs were inexpensive, they became ubiquitous.

A new era for billboards
In addition to its automated sign lettering system, GSP developed the world’s first computerized billboard painter under contract to Metromedia Technologies, which had entered the outdoor advertising industry in the 1960s.

Most colourful billboards in the early 1980s were hand-painted, either by factory teams in huge indoor spaces or the aforementioned walldogs outdoors. Each billboard took days to paint and, over time, the wood chipped and the colours faded.


The initial run of the SignMaker in 1982 sold out in one day.

Also, billboard advertisers were mostly local. Metromedia’s CEO, John W. Kluge, sought to attract firms interested in national campaigns. They required colour fidelity, image quality, product consistency and low cost, which hand painting could not provide.

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Completed in 1986, GSP’s machine propelled droplets of liquid paint onto a substrate of durable vinyl, which could be rolled and shipped to the billboard site.

“The product is of such quality of colour and fidelity to underlying artwork,” Kluge would later say, “that a universal demand for advertising displays was created, throughout the world.”

An edge in the market
In 1990, at the peak profitability of GSP’s sign products, Logan retired as president. He would continue to consult with the company on a part-time basis on product development matters until 2003, 50 years after Gerber had hired him.

The sign business was left to Ron Webster. For years, he and his cohorts had discussed
a ‘hamburger machine’ that would allow a signmaker to create the iconic image of a tan bun, brown patty, green lettuce and red ketchup. Creating such a colourful image was possible with a vinyl cutting plotter, but tedious. To form the graphic for each layer of colour, the operator had to lift and weed each scrap of unused vinyl from the carrier sheet by hand, employing tweezers or a knife tip, and then transfer the vinyl image, colour after colour, registering each layer of cut vinyl as precisely as possible on the sign surface. This task was arduous even for single-colour signs with large shapes; it was virtually impossible for small text or detailed graphics. Photographic images consisted of many coloured dots that were too small to be cut, weeded and transferred.


The Edge was the first mass-produced printer for the sign industry.

One day, research engineer Jay Niland was investigating a method to make the screenprinting stencils (masks) that cover portions of the mesh screens through which rollers or squeegees press ink. GSP sought to create the masks directly from digital data, to avoid the traditional, cumbersome, film-based photographic process. Niland used a soldering iron to transfer a pigmented film—known as ‘hot stamping foil,’ commonly used to decorate small folding cartons—to a plastic-lined screen. Afterwards, a swath of colourful foil adhered to the screen’s surface.

“You mean you can directly image onto plastics?” asked Logan, attending a review a few days later in his consulting role.

Niland explained the thermal transfer process “worked great.” Logan then asked if he could transfer the foil onto sign vinyl and, if so, whether the transfer would be scratch-resistant. Niland returned to the lab and indelibly transferred the pigment from another piece of hot stamping foil onto a sheet of standard white sign vinyl, demonstrating the viability of printing durable images for outdoor applications.

Niland’s original discovery had been accidental, but when he mentioned it to the others, they immediately recognized it as the missing piece to complete their hamburger machine. Among the engineers at Niland’s presentation was Chuck Hevenor, vice-president (VP) of software. Within a few weeks, he drafted a specification that detailed precisely how to construct the machine using the thermal head of an ordinary fax machine. The product became the Edge, the first mass-produced printer for the sign industry.

David J. Gerber has been a fellow at the Yale University School of Management and has handled legal, technical and business responsibilities at GSP as an officer and director. His book, The Inventor’s Dilemma: The Remarkable Life of H. Joseph Gerber, was published in October by Yale University Press. For more information, visit yalepress.yale.edu[7].

  1. [Image]: http://www.signmedia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/PC_2015_380.jpg
  2. [Image]: http://www.signmedia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/DAVIDGERBERfig.P39-Bobbin-1986.jpg
  3. [Image]: http://www.signmedia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/DAVIDGERBERfig.P16-APPRAPM-ca.-1960.jpg
  4. [Image]: http://www.signmedia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/PC_2015_376.jpg
  5. [Image]: http://www.signmedia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/HJG-102.jpg
  6. [Image]: http://www.signmedia.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/HJG-069.jpg
  7. yalepress.yale.edu: http://yalepress.yale.edu

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