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Software Trend Adds Omph to Routed Signs

Bored with two-dimensional computerized machining? Add a little oomph to your signs with three-dimensional auto-sculpting software.

By Jennifer LeClaire

If you have gone as far as you can cutting flat two-dimensional (2-D) shapes on your computerized router, a new machining trend could add new flare to your work.

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  • Auto-sculpting software allows signmakers to produce complicated three-dimensional (3-D) models that give your work greater visual impact ­ and greater value.

    While 2-D and 2 1/2 -D are still the staple of any sign shop, you can take your business to new heights with next-generation software and tools designed to produce more sophisticated signage.

    The Capabilities
    So what can you do with auto-sculpting software that you cannot do with your 2-D set up? Lots.

    Most router software controls the machine in one of two ways. There is the traditional 2-D that is designed for cutting out material. There is also 2 1/2-D that gives you limited control over the third axis for specific engraving functions. Auto-sculpting software allows full control over all three axes of the router, allowing range of motion that can lead to 3-D design work limited only by the imagination of the craftsman.

    Most routers on the market today are capable of doing intricate 3-D milling. Auto-sculpting software, also called modeling software, allows you to easily transform 2-D drawings into 3-D relief carvings, giving signs a true hand-carved look.

    Auto-sculpting software allows the craftsman to apply realistic textures to the sign’s background. Take wood grain, for example. True, sandblasting gives a realistic wood grain look on wood, but it does not work as well on sign foam or other futuristic materials, such as polystyrene foam, acrylic, Medex, aluminum, and other millable plastics. Auto-sculpting software with its full range of motion produces realistic wood grain looks on various materials.

    Auto-sculpting software allows you to create impressive, high quality products starting from 2-D bitmap or vector-based artwork. The result is realistic effects -- even on sign foam. Combined with classic techniques like carving, gilding and hand painting, auto-sculpting software represents a new direction for signmakers who want to create powerful images that influence viewer perception.

    The Benefit
    Besides creating upscale signage that adds revenues to your company’s bottom line, auto-sculpting software can also save time and money.

    Designs can be loaded and routers can be programmed to produce 100 identical signs, for example, whereas 2-D machining would require carving them one by one.

    As with any software, once the template is created, you can produce unlimited numbers of sign components with the touch of a button days, months or even years later. But one unique benefit is scalability. Once a design is created it can be milled in several different sizes by simply scaling the design elements and creating new tool path files.

    "The software and router will never replace all of our artistic abilities, but it certainly tackles the more mundane tasks around the studio, making us much more efficient and therefore more profitable,” says Bill Hamilton, Northcoast Signworks’ head craftsman.

    It also eliminates the need for skilled labor because the computer controls the machine. This can free up your more experienced craftsmen to work on sign parts that require more hands-on work. Auto-sculpting software runs virtually unattended once the calculations are entered and the toolpaths set.

    "When you realize that most sign projects are double-sided or involve multiple pieces, you can quickly see how using the software and the router can save time,” says Jim Hamilton, president of Northcoast Signworks. “Our craftsman can now work on other important components of a project while the router effortlessly does its job."

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    The Misconception
    Signmakers typically look at how long a sign takes to cut versus the selling price to determine the profitability of a job. But the misconception about auto-sculpting software is the notion that you have to machine the entire sign on the router. Working with 3-D and realizing its benefits, then, requires a mindset shift.

    Think of 3-D machining as accenting the larger sign. For example, you can machine smaller parts in 3-D to accent the core of the sign, which may be machined in 2- or 2 1/2 -D.

    This horse’s head was designed to be incorporated as the centerpiece of a larger sign that was created for a ranch in South Dakota. The horse head was milled from cedar wood and the finished piece measured approximately 24"x24".

    Likewise, the Officer's Row sign was designed for a new housing development. It is a reproduction of a 2-D logo. The image of the flyer was applied as a bitmap to a dish-shaped object. The wings were modeled. The Officer’s Row medallion in front was created from two oval planes that were distorted to produce a curved shape in the z-axis. Finally, the lettering was applied to the medallion to finish the piece. This was fabricated from 1.5" high-density urethane foam.

    The Vendors
    Working in three dimensions is certainly more complicated than 2-D design. However, auto-sculpting software is designed to work much the same as 2-D programs and vendors offer training sessions to help you get the maximum benefits from the software’s capabilities.

    There are at several leading vendors in the market today: Artistic Automation, Gerber, Scanvec Amiable, Techno-Isel and Delcam. All vendors tout speed, accuracy and reliability.

    Artistic Automation, which specializes in 3-D software, makes Model Mill. Scanvec Amiable makes the popular EnRoute 2-D and 2 1/2-D machining software and has its roots in the sign industry. Model Mill and EnRoute recently joined forces to co-develop a soon-to-be-released product called EnRoute 3.

    Gerber offers a complete carving package with its Auto-Carve 3D software. This has become a popular choice for signmakers that produce traditional carved signs, point-of-purchase displays, engraving applications, prototypes, personalized products, vacuum forming molds, die making, boat signs and other 3-D carvings. This program features Gerber's patented prismatic lettering process to that allows signmakers to become fast experts at this classic style.

    "Auto-Carve 3D remains the latest applications-oriented advancement for Gerber routers providing three distinct, highly sought carving styles: Incised carving for V-bevel shapes and letters, Chamfered carving for flat-bottomed shapes and letters, and Prismatic carving for raised shapes and letters," says Gerber Product Manager Sean Childs.

    Gerber Scientific also offers ART Path Routing & Engraving Software, an open architecture program that the company claims makes it possible for shops that have never used an automated router before to start doing so easily, quickly and proficiently. ART Path takes Gerber software jobs you might otherwise cut from vinyl or from standard file formats (.Al, .EPS, .DXF, .HPGL) and allows you to add all sorts of creative dimensional treatments, right on the screen.

    The software automatically generates tool paths from any PC-driven router from Gerber. The template function enables users to specify the tool, the total depth, the depth of pass, and the router bit feed and plunge rates automatically for whatever material type and size you're about to use. Users may also freely move and rotate any component part of the layout to get maximum output from your material.

    ART Path is included with the purchase of any Gerber Router or may be purchased separately. Auto-Carve 3D is sold separately.

    EnRoute 3 touts user-friendly features and a powerful tool path engine with the capabilities of 2-D, 2 1/2-D and 3-D all in one program. The companies are beta testing the product in the fall of 2002.

    "The most impressive thing about this software is its tool path calculation engine," says Scanvec Amiable sales manager E.J. Nodurft. "You can actually bring in the most complicated design and the program will very easily create a tool path for it."

    The EnRoute3 mid-level program will sell for $3495. The full program, including 2-D, 2 1/2-D, and 3-D capabilities, is priced at $5995.

    Delcam makes the popular ArtCAM Pro product, which has its origins in the jewelry-making industry.

    "A 3-D color shaded representation of the sign can be produced and printed at any stage," says James Booth, ArtCAM Pro product manager. "That's a key advantage because it allows you to try alternative design options and color schemes before you manufacture the sign."

    ArtCAM Pro version 5.5 was released earlier this year and sells for $7500.

    All in all, software can add a touch of class to your signs, boost your sales, and help you make the most of your CNC router. But there is one caveat: auto-sculpting software is not a cure-all. Influential signage starts with creative design. The software just helps bring the concept into reality.

    "We have the ability with our high-tech capabilities to create the best quality signage,” says Bill Hamilton of Northcoast Signworks, “but it's still the design and finish that separates us.”

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