In fact, if you design and print signs and graphics for area businesses, churches, and civic organizations, then you’ve already got clients with the occasional need for an award, a commemorative plaque, or a marker.
“The guys doing awards and trophies have started producing signs too,” states Mike Fruciano, vice president of distributor LaserBits. “So if you’re sending customers down the street when they need something engraved, you could risk losing their sign business, as well.”
Fruciano’s business focuses on providing materials and training to compete in the engraving and awards market. He believes sign suppliers who add the capabilities of an engraving system enjoy a distinct advantage over other aspirants to this service category.
“Ninety percent of the challenge to getting started in engraving is in learning the layout software,” explains Fruciano. “But they already know that software because it’s the same design programs they’ve been using for signs and graphics.”
With laser engraving, design files are converted to grey scale for rendering on the engraver. “The process is totally transparent to the user,” remarks Fruciano.
Derek Kern, vice president of laser cutting and engraving systems manufacturer Kern Laser Systems agrees. “The process of getting a file to the laser is as simple as using a standard desktop printer,” he says, noting that knowledge of design softwares such as CorelDRAW, Illustrator, AutoCAD LT, and PhotoGRAV are important areas to master. “Simply design your file in this software and print the file to the laser system.
“These types of systems already include a user-friendly interface for setting laser speed and power.”
If the ease of transition doesn’t seem enticing enough, consider the profit potential. Margins of 60 to 70 percent on some engraved products are routine, according to Fruciano. For promotional items, like engraved pens, mark-ups can run to four times cost.
At supplier Gemini Incorporated, Marketing Director David Welch says, “Profit depends on how complex, creative, and aggressive you are willing to get, as the properties of materials like heat-bendable lend themselves to be used in endless ways.”
Sign producers eager to pursue these opportunities have two options: (1.) purchase a system, software, and materials; or (2.) partner with a wholesale supplier.
To bring these capabilities in-house, Welch explains, “All it takes is a rotary or laser engraving machine, [devoting the] time to learn its operation, and a reliable supplier of engravable sheets. The investment will enable shop owners to offer additional choices—another set of options and solutions.”
Kern recommends an entry-level machine capable of cutting through 1/2-inch acrylic as a starting point. “With high-speed engraving capabilities, that machine will add additional sales opportunities for engraving name plates and ID tags, as well as awards,” he says.
As with digital printers, prices have fallen, but cost depends on system configuration and capabilities. Hardware vendors offer several tiers of systems, and most can be used with a variety of materials for a diversified new service.
Deciding which system and what capabilities you’ll need may only become evident over time, after sampling demand for a range of products and services. For that reason, the safer start may be to partner with wholesale suppliers of plaques and awards.
This approach offers several benefits.
For instance, this solution presents a no-cost opportunity to test demand before investing in the hardware. You can offer a variety of products before choosing your niche.
In fact, you may discover you can profit handsomely from plaques or awards without equipment. David Wommer, president of cast and engraved plaque wholesaler A.R.K. Ramos, sees strong profit potential in these specialty products. “[Shops] can get a 40 percent profit margin easily,” he observes. “All they have to do is a little paperwork on their end. We take care of everything else—layout, design, even shipping to their customer.”
Wommer says that these days you can put just about anything on a plaque these days, including a photograph, and there are a lot of application options (such as markers for building dedications). “You may just need to make your clients aware that you can provide this when talking to them about their signs,” he notes.
At wholesale engraved plaques and awards supplier Pella Engraving, Vice President Jeff Vroom says sales opportunities are reflected in the types of awards it produces. “We see a lot of work coming through for corporate awards and for manufacturers’ sales awards to dealers,” he says. “Some can be for several of the same award, all that’s different is the name.”
The awards can be whatever the client requires. “We’ve got equipment for sandblasting on glass, etching on metals like zinc, and engraving on any type of metal,” describes Vroom. “A lot of times, all it takes is to tell your customers, ‘We can do this, too,’ and you’ll start to see some orders.”
Dixie Graphics provides etched plaques and awards as a wholesaler supplier to the sign industry. The company’s specialty is deep-etched zinc, as an alternative to cast products. “We can offer a more budget-friendly product for the end-user,” says Vice President Matt Williams, noting that production costs can be half the price of a comparable cast plaque. “With etched metal, we can also do photo engraving, for much more detail, at tremendous cost savings and better lead times.”
The savings make these plaques an effective solution for increasingly popular donor recognition programs. “Even a small donor program might need twenty-five or thirty plaques,” says Williams. “With etching, it’s cost-effective to make each one of them different.”
And, that’s just one market. “There are just so many different applications for plaques and markers,” comments Williams. “You have to decide what you want to go after and have a marketing strategy behind it.”
Know And Show Options
Those interested in expanding into this area should take inventory of the different types of plaque materials used and talk to a couple of reputable suppliers. “An informal survey should provide insight into the range of awards products, costs, applications, and if this is an endeavor worth pursuing,” says Williams.
Because awards may not seem to be a logical extension of the sign business, marketing can make or break this endeavor. “The biggest problem can be there are simply too many markets for laser engraving,” notes Fruciano. “The best approach is to look at how you can offer more products to existing customers.”
To promote awareness, add a gallery of engraved products, plaques, and awards in your office and on your Web site. And be sure to use samples that are available from wholesale suppliers.
“Because the products we can produce are so diversified, sometimes people need to hold something in their hand and see what it looks like before they appreciate how they could use it,” suggests Vroom. “Whenever you’re visiting a customer, there’s an opportunity to make customers aware. But you have to present it to them, so they understand.”
Focus efforts where it makes sense—for the business and clients.
“If you’re doing a lot of vehicle wraps, you might want to start with engraved key chains or by talking up awards for car shows,” suggests Fruciano. “For those doing a lot of photo printing on signs, laser engraving of photographs is a natural vertical market to start with.
“But this needs to be a complementary service to what you already do and who your customers are.”