Sign of the Times

To increase throughput and overcome persistent labor challenges, a major sign manufacturer invests in fiber laser cutting technology with tower automation


On an empty stomach, there’s nothing better than seeing the Culver’s sign from afar. Like a beacon in the night, consumers’ attention is drawn to the many kiosks, billboards and eye-catching displays that indicate food, boarding and more is nearby. Even if a driver or pedestrian isn’t craving a Butter Burger or in need of a hotel room, these signs serve a variety of purposes, creating brand awareness, relaying promotional offers or simply enhancing the aesthetics of their local area.

These valuable advertising tools are at the heart of Springfield Sign, a full-service company that designs, builds, installs and services professional, custom signs in a variety of materials, sizes and designs. Based in Springfield, Mo., and nestled in the state’s Ozarks region, Springfield Sign has created signs for dozens of high-profile clients, including Walmart, Culver’s, First Watch Restaurant Group, Andy’s Frozen Custard, Scooters Coffee and GoHealth Urgent Care, just to name a few.

Springfield Sign, a national branding and sign fabrication company, has an impressive customer list, which includes high-profile clients, such as Walmart and Culver’s.

Local and beyond

When the company first opened its doors, it ironically didn’t have much signage – it was just a small one-man operation where the founder and CEO was creating vinyl lettering and other small signs in his garage. Today, Springfield Sign is a large national branding company with customers located throughout the lower 48 states.

“We’re a third-generation, family-run business,” says Trey Watts, vice president of sales. “Originally, we decorated truck trailers with vinyl lettering and stuff like that, so we weren’t an electrical sign maker at all. But Mark, our CEO, is an electrical engineer by trade, so slowly but surely, he got drug into bigger projects and into the electrical side of sign design. Fast forward to today, and we’re now more of a national branding company than anything else.”

While Springfield Sign still works with local businesses, about 75 percent of their signs are destined for outside of the local market. Trey Watts says they take jobs as small as the little decals that go on the glass doors of a business to full-blown, 100-ft.-tall structures that line the country’s interstates. The company has a wide-ranging portfolio, to say the least.

Industries served include retail, hospitality, general commercial and healthcare. And unsurprisingly, Springfield Sign does a lot of work in the restaurant sector.

“That’s been a great area for us – we just seem to meld well with that type of client,” Trey Watts says. “By now, we really understand their needs and expectations. With every type of client, however, there are intricacies for their segment.”

To produce all of those signs, about 170 employees work at Springfield Sign with the bulk of the sign fabrication happening in its 150,000-sq.-ft. corporate headquarters location. A few secondary offices and a smaller facility in northwest Arkansas handle sales and some light manufacturing.

Writing on the wall

To keep up with its ever-growing customer base, Springfield Sign recently invested in a 6-kW Optiplex Nexus fiber laser and FT150 tube laser from Mazak as well as a Remmert tower automation system with a 28-pallet feed system. Prior to these investments, the bulk of the metal cutting was taking place with two CNC routers.

“We were at a point with our operational side where we really needed to increase our throughput,” Trey Watts explains. “In the sign industry, the standard method for cutting has typically been a CNC router operation, but we knew we needed something new, so we started researching equipment and attending manufacturing equipment trade shows.”

And that’s when the operations team at Springfield Sign was first introduced to laser cutters. It didn’t take long for them to discover that one modern fiber laser cutter could do the work of eight CNC router machines. And it didn’t take much longer after that to land on the Optiplex Nexus fiber laser, which was installed almost two years ago. Jack Watts, a production engineer at the company, explains.

By investing in a Mazak 6-kW OptiPlex Nexus fiber laser and Remmert tower automation system, Springfield Sign drastically increased its throughput and decreased its turnaround times.

“When we did our last estimation, it would require seven to eight routers to equate to the productivity of a sheet laser running with automation,” he says. “The theory is based on two considerations: the speed of the machines and the reduction of manual labor.”

For sheet metal, Springfield Sign’s most common thicknesses in high volume are 0.05-in. and 0.08-in. aluminum 5052. The company also relies on the full range of the Nexus Laser’s capabilities to cut from 0.02-in. thin metal to 1-in-thick mild steel. To compare the cutting productivity of a laser versus a router, Jack Watts offers the example of cutting 0.063-in. aluminum on a CNC router with a 3/16-in. bit. Reliably, he says the router can run a feed rate of 125 in./min. whereas the same material on a sheet laser can be reliably run at a feed rate between 1,650 ipm and 1,800 ipm.

“The automation factor of not having to load and unload the sheet after each cut reduces the most lost time in cutting,” he explains. “For each CNC router, we would need at least one operator, and they would have an approximate non-cutting time of 1 to 2 min. even when running very efficiently between the finish of each cut and the start of a new cut.”

Based on these figures, it should come as no surprise to hear that six months after its investment in the sheet laser, the company invested in the Remmert tower system.

Towering heights

“Over the last few years, everyone has been aware of the strain to retain and hire talent,” Trey Watts says. “So, we looked at our key bottlenecks, especially related to the cutting department, which is pretty much the first step in any project. We discovered that our major bottleneck was having two machines feeding 20 downstream fabrication stations.

“They had to be constantly loaded and unloaded, so we started looking at automation,” he adds. “With automation, we could run the new laser machine 24 hours a day unmanned. We run three shifts, though, so the laser runs on that third shift unmanned. It served as a great way to increase efficiency without having to add a bunch of staff working odd hours or overnight.”

The tower holds all of the company’s flat stock inventory, including 0.032-in. aluminum and steel sheet up to 1.25 in. in thickness. Operators can queue up the material on the laser machine, which is then pulled off the tower’s rack and onto the cutting table. Once the cutting is completed, it is automatically offloaded.

Springfield Sign’s most common thicknesses in high volume are 0.05-in. and 0.08-in. aluminum 5052. The company also processes 0.02-in. thick metal through 1-in.-thick mild steel.

“The tower allows us to spool up to 12 jobs, hit go and let it run,” Trey Watts says. “That was the gamechanger. The sheet laser by itself is a cool and efficient piece of equipment, but the automation tower is what allows it to run unmanned.”

Beyond working overnight, Jack Watts elaborates on the efficiencies the new automation delivers.

“The tower and the load/unload system have drastically improved the dead time between cuts down to a consistent 30 sec. for the two pallets to swap and start the next cut automatically,” he says. “Additionally, it doesn’t require operator input to continue running, which eliminates the small amount of time of an inattentive operator not hitting the start button the second it is ready.

“Another unique factor is the precision of the automation system,” he adds. “We can run 100 sheets or more through the process, and the unloader consistently stacks the finished cuts perfectly aligned to a pallet. This makes the move to the next station easier and faster.”

More complexity, capacity

Not long after the purchase of the tower system, Springfield Sign went on the hunt again to expand its capacity. In addition to cutting sheet material, the company also handles aluminum square tube, custom aluminum profiles, steel square tube in higher volumes as well as C channel, angle, round pipe and rectangular tube. With the Mazak FT150 tube laser, not only would Springfield Sign expand its capacity, but it would also expand the complexity of the work the company could do.

A new Mazak FT150 tube laser provides Springfield Sign faster, easier processing of tube, pipe and other specialty profiles.

“Instead of just running flat sheets, which we process a ton of, we now have the ability to cut structural shapes and extruded tubes for some of the programs we have in-house,” Trey Watts says. “It increased the efficiency and accuracy of some of our cuts as they’re no longer manual. Some of the cuts that we do have tolerances down to a thousandth of an inch. You just can’t do that manually, so having this equipment that allows us to hit those tolerances and repeat it has been a huge benefit.”

And, of course, it’s not just the increased capacity and accuracy that drove Springfield Sign to the tube laser. Compared to the company’s old process, the tube laser’s speed is like night and day.

“We would drill or cut by hand different parts and features that would take about five to six days to produce the quantity we needed,” Jack Watts explains. “With the tube laser running the same part, we can accomplish the same amount of work within about seven hours of machine time.”

The nuts and bolts

Considering the OPTIPLEX NEXUS fiber laser was Springfield Sign’s first foray into this type of fabrication equipment, Trey Watts says his team received extensive training from Mazak. He adds that the support they’ve received since then has been critical – and appreciated.

Springfield Sign’s customers require the full range of tube and pipe material, including aluminum square tube, custom aluminum profiles, steel square tube, C channel, angle, round pipe and rectangular tube.

“The sign making industry isn’t necessarily known for this type of equipment, so it’s been great to have Mazak as a partner along the way – first by teaching us how to use it and then by supporting us if we ever had an issue,” he says. “If we noticed anything – even just a small thing that didn’t seem quite right – we’d call, and a tech would be walking in our doors within 48 hours.

“They’ve been a great partner, and honestly, that’s what made the purchase of the tube laser so easy,” he concludes. “Each piece of equipment has its own positives and negatives versus the competitors’ offerings, but we had that great support with the sheet laser, so we felt comfortable that we would get that same support with a second machine. Every salesperson in the world will say that, but Mazak proved it.”

Mazak Optonics Corp.

Springfield Sign

Get industry news first
Subscribe to our magazines
Your favorite
under one roof