Yorkshire Times
Weekend Edition
Andrew Palmer
Group Editor
4:58 PM 14th July 2024

The Solution To Sign Blindness

Group Editor Andrew Palmer discovers how a simple entrepreneurial innovation is causing a revolution not only in the quality, health and safety sector but has many more ingenious applications.

It was a throwaway remark during a conversation with a friend that inspired David Crack to eventually develop an innovative product that has not only gained popularity in the construction industry but also garnered high praise from quality, health and safety managers.

Crack casually remarked to his friend, who supplies and repairs cages and trolleys, that supermarkets could successfully do away with Tannoy messages by having audible signs in various aisles.

Over coffee, Crack shares with me how his innovation transformed into a successful product, starting with loudspeakers.

Crack had been working on flat speaker technology for one of Europe's largest speaker manufacturers, Ingham's, in Knaresborough.

“We were producing a large volume of speakers with our own separate real wood company, Touchwood, in High Wycombe, and a plastics company at Brighouse.

“We primarily focused on producing entry-level vinyl covered boxes for major blue-chip brands. The company quickly expanded due to its success in the 1990s, unfortunately this coincided with the recession of the tiger economies in the Far East.

“When the tiger economies fell, various companies didn't have enough business to keep their own production lines busy, so they pulled back all the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) work, which resulted in us reducing our core business and ultimately leading to the company's closure.”

David Crack
David Crack
Despite this, Crack remained optimistic, seizing the opportunity to relocate his family from the cathedral city of Ripon, in North Yorkshire, to TT Plastics, located in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire.

“I was working for the same clients,” Crack says, “selling speaker grills, the ports for the bass and the speaker terminals instead of selling wooden cabinets. Being involved in the assembly work taught me a lot about injection moulding.

“I don’t know if you can remember Andrew, but all surround sound speakers—the home theatre in a box—were in the ascendency at the time. I designed, or developed, several of those speakers.”

I certainly do remember having one.

Crack was able to gain a thorough grounding and understanding of acoustics, manufacturing processes, how to use adhesives, purchasing, drop tests, and everything else required when manufacturing a sound product.

At this point, a major manufacturer underwent a buyout and relocated its manufacturing base to China. "I was a speaker specialist, but we were producing fewer and fewer speakers. We had to diversify and morph into making other products like television stands, brackets for the London Underground, and folding cycling helmets.”

However, fortune was on Crack's side. He had been involved with organising the company's quality accreditations, such as ISO 9000, auditing, and writing operating procedures. Recognising his skills, he came back from holiday to find his boss had appointed him as the Quality, Health, & Safety (QHS) Manager.

I began to think about it again and again and thought, ‘What am I doing?’
All was going well, and the family was happy, but at the back of Crack’s mind was a desire and ambition to get back to Ripon so his son Liam could go to secondary school and grow up in the area.

Having built himself a little war chest of money, Crack took the leap when Liam reached his tenth birthday. The original intention was for his wife to continue her successful teaching job, and for Crack to find a similar role. “I thought maybe, as an experienced QSH manager, I have enough strings to my bow to work for a business of a certain size. I could work in the Leeds catchment, for 10 years.

"I began to think about it again and again and thought, ‘What am I doing?’"

The throw-away comment he had made to his friend was vexing him, and he began to think of ways he could use his skills and industry knowledge.

"Every phone call is usually a negative one for a quality manager. When someone calls you, they inevitably have an issue because something is wrong or missing, which can result in either a client's disappointment or the need to speak with the production team and supervisors.

“I am not a confrontational person. I wanted to do something positive.”

It was then that he had his epiphany moment.

He encountered a problem. The manufacturing company had a set of assembly areas that worked 24/7 across three shifts. However, the stores were only open during the day, so evening and night shift production couldn't enter. As a result, the production team piled the goods up, causing a potential health and safety issue.

Despite placing numerous large signs in front of the fire escapes or extinguishers, an individual would persistently drag a pallet and position it in front of the exit route. Assembly staff would have had to move the pallets in the event of an emergency evacuation.

"I used to encounter remorseful, apologetic team members who were aware that they shouldn't have been doing it. It got to me because I knew if I had been there and said something, it would not have happened.
“That was the spark. I needed a talking sign. I knew what to do.”

Crack describes it as a “clever, sophisticated version of a talking greeting card.”

When you hear a sound you are not expecting, your brain automatically directs your neck and eye muscles to look for the source of the sound. It is involuntary. It also alerts your brain to the impending arrival of critical information that could potentially save your life
When we open a box to demonstrate the sign's power, the noise in the coffee shop immediately ceases, and we are the centre of attention.

The clever thing is that PIR (passive infrared) triggers it, activating a message that lasts up to four minutes in CD quality and high resolution.

A company can add up to 20 messages and record them with colleagues, which makes it even smarter.

Crack explains: “If you go on a construction site, the hazards and risks when you first start, like scraping the ground, digging footings, driving piles for foundations etc are radically different compared to the end of a job when glazers, sparkies, and scaffolders are on site.
“It’s important to be able to alter the message as the hazards change, and that’s the beauty of my audio signs; they are flexible.”

Wilmott Dixon has nominated AudioSigns the Construction Industry's Considerate Constructor Scheme, a development that Crack is thrilled about.
“Wilmott Dixon's endorsement of it as a best practice fills me with pride, particularly given the scientific evidence proving that audio signs are six times more effective at changing people's behaviour than conventional graphics.”

Crack has the evidence to back up his claims, thanks to neuroscience professor Deborah Withington. “Deborah is so knowledgeable about how the brain works, and she explained to me why the audio signs are so effective.

“It comes down to the part of the brain called the superior colliculus, which is responsible for multi-sensory integration: taste, smell, hearing, and eyesight—in essence, the old primitive part of the brain that keeps you alive.”

Crack's apparent excitement is palpable.

“Imagine the following scenario: you're strolling through a jungle when you hear a twig snap, and someone dares to take a different route, avoiding a snake bite or a tiger's bite. It is a startling reflex that keeps you alive.

“When you hear a sound you are not expecting, your brain automatically directs your neck and eye muscles to look for the source of the sound. It is involuntary. It also alerts your brain to the impending arrival of critical information that could potentially save your life.

“That’s what is happening with a talking sign.”

Crack also cites three US researchers who determined the number of neurons that fire in the brain to initiate a visual impulse. When it is visually and audibly combined, there is a 1200% increase in neuron firing. “That’s why audio signs are more effective than just text.”

Familiarity-sign blindness is a well-established fact in the health and safety community. How many times do we walk past a sign and assume we know what it says?

He also references research carried out jointly by Dr Judy Edworthy at the University of Plymouth and the Dr Austin Adams University of New South Wales in Australia.

To further illustrate his point, Crack says he received a powerful testimonial from Tarmac in South Wales. Tarmac operates a massive site that features huge silos filled with tonnes of Cement or Lime, which they disperse into the backs of wagons. Tarmac’s Logistcs Manager at the Aberthaw site in Wales stated that “following a spate of issues whereby delivery drivers failed to raise steps once they had completed loading, the company approached AudioSigns to create a bespoke sign to assist in improving their real-time communications with drivers. After a brief consultation and engagement with Audiosigns, they quickly developed a solution and dispatched a trial audible sign to the site within the same week. The trial was positive, and as a result, several more audio signs were purchased. Since the implementation of the new signs across our operation, we are pleased to report zero incidents, resulting in a safer operation for our people.”

Crack sells products primarily for the construction industry, but there are also numerous other applications. It helps those who struggle with dyslexia or are visually impaired.

Another benefit is helping dementia sufferers. Often, the sound of children or grandchildren can elicit a more positive response. A sign by the backdoor where a grandchild asks, "Granny, have you turned the gas off?" can have a significant impact.

Crack informs me that the use of audio signs at exhibition stands is successful. “At an NEC event, when perhaps two individuals are managing a stand and interacting with potential customers, the audio sign can identify anyone who is waiting and play a recorded message such as 'Welcome to the stand; a member of staff will be with you in a minute.' It instantly engages and retains the potential customer at your site.”

It is a clever, sophisticated version of a talking greeting card.
What about reception desks? A customer can enter the area and hear the MD, in a recorded message, say, "Welcome, please sign in and press 0, and someone will be with you.”

Indeed, there are numerous simple yet revolutionary uses, and I propose one of my own: preventing accidents at level crossings.

All it takes is three batteries to power the signs, which have a lifespan of 15,000 messages. “For example, he tells me, you might have a sign that says, ‘In the interests of hygiene, please wash your hands’. That's a five seconds. The batteries last 75,000 seconds. Divide the message length in seconds into 750000, and you have 15K triggers.”


The electronics come from Taiwan, and the polymers from LG are also Taiwanese. The units undergo assembly and moulding at Eaglescliffe. “They mould, build, test, and pack the whole thing, and it comes to me as a blank sign.”

"We test the electronics in China, ship them to the UK for construction, and conduct additional electronics testing there. There is a further final test carried out at the company’s unit in Ripon.

Crack’s wife, Avril, who has a degree in linguistics and English, records the message. “She speaks well and doesn’t have a strong accent. My Irish and Scottish contacts can record in their own dialects. We have clients in Wales who have signs that delivers messages in English and Welsh.

If required, a company official can also record messages using a USB power point, ensuring accurate voice inflection and intonation.

Crack, the entrepreneur, has discovered that insurance companies can effectively suggest to their clients that if they wish to reduce their premiums, they should implement an audio sign.

Every company provides induction, training, and the necessary equipment. But things can still go wrong. If a case goes to court with an audio sign, a lawyer can argue that the company went above and beyond what was reasonably practical and cut down on large payouts.

It is incredible how something so simple can have a huge impact and improve production processes or quality of life for dementia patients and their families.

I am thinking about purchasing one for my home. Instead of leaving a note, I can have a message that says, ‘Have you washed up yet?’

But maybe that is taking it too far!

For more information on Audio Signs click here
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