Innovating signs from Newcastle

You might not know the name, but if you’ve driven a car or travelled in a bus, ferry or train lately, you’ll have seen the work of Hi-Vis Group, an innovative Newcastle-based company at the forefront of the Australian signage industry.

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You might not know the name, but if you’ve driven a car or travelled in a bus, ferry or train lately, you’ll have seen the work of Hi-Vis Group, an innovative Newcastle-based company at the forefront of the Australian signage industry.

When Brett Watson decided more than 30 years ago to be first in Australia to own a hi-tech sign-cutting computer from the US, it was a clear statement that this was a business committed to innovation.

It’s this passion for being at the cutting edge that’s seen Watson’s Newcastle-based company, operating as Hi-Vis Signs & Safety, grow and diversify to become one of Australia’s largest sign and safety product manufacturers leading the way in industry research and development (R&D). In 2012 it was named by diversified multinational company 3M as one of the top two sign companies in the world, in a report delivered at major industry conference Intertraffic, in Amsterdam.

“R&D has always been a major part of what we do; it’s about being innovative,” says Watson, who operates the family-owned business alongside his brother Simon. “We’ve always tried to go with the philosophy of ‘bleeding edge’ or ‘leading edge’.

“When we bought the sign-cutting computer we were operating out of the back of a house. And the computer was worth more than the house. But we could see the opportunity; I’d been in the US and saw it was the future. We bought one and then a year later we bought another one, and we’ve just continued to be very focused on innovation.”

The company was first launched as a sign-writing business by their father Brian in 1959, and began diversifying when Brett, a qualified toolmaker, started Hunter Valley Safety Signs in 1983, next door to his dad. The family company is now on the verge of another major step that will take it into a new era.

Hi-Vis is in the final stages of an 18-month project with Queensland’s Department of Transport and Main Roads to develop a new breed of “smart” road signs. The focus of the project is to more effectively target black spots by taking traffic data collection to the next level.

The hi-tech solar-powered variable signs will look like regular flashing road signs but will use a combination of cameras, doppler radar technology and software developed by Watson’s team to collect precise information about traffic across all lanes of a road, ranging from the number and speed of cars, to the driver’s face, and potentially much more. The signs feature modems able to transfer the data to multiple sources.

“This means they can get far more accurate road data about what’s happening with traffic and instantly respond,” says Watson. “The way forward [in traffic management] will be to have variable speed limits on most roads that can change depending on the traffic. Data is king these days and this [project] will deliver an unprecedented amount of data.”

Global Potential

Watson says the product and technology has “massive potential” around the world. “No one’s gone down this road yet, even in the European market,” he says. “It will be a worldwide saleable item.”

While this is a big achievement for the company, the technological development Watson remains most proud of is Hi-Vis’s pioneering work with school safety-zone signs.

“We invented that in 1999 and patented it in 2000, and it’s now used worldwide,” says Watson. “The LED flashing sign on a time system with a 2G connection: no one had ever done that technology with mobile modems before. There was a lot of R&D involved in getting those across the line and in getting governments to see the benefits and pay-offs for school children.”

Born and bred in Newcastle, Watson says having a head office in the New South Wales regional city hasn’t been an impediment to the growth of the business, which employs 50 staff and operates two 3500-square-metre factories in inner-city Carrington.

“No, it hasn’t been a problem,” says Watson. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

This article was first published in Business View magazine (Winter 2015). For more articles and interactivity, download the iPad edition of Business View for free via our app, NAB Think.

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