With heritage dating back to the Korean War, the signs supplied by Romford’s Award Crafters have proved as durable in the marketplace as the rugged, anodised aluminium signage technology itself.
Founder Eyal Myers became fascinated by anodised aluminium signage while working in the US more than 25 years ago. Today, his company uses photosensitive, anodised aluminium originally developed in 1950 to make durable, high-resolution signage, such as nameplates, labels and control panels for customers in the UK, Europe and elsewhere.
The origins of Award Crafters’ technology go back to a time when the US Navy was experiencing problems with signage on board its fleet. Myers explains: “Whenever boats that were out at sea came into port, the signage on board was damaged. They had stainless steel, laminated and plastic signs. Between the salt water and UV exposure, they just didn't last very long.” A tender was put out to develop a means of signage for the navy that wouldn’t peel, corrode, fade or delaminate.
Help was soon at hand. Engineers at Cleveland, Ohio’s Horizon Research Incorporated had realised that it was possible to create a black-and white-photograph in aluminium and seal the anodised layer, with the image caught underneath. Without the use of pigments, the fading of the image due to UV exposure was no longer an issue, while the anodised aluminium could cope with exposure to salt and other corrosive substances.
Trading under the name Metalphoto, Horizon developed a unique form of photosensitive anodised aluminum signage that provided an answer to the problems afflicting signs used in harsh, demanding environments. “It meant it was ideal for the navy and other parts of the military,” says Myers. Metalphoto customers in the US today include Boeing, the US Army, US Navy, Lockheed Martin and NASA, reflecting the brand’s heritage in the defence sector.
Myers had been working in the US for a signage firm. “The company I was working for had Metalphoto manufacturing equipment on site. They were using it to make nameplates. It was very basic work. They weren’t really stretching the boundaries of what you could do with the material.” He admits he “fell in love” with the process. Planning to return to England, he convinced Metalphoto to allow him to become the British distributor for its technology.
“I’d always loved black-and-white photography, and liked working with my hands. I just thought it was a phenomenal process. I went to see the company in America. I said, ‘Listen I am going back to England soon, will you license me to sell the product in the UK?’ They were thrilled: they had no one else there in England selling it.”
To date, Metalphoto technology is the only method used to manufacture signage on the International Space Station. Aerospace OEM customers such as Airbus and Boeing often specify Metalphoto signage on technical drawings, Myers says. In the UK, Award Crafters supplies the technology to customers across Britain and Europe, with some as far afield as Nigeria.
Myers now leads a team of three. Technology on site at the Romford HQ includes a digital flatbed printer, an ECRM Imaging Systems CTP machine, CNC equipment to cut different shapes and sizes of aluminium, and a laser engraver. Digital technology means there is no longer any need to use film to produce the sign, but in other respects the final product retains all the qualities in terms of durability of the original Metalphoto. “You have a solid core of aluminium and then an image, with an anodised layer on top. It can’t be scratched, it can’t be picked at – it has all those attributes.”
Award Crafters imports extremely high purity aluminium from the US to produce its signage. Myers says it can be challenging to develop new clients in the military in the UK, but many customers come to the company because Metalphoto is specified in technical drawings. “We do a lot of work for commercial and military aircraft. There is a trickledown from North America, where Boeing and Lockheed Martin have built their designs around Metalphoto.”
Although the properties that initially saw the product find favour in the US army and navy remain, Myers stresses that the process can also be used to produce artistic, delicate signage. “You can print beautiful text and artwork within the anodised aluminium. We do that for companies where they want an exhibit that will not fade or degrade – on the exterior of a building, for example. We can do work producing museum exhibits.” Award Crafters’ anodised aluminium is also being used in the UK for wayfinding signage, he says.
One usage that is more common in the US in the use of Metalphoto as an archiving tool. For example, Heinz in North America is said to have stored all its recipes on Metalphoto. “If the building burns down, or all the computers get hacked, they will survive,” Myers explains.
Twenty-five years ago, did he expect to be where he is now in terms of the business? “I wouldn’t necessarily have expected to have been here this long,” he admits. But Award Crafters has moved with the times, he says. “The processes we use have embraced digital technology.” The job itself remains a labour of love, however.
“I think that’s the only way to do it,” Myers concludes. “It is not nine-to-five.”