North America (cont.)

Flat Digital License Plates in the United States: End of the Embossed Era?

License Plate Fonts of the Western World    Page:  Intro  |  North America (1)  |  North America (2)  |  North America (3)  |  North America (4)  |  North America (5)  |  North America (6)  |  Europe (1)  |  Europe (2)  |  Australia & New Zealand

Flat digital plates making inroads
despite inferior font legibility and looks

Digital production increasingly popular due to versatility and speed. In the mid to late 1990s, a few states began to test flat digital license plates either as an adjunct or as a replacement for traditional embossed license plates. Particularly since about the year 2000, an increasing number of states have been jumping on the bandwagon due to the increased speed and flexibility of digital production and, depending on the case, potential cost advantages.

Legibility and looks of new digital fonts have often been ignored. A downside, however, has been that the previous era’s license plate fonts — which evolved over time specifically for the task — have for the most part not been available in compatible digital form. So most states producing digital plates are doing so using commonly available desktop-publishing fonts (though perhaps with modifications of certain characters to make them usable with a monospaced character grid). The problem is that these newer fonts weren’t created for use on license plates and aren’t well-suited to the job, particularly where legibility is concerned, but also in terms of the public reaction to their looks.

Before examining in more depth the font situation that has developed with flat digital license plates in the U.S., though, here’s a brief overview of how digital plates are produced to give some needed context.

How digital license plates differ from traditional tags. In comparison to traditional embossed plates, flat digital plates differ in two major respects: their flat surface, and the process used to print and produce them.

  • Flat without embossed plate numbers. This is the obvious first difference, except that some digital plates may have a debossed rim (a depressed outer flange) around the plate edge to add dimensional stability or stiffness to the plates. The reason here is to prevent warping or flapping around, since digital flat plates are often made with thinner-gauge metal than embossed plates.
  • Directly computer-printed. The second difference is that printing takes place using digitally controlled printheads rather than traditional screen-printing or roller coating. Currently all flat digital plates are produced by high-speed computer-controlled thermal transfer printers, using up to 6 ink colors to print either process color, multiple spot colors, or process color plus 1 or 2 spot colors. (“Spot color” means a single pure color unmixed with any others. “Process color” means using 4 or more primary ink colors — normally cyan, magenta, yellow, and black — printed simultaneously in varying proportions with each other to produce the full spectrum of color contained in photographic images or artwork.) This technology is similar to common inkjet printing in terms of the wide range of artwork and images it can reproduce, except that it is far more durable.

Digital license plate advantages

Both background art and plate numbers printed in a single pass. A primary advantage of digitally printed plates is that all items on the plate can be printed simultaneously. Traditional embossed plates actually go through two print runs, the first to print the background graphics, then a second run that combines stamping of the embossed plate numbers with a follow-up pass through a roller-coating machine that inks the raised numbers. In addition, the type of ink used for the embossed plate numbers requires oven-baking afterward, for one more step.

Different plate designs can all be produced in the same print run with no slowdown in the rate of production. Traditional printing methods require setting up a press or production line for a single plate design that must be run in volume to be economical. (There can be many different plate types depending on the state, even just for passenger cars — whether regular plates, vanity plates, auto dealer plates, a large range of different specialty plates for numerous nonprofit or other causes, etc.) This usually means that the “base plates” must be printed ahead of time in large runs. (“Base plate” means everything on the plate except the large embossed lettering, which is normally handled later either individually or in smaller runs.) The result is increased storage-space requirements and costs, and, if demand for a certain plate type falls short, waste due to unused overruns. Or in some cases it may result in long lead times until sufficient plate orders are on hand to make a print run for vanity plates or a certain type of specialty plate worthwhile. By contrast, with digital technology, plates of any type can be made to order, grouped together in a single production batch, and printed on demand instead.

More environmentally friendly. Traditional plate printing involves the use of solvent-based inks which are harmful to the environment and require hazardous waste disposal techniques. The inks are also a health hazard to workers, and require extra protective equipment. (Note: This has been changing some recently with the development and testing of UV-cured inks for roller-coating the embossed serial numbers.) Digital license plates use solvent-free thermal transfer printing technology, which uses ribbons coated with wax or resin-based pigments and dyes to print images. The elimination of the oven-drying step for drying the inked embossed numbers on traditional plates saves energy. Also, a harder, thinner aluminum can be used (since the plates do not need to be embossed), which conserves raw material use.

Disputed advantages or disadvantages
of digital license plates

Cost savings: Not a given. There is some dispute about how much, or even whether, digital plates result in a net savings in production cost. Undisputed component cost savings would be the amount of postage required when mailing plates to citizens because of the lighter aluminum substrate. Also, since there is no embossing, plates nest much tighter when stacked for about a 50% space savings, cutting down on storage for finished plates. Beyond that and the advantages listed above, however, things can get muddy.

Digital plates have actually increased costs for some states. A 2004 analysis by the Florida legislature (PDF, 104K) for its specialty plates program noted that some states have experienced increased costs after moving to digital plates, and cited as an example Indiana, whose costs increased by 46% after they switched to digital plates. And a proposal from 3M — the dominant manufacturer of digital license plate systems in the U.S. — for converting Florida’s operation to digital plate production would have increased the state’s per-plate costs at least 30%. An article in 2006 on Colorado's platemaking operation at the Territorial Correctional Facility in Cañon City noted that its cost to produce digital plates is $2.54 apiece vs. $1.63 for embossed plates. As nearly as we can tell based on these reports and other tidbits seen here and there elsewhere, the real potential savings involved with digital plate production may have to do more with issues only indirectly related to production of the plates themselves. Some reports we’ve seen have stated the cost of production is roughly the same (Alabama), while others such as the Florida report say the cost of leasing equipment from 3M results in increased capital costs rather than a decrease.

Fully integrated end-to-end digital supply chain important. Instead, the potential savings to be obtained appear to be in the overall logistics of supply and distribution when the entire chain of production can be computerized. Moving to digital plate production paves the way for this, but does not make it automatic. For instance, Florida’s analysis noted that New York has been able to offset the capital costs of digital plate production with its direct-to-customer shipping system. Florida’s system, on the other hand, requires plates to first be shipped to 67 counties, most of whom maintain multiple vehicle registration offices, each maintaining a separate inventory from which citizens are then supplied.

“Easier to read” digital plates merely a sales claim. 3M, the dominant supplier of digital license plate systems in the United States, as mentioned above, suggests — without providing support — in its sales brochure for 3M’s digital production system (PDF, 1 MB) that digital plates are easier to read for law enforcement because the alphanumeric on the plate can be larger and bolder. (See near the bottom of page 6 in the brochure PDF.) Nothing in the way of backup for the statement is mentioned, however. One also sees statements from state officials in news reports announcing a state’s forthcoming new digital license plates that they will be easier to read (likely because this is what they have been told by 3M). Without supporting reasoning, though, such statements should be viewed as simply “PR” to counter potential resistance to the new technology.

Legibility of digital plates potentially as good or better, but often worse in practice. The large alphanumeric characters on digitally printed license plates may appear printed more cleanly than on embossed plates, where they may appear a bit less crisp due to the roller-coating method used to ink the embossed lettering. (Any difference is usually quite minor, though.) And there is no reason digital license plates shouldn’t be at least as legible as embossed plates, with the potential to be perhaps a bit better in that regard due to cleaner printing. However, as we will see later, the legibility claims don’t hold up when it comes to 3M’s own default font — which is the dominant one in use on digital plates in the U.S. due to 3M’s leading position in the digital plate market. (The narrower, more squished-looking fonts for the years 2004 and later at the link provided are the examples.) Side note: While 3M is currently the U.S. market leader in digital plates, with the John R. Wald Company providing its main competition, Wald outdistances others by far in embossed plate production systems.

3M’s default font giving digital plates a bad name. Law enforcement in some states has specifically complained about the legibility of 3M’s font. See this plate collector report on Indiana (scroll down to the 2004 passenger issue plate commentary near the bottom of the page). Also contrary to the above statement about font size in 3M’s brochure, the size of the large alphanumeric on license plates is in fact smaller when using 3M’s font, not bigger, when measured in terms of overall square inches of area. (Compare the embossed numbering at the link immediately above with the later digital plate font examples. Or view Iowa’s embossed vs. flat digital plate samples for another comparison.)

Area determines perceptual size of lettering, not height alone. 3M’s default font is in fact significantly smaller in terms of the overall area of the alphanumeric on typical digital plate examples documented on collectors’ websites. Not only the height of lettering must be considered but also width when determining how visually “large” it actually is. That is, “largeness” in terms of perception is determined by the overall area of something (square inches, square cm, etc.), not simply its height alone. Put another way, area or “bigness” is a two-dimensional phenomenon perceptually, not one-dimensional. This is an important factor since 3M’s font is so much more condensed than traditional license plate lettering.

Boldness a tradeoff with other legibility factors. As to whether boldness helps or not (it can up to a point), the outcome is highly dependent on other typographic factors remaining equal, but which are worse with 3M’s font, one of which is how excessively condensed it is, as just mentioned. (More on both of these points on the next page, which looks specifically at the problems with 3M's widely used default font.)

A brief history of flat digital plates in the U.S.

Around the mid-1990s, some states began testing digital technology for vanity plates and special issues (those that promote a special-interest cause or message) as a prelude to their introduction for regular passenger plates. The usual sequence of events is that a state will experiment for some time (up to a few years) with using flat plate technology on special issues and vanity plates. Then if they’re satisfied with how things are working out, they’ll move to the technology for regular passenger plates. Or the state may elect to stick with embossed plates for regular passenger plates, while using flat digital plates for vanity plates and special issues.

New York was the first state to experiment with flat plates, testing Azon-Utsch digital plates on non-passenger issues in late 1995, and later experimenting with them on general passenger issues in the late 1990s. There was an interesting early teething problem in the 1995 tests where a slashed zero was used but caused problems when viewed at a distance, where it was frequently mistaken for the numeral 8. (Slashed-zero example here, about two-thirds the way down the page.) This may have been due to the influence of Azon-Utsch, a company headquartered in Germany — since in Europe a slashed zero is occasionally used to prevent confusion with capital letter O in some applications. New York’s experiments with digital plates on general passenger issues apparently did not pan out, however, and they have continued with embossed plates since, except that their specialty and non-passenger plates are produced as flat plates.

States that now use digital flat plate technology for all or most passenger plates. Since about the year 2000, a steadily increasing number of states have switched to flat plates for most or all of their plates, though as yet they are still a minority. (Several other states utilize digital technology for vanity plates, special issues, and/or non-passenger plates only — see further below.) Counting those who are now issuing flat passenger plates, not just vanity or specialty plates, here are the states/ jurisdictions who have made the switch as of this writing. (Year of the switch to flat, general-issue passenger plates noted in parentheses.)

  • Alabama (2007)
  • Arizona (2008)
  • Delaware (2002)
  • District of Columbia/Washington, D.C. (2001)
  • Idaho (2008)
  • Indiana (2003)
  • Iowa (1999/2000)
  • Minnesota (2008)
  • Montana (2003)
  • Nebraska (2005)
  • Nevada (2006)
  • Oklahoma (2009)
  • South Carolina (2007/2008)
  • South Dakota (2006)
  • Tennessee (2006)
  • Texas (2009)
  • Wyoming (2001)

Notes: Earliest reliable date of first use listed, based on either knowledgeable plate collector statements, or sticker expiration date in plate photos on collectors’ sites. Alaska had apparently been experimenting with flat plates for a time, but as of sometime in 2007 is no longer producing them, due to problems by law enforcement reading plates in wintertime because of the muddy road grime coating vehicles that time of year. Delaware’s plates have been flat since 1970, but utilized screen-printing up until 2002 when they switched to digital flat plate production. Iowa first began experimenting with flat plates in 1996 for specialty and other non-passenger plates, using Azon-Utsch, and became the first state to switch over to flat digital production for regular passenger plates. New York was the first state to experiment with flat plates for regular passenger cars (10,000 test plates issued in Monroe County in late 1998). They elected not to use the technology for that class of plate, although they do produce numerous flat specialty plates. One can probably assume the test did not go over well with the public, but that other advantages of flat plates were sufficient to warrant using them for special issues. Pennsylvania randomly issued 1,000 flat passenger plates as a test during 2005 and to gauge public reaction, but we do not currently know if they plan to switch.

States using or testing digital flat plates only for special issues and non-passenger plates. In many cases these are special-issue or vanity plates, in other cases motorcycle or truck plates, or all of those, depending on the state. Year of first use is noted in parentheses. This may be an incomplete list — if you’re aware of other states using or testing digital plates, contact: .

  • Colorado (a few in 1996 using Azon-Utsch; in more wide use since about 2000)
  • Minnesota (2003)
  • Mississippi (2003)
  • Missouri (2000, personalized plates)
  • New York (late 1995 using Azon-Utsch, but see note below)
  • Ohio (2003)
  • Oregon (2002, see note below)
  • Texas (2002 for cars, 2001 for motorcycles)
  • Washington (2005, see note below)

Notes: Earliest reliable date of first use listed, based on either knowledgeable plate collector statements, or sticker expiration date in plate photos on collectors’ sites. Florida began evaluating excessive costs (PDF, 104K) in its specialty plates program in 2004, and may or may not use flat plates as part of its response. While New York first experimented with flat plates for special issues in 1995, use was apparently limited until 2001, when they began wider deployment. Oregon is so far producing less than a handful of flat digital specialty plate issues — most remain embossed. Washington first tested flat plates on patrol cars in 2002, but did not move to actual production till 2005.

Classic license plate fonts become
roadkill on highway to the future

The downside of digital plates. Along with the advantages of digital plates, there have been a few drawbacks. A major one is some degree of ignorance about graphic design and fonts on the part of some of the suppliers of the new technology. This has had consequences because they have simultaneously acted in the role of not only suppliers but also consultants to states adopting digital plates. In the U.S., 3M is the primary source of digital flat plates, although Azon-Utsch and Avery Dennison also are in the market. It’s unclear to us, though, for how many states 3M itself produces the plates, or to whom they have simply sold the technology for use by prison industries. (We believe the latter is the rule.)

Reaction to flat plates and fonts by the public, collectors, and police. The appearance of plates produced with 3M’s dominant system seems to have met with poor reaction from just about everyone — both the public and plate collectors, typophiles, and law enforcement as well. In part this is due to the lack of embossing. But just as frequently if not more so, 3M’s default font that most states use has garnered negative marks from just about everyone (besides 3M and presumably some of the customers using the font) not only for its appearance, often described as “fake-looking” by license plate enthusiasts, but also for its inferior readability. Law enforcement — for example, in Indiana — has complained the fonts are harder to read from a distance than the traditional fonts used. See these examples of 3M’s default font as used on Indiana’s flat digital plates (the year 2004 samples at the bottom of page) compared to that same state’s traditional plate and fonts prior to that (above the 2004 samples).

One step forward, two steps back. The current situation with fonts for digital flat plates is similar to what happened with the advent of desktop publishing (DTP) during its first 10 or 15 years from about 1985 through the late 1990s so. The initial DTP software applications were typographically crude when compared to the traditional expertise that had been embodied in the proprietary typesetting equipment of the previous era. This was due to DTP software having been initially developed in large part by personal computer software-industry people new to publishing in the early years, who either had limited knowledge of the craft of typography, or possibly may have ignored it out of technological arrogance. Experienced graphic designers, who had specified and subcontracted typesetting from typographers but never set type before themselves, also went through a period of adjustment learning how to use not just the technology but get up to speed on how to use fonts appropriately. The output from desktop publishing systems was therefore often poor in the beginning in terms of design quality and font use. This overall pattern seems to be repeating itself with the new digital license plate technology.

Hopeful signs for the future? Eventually, of course, the capabilities of desktop publishing systems improved, and we are better off than before because of the revolution it caused. Similarly, a few of the states who use digital plates have recently moved to using a better typeface than the default font 3M provides with its dominant system, which is encouraging. We’ll look at those later, but first let’s take a closer look at this default font 3M supplies for its dominant digital license plate production system, make clear exactly why it’s bad for license plates, and why the time-proven classic fonts are better and ought to be converted for the digital age.

Next: 3M’s Default Digital License Plate Font: Why It’s Bad for Looks/Legibility (North America, cont.)

Previous: The 4 Basic North American License Plate Font Design Types

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