Over the years, vehicles have evolved, modes of transportation have diversified, and the needs of road users have become more varied. To keep up with the shifting requirements of the people navigating our roads, traffic sign manufacturers and Department of Transportation (DOT) sign shops have adapted their processes to be more flexible and efficient — primarily with new digital sign printing capabilities. This type of printing allows fabricators to quickly and cost-effectively produce unique, custom, or small-batch signs. This is a significant advantage over traditional analogue screen-printing processes that are more labor intensive and costly to set up, and require large production runs to make the job cost effective.
More and more, the highly regulated traffic industry is taking advantage of the efficiency, flexibility, and inventory reduction that digital sign printing offers. And as the technology behind the inks, sheeting, overlaminates, and printers in the process has evolved, so has the ability of sign fabricators to meet the strict retroreflectivity, durability, and performance standards of the traffic industry while offering the flexibility and customization that commercial industries like airports, amusement parks, and sports venues have long enjoyed.
Digital printing is an ideal solution when you need signs that have custom colors, text, or graphics, or in situations calling for an expedited printing timeline. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits.
Traffic agencies face a variety of situations that could benefit from quick and efficient traffic sign production:
The involved setup processes and large teams required to execute a screen-printing job typically lead to long lead times, making it almost impossible to quickly replace or add necessary guidance for road users when they need it.
With digital printing processes, a fabricator can quickly set up a print job — even one with highly custom requirements. A single operator can run multiple high-speed printers and a handful of employees can manage the process from beginning to end. This typically results in time savings, shorter lead times, and the ability to expedite projects when the situation demands it.
Another downside of the labor-intensive setup and execution required in traditional printing processes is that it’s typically only time- and cost-effective to produce large quantities of the same sign in a printing run. Because it’s inefficient to produce small quantities of a sign, traffic agencies need to keep a backup supply on hand in case a sign needs to be quickly replaced.
Sign fabricators with digital printing capabilities can print signs on-demand, and they can print one or two or 200 unique signs just as easily as printing 200 copies of the same sign. This reduces the amount of inventory that traffic agencies need to store.
Additionally, screen printing processes require that colors and graphics are laid down one layer at a time. This makes it challenging to create custom signs or add custom graphics to regulated signs. Digital printing allows fabricators to print regulated traffic colors and custom graphics at the same time. This gives traffic agencies the ability to order highly customized signage for their jurisdiction. Opportunities include signs with images of local attractions to increase tourism or custom graphics on road signs to set an area apart as a first-class destination.
When we’re talking about traffic signs that provide critical guidance and help keep road users informed and safe, it is important for transportation agencies to consider adopting a digital sign printing standard that will meet the regulated traffic industry’s strict performance, quality, and durability standards.
There are a few key components of digitally printed traffic signs that impact their durability and performance. Over the years, 3M has improved the process and technology behind these components, and we continue to advance the performance of our materials to ensure digitally printed signs meets the requirements of the regulated traffic industry and favorably compares with screen printing, all backed by our top level warranty.
In the next section, we’ll take a closer look at each of these components and provide recommendations for specifying digital printing on your traffic sign projects.
When you’re determining whether this is the right solution for your application and to specify digitally printed signs for your project, it’s helpful to understand the components that go into a digitally printed sign.
High-visibility retroreflective sheeting optimizes the amount of light that is reflected from the sign to road users. This makes the sign more visible in a range of conditions, particularly at night. 3M’s latest ASTM Type XI retroreflective sheetings uses 100% efficient full-cube prismatic technology to reflect almost 60% of available light back to motorists. This is almost double the amount of reflected light compared to the next highest sheeting grade. Whether you’re specifying screen printed or digitally printed traffic signs, it’s important to understand your retroreflectivity requirements to ensure you use sheeting that will be visible for the people using your roads.
The quality, durability, and color fastness of the inks used in the digital printing process are crucial to the initial and ongoing performance of a traffic sign. 3M has years of experience working with the regulated traffic sign industry, giving us a deep understanding of the color requirements for signs and the materials used to produce signs. Backed by this insight and expertise, we’ve adapted the inks and optimized the processes used to deliver peak initial performance and improved long-term performance.
Printer performance is a key aspect of the sign fabrication process. It’s important that the digital printers used to produce traffic signs are tested, qualified, and optimized to perform well over time with the sheeting, inks, and overlaminates used in the printing process. This helps to produce a high-quality, consistent sign, time after time.
Digitally printed signs are protected with a full overlay film that covers the printed image and the sheeting. This overlay helps the sign provide the required retroreflectivity. But more importantly, the overlay protects the sign to increase its durability and performance over time. Advanced overlays films are available and offer graffiti resistant for easier removal of many common types of graffiti.
Once you’ve decided that digital printing is the right solution for your application and you’ve determined your specifications, it’s best to partner with a certified sign fabricator that has digital printing capabilities. It’s also important to understand where your fabricator gets the sheeting, ink, and overlaminates they use in their processes. The manufacturer who supplies the fabricator with these key components can offer additional confidence that the signs will deliver on performance and durability.
The traffic industry is highly regulated. Traffic signs must meet strict color and visibility requirements. It’s important to understand the requirements when you install new signs. It’s equally important that the signs continue to deliver consistent, reliable performance over time as they’re exposed to environmental conditions.
To predict the performance of materials in environmental conditions, they should be put through rigorous environmental testing. This can be done in advanced weathering facilities, in real-world environments, or a combination of the two.
3M’s weathering facilities use state-of-the-art weathering science and machinery to look at how light, heat, and water affect different materials. This can then be used to predict the durability of traffic signs in different environments. Testing the signs in a range of real-world climates and environments can help predict how different conditions affect the performance of different materials. Ideally, your sign fabricator will partner with a manufacturer who has tested their sheeting, inks, and overlays in both weathering facilities and real-world environments. This will provide the most comprehensive understanding of a sign’s durability and performance in different real-world conditions.
Weather testing also helps manufacturers and fabricators determine the expected lifespan of a material. Based on this expected lifespan, they should offer a warranty on their products to give you confidence that your signs will continue to perform over time.
For example, 3M offers a matched component system warranty, the 3M™ MCS™ Warranty. This top-of-the-line warranty for regulated traffic signs verifies that the sheeting, inks, overlays, digital printers, and printing processes used to create your traffic signs are optimized to produce high-quality, high-performance signs, and the finished signs will continue to deliver the performance you need throughout their lifespan.
3M has over 80 years of experience engineering solutions that improve road safety and meet the strict standards of the traffic industry. Backed by that experience and grounded in science, we’ve continued to partner with industry experts, valued stakeholders, and sign fabricators to advance the technology behind digital printing — including next generation retroreflective sheeting, UV curable inks, protective overlaminates, high-quality printers, and printing processes that are optimized to efficiently deliver high-performance, high-visibility, long-lasting traffic signs for your roads.