WASHINGTON—George Kochanowski fancies himself a bit of a crusader.
His cause? Stop signs.
Kochanowski invented a polycarbonate stop sign that he says reflects light better than traditional metal signs, is graffiti-resistant, and costs about the same as a graffiti-resistant metal sign.
But only about 2,500 of the signs have been sold thus far, owing to lengthy development time and skepticism from very conservative highway departments.
``The majority of the organizations [Kochanowski] is working with would rather continue working with something that is tried and true,'' said John Derickson, assistant research and development engineer with the Alabama Department of Transportation. ``It's a cautious-natured industry. There is so much liability involved, better safe than sorry is the mind-set.''
Kochanowski, president of All Sign Products Inc. in Pompano Beach, Fla., speaks with the certainty of a true believer when he gets rolling on the topic of the stop sign he has been developing since 1990.
``I'm making a notched device of biblical proportions,'' he said, referring to the complexity of injection molding the sign.
Last month, he picked up a convert in the form of some industry recognition, taking the highest award at the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Structural Plastics Division annual design competition.
The award recognized some of the unique challenges in making the sign.
For starters, Kochanowski said no one had ever made a light-reflective plastic sign that was that large (30 inches across) and that reflected light as precisely.
To make the mold, Hallmark Technologies of Windsor, Ontario, took 90,000 six-sided pins with a full-faced cube corner on top, and then electroformed a mold around them. It cost more than $1 million and a full year to make the mold, twice as long as originally thought, Kochanowski said.
A typical car taillight will have 800 such pins, he said.
That detail in the mold is needed so the sign can gather light and reflect it back to its source.
``A lot of sacred cows of the injection molding world were sacrificed,'' he said.
The flow lengths and the roughness of the mold, for example, should have required a higher drop. Those long flow lengths and more than 90 degree turns that the resin had to make for some of the lettering also proved challenging, Kochanowski said.
The sign also used one of the largest ultrasonic welds developed. And, despite the complexity, the front plate of the mold fills from only four gates.
The sign uses gas-assist injection molding to make the back plate, letting All Sign use less plastic and shorten the cycle time to about a minute. The front plate is made with sequential injection molding in a two-minute cycle.
The molds initially had so much static electricity that the polyvinyl fluoride film that is attached to offer graffiti protection would float in the mold, he said.
``To the casual observer, there are a lot of things you don't see,'' Kochanowski said. ``It is definitely a complicated part to make.''
While molding has been a challenge, so has getting the highway safety community to accept it, Kochanowski said.
The sign has been approved by the Federal Highway Administration, and it passed a trial conducted by the Civil Engineering Research Foundation, an arm of the American Society of Civil Engineers in Washington. CERF's Highway Innovative Technology Evaluation Center said the polycarbonate sign reflects light better than metal signs and does not fade from the weather.
Kochanowski said his sign is price competitive with graffiti-resistant metal signs, but is up to three times the price of the low-end metal sign.
Four states or provinces have approved it — Alabama, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Ontario — and 21 others are considering it, he said.
Still, the sign is having problems getting market acceptance from a very risk-wary industry, said Peter Kissinger, vice president of CERF. CERF was founded to push new technologies in the highway industry, he said.
``The problems [Kochanowski] has been having in terms of getting market acceptance is a perfect example of the challenges that face any entrepreneur in this business,'' Kissinger said.
Most state codes are written to essentially require an aluminum sign — in some cases even specifying what type of aluminum to use, Kissinger said.
Highway officials worry they could face liability for using the new sign. But they also worry about the liability if they only use the plastic sign in select spots, Kissinger said. That's because someone could sue if an accident happens in a location with old-style metal signs, Kissinger said.
Even the plastics industry was skeptical, at first.
Kochanowski approached his former employer, GE Plastics, in 1995, but was told the sign could not be made.
Two years later, the sign was on display at the Bayer Corp. booth at the NPE 1997 trade show, because Bayer helped develop it.
That's when GE officials asked Kochanowski to meet Jack Welch, chief executive officer of General Electric Co., at a reception.
Kochanowski went, and the two men talked politely about the project. After all, replacing just 10 percent of the stop signs in the country would create a 30 million-pound market for polycarbonate.
``I told him once you found out you blew a chance to put 50 pounds of Lexan on every street corner, you'd be pretty pissed,'' Kochanowski said.
Welch laughed, and penned Kochanowski one of his famous handwritten notes asking if there was anything GE could do.
Maybe start work on a plastic yield sign.