Illuminated or non-illuminated, face-lit or halo-lit, channel letters have emerged as one of the most popular signage types these days, presenting an image that truly reflects the personality of any brand.
There are a variety of channel letters, illuminated or non-illuminated, that help the brands to communicate with its clients through custom-made fonts or script stating the company goals. Owing to their being cost-effective attention grabbers with limitless design potentials, these letters have emerged as the choice of every brand. In order to explore the trends and potential, we, at Sign & POP World, decided to bring forth the latest in the league. For this, we interacted with a few industry stakeholders, collected their valuable inputs and tried creating the picture in 2D letters (words).
Delving deep into the history of illuminated signs, we found that the concept is as old as the signage industry itself. Glow signs have been part and parcel of advertisements, especially in the tier 1 cities across the world since time immemorial. But, with continuous improement in its look and feel over the years, a noticeable change can be seen while making a comparison between the latest and the ones from past.
Nonetheless, when the age-old 2D signage turned into glow signs and then gradually moved on to become a 3D one, it must be having its own chronological order, into which we don’t want to go any deeper. Rather, we would bring forth future trends based on the development taking place in the contemporary signage market, following the introduction of high-end signage materials and cutting-edge technologies.
There should not be any doubt that the Illuminated channel letters these days are ruling the roost. Thanks to the international brands and their vision to carry on an identity with which these are known globally. In fact, it is the passion for maintaining a surreal look across the globe as each of these brands has its very own font, style, colour, and visual effects when it comes to creating an image for market presentation.
No wonder, 3D channel letters today have emerged as a professional and catchy way to promote any brand or product. Visible and identifiable from far distances, the channel letters can be customised for any size, shape, colour and style, with deep sidewalls illuminated impressively using embedded LED modules. These could be individual letters on a wall or a raceway for any type of installation.
The solid 3D letters made of 25mm acrylic with LED rope or bar fitted in the groove are emerging as the cynosure of some of the corporate giants like Domino’s, Dunkins and JCB. This is followed by metal letters wherein, unlike the trendy aluminium, the letters made of SS304 grade covered with acrylic to provide beauty & aesthetics are slowly picking up. The letters so prepared are mostly water-proof and dust-proof.
Flooded with Multiple Choices
Changing trend in channel letters brings exciting opportunities for both – signage makers as well as their customers – who have more options with improved quality, design, illumination and life span. Today, sign makers offer vast varieties of channel letters, designed and constructed as per the trends, standards and specifications prevailing in the market.
The market is so dynamic that a variety of different materials keep popping up at certain intervals. For instance, acrylic face materials with more colour choices are prevalent in the channel letters market. Reverse lit channel letters are the models in which lighting is directed at the back, which in turn allows light to flood the wall where the letter is mounted. This kind of channel letter is also termed as ‘halo letter’.
Further, the channel letters are fabricated from various materials – solid acrylic sheets, metal channels, metal sheets, etc. Metal can be aluminium, stainless steel or mild steel depending upon the brand image, place of installation, and of course, the available budget. Mostly, aluminium is preferred over other metals by the high-end brands mainly because it does not rust and remains maintenance-free for a rather longer period.
The sheets & channels are cut and maneuvered using CNC router or water jet cutting machines, followed by bending machines, etc. Today, sign makers in India producing channel letters opt mostly for the latest technology for the efficiency and accuracy in cutting a wider range of materials, leaving no requirement for the secondary finishing job in the follow-up.
Going by the opinions of industry experts, the market is still getting ready for metallic channel letters as a big chunk is yet to be tapped. When it comes to the choice of material for the purpose, acrylic is preferred by those looking for cheaper solutions. When compared with metallic letters, the difference of total cost of the end product is around 40%.
At the same time, metal letters are far more durable when compared with acrylic, wherein LED goes running while the letters (acrylic) lose their shine or rather life. In the case of metal, the life of letter is there, while LEDs stop working. Rusting can be overcome by regular cleaning of the letters. Even if gets rusted, it can be easily cleaned and then the sheen of the metal letters are retained for longer than usual.
The new channel letters are slanting and can be floored instead of getting walled or hanged. These letters can be produced with the existing machines after the needed change or updates are done. This is a new technology and soon it will be available here.
Metal & Acrylic
Though all channel letters are custom-made from metal or acrylic/polycarbonate, but the former is now taking rapid stride to outnumber the existing major i.e. acrylic or poly carbonate. There are valid reasons for this. Quite a few industry stakeholders suggest that the letters made of acrylic or poly carbonate don’t provide perfect finish to the end-product as these are usually extruded by hand, while the metal ones are made using advanced machinery that are mostly precise and accurate. “Soon, acrylic letters would be taken over by metal ones mainly because of the cost factor followed by maintenance. Also, it is actually faster to make metal letters than acrylic ones,” elaborates Gurjeet Singh Sawhney, Director, Ubiquitous Signs Pvt. Ltd. (USPL).
USPL founded in the year 2004, though its promoters have been in the Signage and Graphics Industry since 1997. Ubiquitous has been a prominent name in manufacturing, supplying and distributing high quality, cost-effective and customised sign solutions of all kinds. The Primary objective of USPL is to be the best available resource in the signage and graphics and to achieve this has been our constant endeavor, by offering quality solutions and services.
Almost similar sentiments were reflected by Amanmeet Singh of Art & Creations, but with different reasons. “Metal was facing a roadblock i.e. absence of technology. Now that the technology has entered, we can see the proliferation of metal into channel letters,” suggests Singh. Art & Creations is a channel letter solution provider company that offers machinery for the extrusion letters, the cost of which starts at Rs. 7 lakh and goes up to 25 lakh depending on the functionality and operational efficiency. The machine is sourced from Chinese manufacturer TaiPuSheng (TPS) Technology Co. Ltd., China. “Till date, we have sold 50 machines across the country, most of which are sold for SS, followed by aluminium. Some people trade only in SS channel letters, while some in aluminium and some ask for both along with extrusion. So, we have solutions for all sorts of customers.”
Established in the year 2014, Art & creations are one of the leading manufacturers, wholesalers, traders, retailers, and service providers of metal (SS/aluminum) channel letters, LED boards, LED letters and much more. “The range of products that we offer is of premium quality that boasts of client’s confidence. We consider passing each and every finished product through stringent product inspection processes, in order to ensure that deliveries made at our client’s end are absolutely flawless,” avers Singh.
Meanwhile, the company has recently announced the introduction of Fenglu aluminium profiles meant for fabric display, signage and channel letters. “Fenglu is one of the largest aluminium extrusion manufacturers in China and is also the country’s aerospace partner. Made of virgin aluminium, Fenglu is the latest choice of profiles for extruding high-quality channel letters available in the Indian signage market. These profiles are cost-effective and far better in quality when compared with any conventional profile,” says Singh.
Vijay Wadhwa, Director-Marketing, Creative Signplus, doesn’t agree to this consent and insists that acrylic letters still have a very good space in the signage market. He segregates both materials based on their intrinsic properties. According to him, acrylic would majorly be ruling in the retail segment while metal will keep its stronghold in the world of corporates. “For retail, channel letters made of acrylic are more preferred for its basic criterion of high-brightness illuminated signs, which otherwise is not possible using any metal. However, the corporate is more inclined towards the metal ones for their look, feel, and appeal that suits their brand image.”
Creative Signplus is signage manufacturing company based in the country’s national capital with rich experience of 40 years catering to the signage needs comprising signboards, name plates, hospital signs, floor directory signs, modular signs, laser engraving, metal signs, glow sign boards, neon signs, LED signs, etc. “Our product range is exhaustive and continues to expand with time. We stand committed to serving the sign industry with the latest technology,” asserts Wadhwa.
The market for metal or acrylic or poly carbonate will run depending upon the choice of the clients. “All these channel letters can be custom made in plastic, metal or acrylic given the choice and available budget,” says M. Luqman Faraz, Director, Faraz Signage System. Explaining the attributes of signage meant especially for outdoors, he adds, “It’s a matter of choice as the channel letters for building and outdoor business signs are either made of PVC, acrylic, or metal, primarily of stainless steel. But one thing is common that all these are guaranteed not to fade in colour, deteriorate, crack or go brittle over time under the effects of various environmental pressures.”
Faraz Signage System ideates, manufactures, installs and services/repairs almost all types of LED signages for the exterior and interior applications. An expert in the channel letter signs with over a decade of experience, the company has grown up to handle all the advertising needs right from the illuminated signs to large freestanding displays. “We offer signage solution that includes in-house concept design, pre-production design, assembly and final application. We illuminate and help enhance the company/brand,” says Faraz.
Nitin Srivastava, Managing Worker, City Advertising, insists that acrylic is here to stay. “We are very confident of the future of acrylic’s use in making letters, which would brighten further in time to come,” he asserts, adding that the company has now come up with liquid acrylic, which has a lot of advantages over the traditional acrylic letters. “The material doesn’t go waste at all. We have set up the equipment comprising a bending machine, CNC cutting machines, and a curing machine with an investment amounting to Rs. 20 lakh, and are offering the best and the latest channel letters solutions to our customers in India. In fact, we are pushing the technology itself instead of offering the finished solution. Though the acceptability as of now is little less but soon it would gain the attention of the quality-lover corporate and other retail brands,” he assures.
Divulging on the contemporary trait, Srivastava says that City Advertising has the best range of acrylic 3D letters, acrylic 3D letters with LED light, acrylic 3D letters with back ACP and acrylic letters with module lights. “We offer a wide range of Acrylic 3D Letters with LED Light. It is designed and manufactured by our skilled professionals using best quality and latest technology. Owing to its three dimensional feature, the 3D letters are clearly visible. Custom Acrylic 3D Letters with back ACP help create an upscale impression and are a powerful way of expressing the company’s brand image through sophisticated signage. These signs give business the exposure that is needed to succeed.”
Letters Collaborated With LEDs
LED is a technology that brings in a big transformation in the realm of illuminated signage and display segment. In addition to all the latest machineries/technologies designed precisely to cut, craft and bend channel letters, LED has drastically improved the channel letters segment of the industry, offering an all new market. Channel letters may have maintenance issues of some or other kinds in the long run depending upon the materials used, but the incorporation of LEDs in channel letter construction finally complements the illumination part of this new-age glow sign.
“It was in 2004-05 that LED channel letters entered the market. We brought GE LEDs in India through imports as the company didn’t have any presence here at that point in time. There were a few clients to whom we tried explaining why they should opt for LED signage in place of neon signs. Eventually, we succeeded in our mission as we got converted few big brands like World Trade Tower, World Trade Centre, Intercontinental Hotel (now Lalit), etc.,” informs Wadhwa.
According to him, till 2008, GE was the only brand prevalent with its LED module. At that time, the company was looking forward to more business, following which it set up an office in Gurgaon. “It was that time when Samsung entered with its GOQ brand in the market at a much lower price band and started giving tough competition to GE,” shares Wadhwa, adding that now there are a wide range of LEDs – with varieties to choose from. “Brightness and warranty level have been continuously on the surge. They started with IP65 and now they have moved on to IP67- IP68.”
Over the last decade, LED technology has evolved so much that it allows for highly visible and effective signs. Coupled with electronic functions, LED signs combine brightness, low power consumption, long life and low maintenance. LED technology can light up letters of a sign or can create a halo or backlit feature around the 3D letters inscribed in a signage. There are quite a few service providers who have created their respective masterpieces by exactly meeting the demand of their respective clients. It facilitates designing the type of lighting for a sign that really gives the brand a desirable image.
These letters physically distinguish a brand or an image where it appears. The thickness and the projection from the surface to which it is attached bring forth a picture of elegance and solidity. Made from Poly Carbonate, Acrylic, Aluminium, SS, MS, or Brass, these letters are cut-to-order and illuminated with the very efficient new technical solutions comprising LEDs for energy saving offering adequate power meeting the specific requirements of a particular brand.
Illuminated LED signage is needed throughout the day, except for the IT sector where daytime factor still works. “Today, a large chunk of the channel letters is for shop-in-shop or within the mall wherein the ambient light is pretty high. Even in the sky signages that are installed on the building-top, conventional things are slowly going away. Clients are looking for dynamic channel letters, wherein there is motion in the light. It is installed with controller to bring the light effects. In the malls, channel letters are illuminated throughout the day or at least for 12 hours, while at places like airport, it is 24×7,” explains Sawhney.
When it comes to illuminating channel letters, Satyam Techno is a name known for its imported as well as indigenous quality arrays of LED modules for 3D letters. The company, majorly a supplier of components to sign makers, doesn’t often assemble the LED signage except for some customers, who look for readymade ones. “We offer LED Modules at every price band starting from Rs 2 to Rs 500 meeting the needs of almost every fabricator depending upon the applications. We not only sell the modules but also educate the market about the features and attributes of various modules that differentiate one from another – both in terms of quality and applications,” says Abhijeet Bose of Satyam Techno. He adds that the aim is to do informative trade so that it can help sustain the clientele in the long-run. The company represents LED modules and power supply brands such as ADS, Union, NC, GOQ, Meanwell, Osram, GE, Startec, Rishang, Premium, etc.
Bose informs that Satyam Techno offers LED modules which are made with high-technology Taiwanese chips featuring anti-static design to produce high brightness, low-power consumption, extremely minimised heat radiation and wide beam angle. It has recently augmented this by adding Tremai LED in its list of offerings. “We now have the expanded portfolio wherein all the brands are positioned at different price points, thus, eliminating the competition quotient. There is no question of competition among the brands which we are offering to our customers. For instance, brand like ADS offers a 3-year warranty for its modules, while Tremai is positioned a little higher with 5-years warranty,” he explained.
Satyam offers LED strips that are assured for quality. “These strips find their place in myriad applications such as channel letters, acrylic solid letters, signage or advertisement billboards, cove lighting, in-shop signs, edge-lit acrylic panel lighting, etc. Our LED modules, owing to their unmatched quality and cost-effectiveness, have been approved from various leading corporate brands like Vivo, Oppo, Samsung, Radisson, etc. to be used in their respective signage projects,” asserts Bose.
Art & Creation offers LED modules from Wililux UK. Singh says, “Innovation is a continuous process at Wililux, and hence, keeps introducing new and efficient products at regular intervals. For LED modules, we have different variants. The most recent addition in the module portfolio is 3.7W LED module, which is attributed for higher brightness, more efficiency and better efficacy targeted at lettered signage to be installed in high-rise buildings. Powered with Osram chips, these modules are far more cost-effective and versatile. With these attributes, it is aimed at minimising the number of modules by not less than eight times that goes in channel letters. This is actually phenomenal, making the job far easier and flawless for the signage makers.”
“We do have certain special kind of modules for soft signage. These are LED bars that come in various colour temperatures to facilitate varied but specific solutions, with same brightness. This is to offer flexibility to our valued customers to choose from,” he adds.
The Contemporary Trend
The trend is pretty dynamic right now. While the retail industry is the biggest taker as well as promoter, the market for channel letters has been pushed by the international brands coming to India. “With the advent of FDI, almost 300+ brands are expected to hit the market. They already have very mature and established specifications for the channel letters they have been using for their branding activities. Together they are going to define the future trend and shape of the channel letters in terms of materials, finish, look, feel, effects, etc., as they won’t dilute the image they have invested years in creating,” says Sawhney.
Speaking about the trend, Singh brings a rather different angle. He suggests that Acrylic is slowly going out from the market as it is losing its sheen against that of metal. The trend is slowly but steadily picking up because of the technology introduced in this segment. “Incorporation of machine has not only added speed to the manufacturing process, but also it has enhanced the productivity manifold,” he explains, adding that owing to the introduction of machine, the turnaround time has reduced to its lowest. “The set of letters, which was produced in a week-time, is now being made in a day. Added advantage is the precision & accuracy, which hand-made acrylic letters can’t deliver.”
Another trend is of antique ones wherein Faraz Signage System has its own identity among the select corporate entities across the country. The company boasts of its innovations and design capabilities and is committed to making signage that looks spectacular year after year. “We are asked to carve out channel letters with unique amalgam of artistry and the antiquity taking the concept away from simply being letters indicating a brand and turning it in to a piece of aesthetic to be secured for ages,” asserts Faraz adding that imagination is a must for all this to happen. “Unless you imagine, creativity doesn’t come to the fore to help you produce the art which may become the masterpiece.” he says thanking his design team that it has the expertise of translating his ideas in to tangible substances.
According to him, when it comes to contemporary trend, LED Neon is leading the way for lettered signage. The company has recently delivered a high-profile project of the Indian franchisee of UK’s Toy Room, a night club. “The client wanted us to deliver the project in original Neon Sign. But there were a couple of challenges like the brightness of the original Neon which can’t be put on a dimmer, hence, it remains uncontrollable. And since the number of such signage was more than usual, there was every possibility of lighting outburst inside the club. Also, the Neon Signs may not be able to adhere to the high-base music system. Considering these, the client asked for an alternate solution to which we offered these LED Neon lights.”
He further elaborates, “But this wasn’t final as even the Neon LEDs were not meeting the specific objective of getting the required level of glow for the graffiti inscribed on the side walls of the night club, which have faces of renowned personalities. So, to bring the needed impact, we applied a particular diffuser over Neon LEDs to let it emit only blue colour, which is apt for glowing the side walls. The outcome of this project is such that the client has made up its mind to replicate the presentation in its head office in London, UK.” Apart from these, the company has also delivered Sky Signages for few of its clients. The one that is in the pipeline is for Garam-Dharam – the restaurant chain run by veteran actor Dharmendra. It is to be installed at a height of 150 ft with a diameter of 25 ft.
Another name in the favour of LED Neon is Wadhwa from Sign India. “We are currently working with LED neon in place of LED module and the result is brilliant. It offers variety of possibilities as it can even be fitted without any support of channel for in-house signage. It allows experimenting innovative ideas and facilitates playing with those ideas. The signs, thus prepared, can be lettered signage or can be shaped in the form of an object. But for big letters, we are applying acrylic as diffuser to make the letters more visible,” explains Wadhwa, adding that the takers of acrylic and metal channel letters are different.
Bose suggests an inclination of the signage fraternity towards Neon LEDs. “There are a lot of enquiries for the newly introduced LED Neon. It would change the way lettered signage is perceived. It is flexible enough to be bent in any shape – big or small – and hence doesn’t really need any support of any channel. It allows users the needed flexibility to facilitate carving out any illuminated design,” he says adding that it is perfect for in-shop or window branding for which he anticipates a brighter future. “This is because of its availability in smaller sizes of 50 meter-length and can be easily cut short to fit in the requirements.”
“LED neon is not appropriate for outdoor but can be used for inside applications for merchandising, show windows, branding in the pubs, etc. Their scope is totally different than that of channel letters. The LED neon, therefore, is just adding to the market and not competing,” reasons out Sawhney. To its support, Srivastava adds, “LED Neon is not a success anymore, especially in the outdoor applications because the colour doesn’t remain stable for long.”
The question is whether these specifications put forth by the brands met by Indian LED signage makers? In most of the instances, it’s a ‘no’. This is because the market doesn’t have the quality of the materials needed to meet the given specifications. “The materials here are not capable of delivering the kind of brightness these international brands ask for. Unfortunately, we still do not have the access to the materials available abroad, when it comes to quality and the light diffusion capability that they offer. We are using acrylic or poly carbonate, the quality of which is not apt for the required level of diffusion, while the materials abroad are specifically designed for LED diffusion,” states Sawhney.
So the challenge is simple – to meet the specifications asked by the client. But for this, either the materials are imported or the brands agree to compromise with their Indianised versions – whatever way it is possible. For the initial phase, while the foreign brands get busy establishing themselves, they don’t agree to compromise. And to meet the specifications, the need is to import the materials from outside to match the quality they ask for. Eventually, they agree to indianise the presentation especially in terms of materials as the volume increases.
Singh reinstates almost similar points. “Sometimes, clear specifications are provided by the clients, while in some cases we offer them the options. When it is for international brands, they have their own specifications to follow. And if somehow, they don’t get what they want, they allow modifications according to what is available with the service providers here in India. Take for instance the hotel industry, wherein some want their channel letters in combination with poly carbonate, while some with acrylic, which not every service provider can deliver. This is mainly because of the limited resources or expertise,” he elaborates stating that his company has a fully equipped facility to provide solutions in various types of finishes for international brands in line with their specifications.
Meeting the client’s specific requirement is a big challenge – be it on the part of materials used or the illumination or effects required. “The successful completion of any project is when the client is fully satisfied with the execution,” he asserts, adding that the quality of materials available in India doesn’t perfectly match with those outside, especially in European nations. “Perfectly meeting the criteria set by the clients becomes a costly affair in most of the instances because the materials used are mostly imported.” Faraz states that despite all that, he chooses to deliver whatever the clients – be it national or international – want keeping the cost factor aside for some time. Once met, it opens brighter future prospects.
Sawhney is confident of an ever illuminated future for channel letters. “The future is far brighter than what it looks like and will remain there for decades to come. Firstly, there is a lot scope in replacement market where flex is still being used. The channel letters would completely replace the flex signage market in time to come.” According to him, major chunks of the sectors like retail, automotive, and hospitality are already taken over, while the rest is in the pipeline. The next conversion would be that of small shops which, being part of the unorganised sector, is largely untouched and the change is happening only at individual level. Once convinced, all these together will push the market by two or three times.
Moreover, one of the main sectors is yet to take off towards conversion i.e. banking. “They are the financial people and have a very laidback approach when it comes to switching over to trendy signage. Imagine if the entire banking sector decides to go for channel letters, we anticipate a huge market in waiting. I am sure it will happen. It is just a matter of time.
We understand that the signboards so prepared are not simply a signage but it’s the brand image. In most of the signboards, a combination of metal (mostly SS304), acrylic, flex and LEDs are used to master the overall effects. For some, vinyl is pasted on acrylic to shape a thermoforming signage, while there also comes lettered signage illuminated with colour-changing LEDs bringing a different feel altogether. All thanks to the international brands that have come with their own specifications, which the signage providers here need to meet. Further, with increase in the number of hotels, restaurants, office buildings, amusement parks and other strategic public places; 3D channel letters have become the most common applications when it comes to carrying forward a brand image.
The future is pretty safe as the application of channel letters has no defined limit. The requirement for consistency in branding is a must and to achieve this, the need is to gain constant public attention. And to address this specific need, the channel letters are a great solution to raise the attractiveness of any brand. It is a proven fact that these letters instantly add sophistication to the image of any company and can enhance footfall manifold. It also allows great visibility from a distance when used on the roofs of buildings or business facades, allowing brand to remain associated with the perception of strength and credibility with the brightness. Put together, all these have great potential for signage makers which they need to identify and grab!