While some visitors to New York find beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, others are treated to the colorful, dazzling display of neon in Times Square — the corporate imagery center at America's busiest crossroad.

From Times Square to the city of neon, Las Vegas, to the corner fast-food chain, Plasti-Line has been involved. Have you ever wondered where the most visible imagery of the 21st century comes from and how it arrived safely and intact?

This story starts in Knoxville, Tennessee. Plasti-Line Inc. is headquartered in Knoxville. It was founded by Harry Brooks. He received his first big order in 1944 from the Pet Milk Company. Coca-Cola became a customer in 1950. The Chrysler re-image program of 1962 was the largest U.S. sign project up to that time and the General Motors sign program, still the largest account, signed on in 1975.

The lobby of Plasti-Line corporate headquarters in Knoxville displays miniatures of many of the well-recognized symbols of America — a veritable “Who’s Who” of commerce.

Neon may be perhaps the most fragile and yet artistic of all images. It is also one of the fastest-growing markets in the sign industry. Neon is bent and pumped from thin glass tubing, and as such it is highly breakable, most particularly before it is securely installed in a permanent location. Neon is no doubt one of the most fragile items transported in the United States and abroad.

Mary Jane Sill, Plasti-Line manufacturing engineer, is responsible for neon operations from letter-making to shipping for the Knoxville location. She had become aware of a disturbing amount of rework taking place and the attached high costs. At the time, in 1998, it was impossible to pinpoint exactly where and when the damage took place. Correctly, it appeared breakage could occur anywhere: plant floor, yard storage, shipping, in transit, at installation time. All they knew was that customers were dissatisfied, it delayed product installations and it was very expensive. While investigating the problem, Sill recalled a former colleague mentioning a label-type device that indicated shock and rough handling.

She consulted with Aimee Seiber, Plasti-Line’s corporate quality assurance manager, and their search for a solution turned up Shockwatch, a simple indicator device that turns bright red when subjected to an impact that exceeds a preset limit.

There are five sensitivity or impact threshold levels. When Shockwatch labels are placed on a crate, impact (bumping, jolting, dropping, etc.) exceeding the selected threshold level, in any direction, will turn the indicator vial bright red, leaving an unmistakable, lasting warning sign of abuse, mishandling or mishap that cannot be erased, disguised or hidden.

The Shockwatch label used in conjunction with Shockwatch tape, placed on the outside of packages, containers or crates, is the first line of defense against rough handling. The warning labels are color-coded to coincide with specific threshold levels, suitable carrier consignments and recommended product protection applications. Actual use and statistical testimony gathered from users has shown the high visibility, and proclaimed awareness of Shockwatch monitoring, is by itself a strong deterrent to rough handling.

Experiments were run to determine what sensitivity label would work best with the neon signs. The yellow label and indicator were selected as best-suited for this application. The pilot program ran for several months to document and track results.

The next steps — orderly introduction and education — were probably the most important in determining the future success or failure of the overall program.

After a successful pilot program, the company made the decision to add labels to all neon products to better service its customers. Letters introducing the program were sent to 1,500 installers, carriers and others. People within the company went through comprehensive training on the program. The customer service group had separate training on how to handle activated labels in the field, which included processing claims and gathering the appropriate documentation.

This program involves more than the application and reading of sensitivity indicators. It involves a system of communication, training, documentation, inspecting and following through cradle to grave. This includes signing off shippable product items from manufacturing and shipping internally to each carrier, all the way to the field installer’s custody and final acceptance by the ultimate owner. The program has shown $100,000 of savings its first year from just one plant. Broken neon claims went from being the top reported warranty claim to not even in the top 10 in just one year. Seiber says, “We are currently testing the program on our acrylic products, in anticipation of similar results to further increase customer satisfaction.”