Take a look at how license plates are made

Take a look at how license plates are made

May 30, 2012

This is the blanking line where the aluminum is joined with the printed vinyl. At the end of the line is the press that cuts the license plates into their rectangular shape.

Next time you’re at a party and really want to impress the crowd, try throwing out this bit of transportation trivia: more than 1.3 million new Arizona license plates were produced last fiscal year.

That’s a lot of plates!

Your friends surely will be impressed by your knowledge, but if you really want to wow them, tell them they’ll never see the letters I, O, Q or U printed on standard plates.

Want to know why? It’s because the letter I could be confused with the numeral one and the letters O, Q and even U could be seen as zeros on a fast-moving vehicle. Since license plates are used to identify vehicles and by law enforcement, it’s pretty important that they are easily readable.

OK … this party’s starting to pick up! Now that you’ve got everyone’s attention, why not tell them how license plates are made in Arizona?

First, fill them in on a little history …

License plates (in one form or another) have been around for quite some time. Shortly before Arizona became a state, some cities required that vehicles be licensed, but it wasn’t until June 1912 that an Arizona state legislative act required all motor vehicles within the state to be registered with the Secretary of State (we got that information from a 1992 news letter of the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association – they really know their stuff!).

In 1914 license plates started to resemble the familiar rectangular shape we know today – before that, drivers were issued a 2-inch aluminum disc once they paid their registration fee, according to the ALPCA.

For a long time, license plates were embossed, meaning the design was “stamped” into the aluminum, giving the letters and numbers a raised look.

MVD’s Division Logistics Administrator Bill Beckett filled us in on how the plate manufacturing process has worked in recent years…

Back when plates were still being embossed (remember the maroon and white Arizona plates?), everything would start off with a large coiled roll of aluminum substrate sheeting…

The coiled maroon aluminum would go through something called a blanking line, where it was cut by machine into the shape of a plate (bolt holes were punched out, too). Next, the blank plate would go to a press that embossed the license plate number onto the plate. Then it was onto a roll coater so paint could be applied to the raised portion of the plate. From there, tiny reflective glass beads would be applied to the paint so the numbers could be seen at night. Finally, the plate would go into the oven to dry.

Recently, new technology has given us a streamlined process that’s a little more environmentally friendly (no paint or ovens) and allows for a lot of creativity when it comes to license plate design.

The new digital plate making technology uses a thermal transfer ribbon process to print the license plate number and design onto a large roll of white reflective vinyl sheeting. Thermal transfer printing is quite common (it’s used regularly to print receipts and postage labels). When it comes to license plates, the process uses heat to print the desired image onto the vinyl surface using multiple color ribbons for the desired color or design effect.

The machine that does this can print about 1,100 plates onto one roll of vinyl, which, by the way, has an adhesive backing.

After the vinyl is printed, it's rolled up again (by the machine). That roll then heads over to the blanking line that feeds the vinyl through a system that simultaneously peels away the backing to the sheeting to reveal the adhesive while pressing it onto a large roll of aluminum substrate sheeting. (Just think of it as a big roll of stickers getting pressed onto some metal.)

From there, the sheeting is cut up into rectangular plates by the blanking line. Then the plates are boxed up and sent off to MVD for distribution to drivers.

One more interesting thing to know about license plates … all of the state’s plates are made by inmates at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence.

With any luck, you’ve now won over your fellow party-goers with all this license plate wisdom! No thanks necessary … all we ask is that you tell your friends about the ADOT Blog and maybe invite us to your next party!

As far as license plates go, we haven’t even scratched the surface. Stay tuned in the coming weeks when we’ll write about some more of the measures that are taken during the manufacturing process and what drivers should do if their plate, for whatever reason, becomes unreadable.

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