It's the fastest growing print technology at the moment, but until recently if you wanted to produce dye-sublimation prints you had to splash out tens of thousands of pounds.
However, over the past few months there has been a slew of entry-level machines, unveiled at exhibitions like Sign & Digital and Fespa, with a starting price of as little as £5,000. As a result, experts reckon that you can now easily set up a commercial dye-sub printing offering for under £10,000.
So what’s driving the dye-sub trend? What options are available when it comes to entry-level kit? And what are the main barriers to entry?
There are a number of reasons why dye-sub is currently one of the fastest growing print markets in Europe. Dye-sub presses produce vibrant colours that are highly resistant to abrasion or fading, plus some textiles can be washed and dried without wrinkling which means they can be used time and time again.
It’s also easy to ship: a 40ft dye-sub soft signage banner can be packed into a 1ft2 box, unlike something on rigid board or PVC, which reduces its carbon footprint.
Another major attraction of dye-sub is its versatility, says Nick Davies, sales director at iSub, which sells the new range of entry-level dye-sub presses from Epson.
"It’s not just about banners and flags. You can print all kinds of strange things on these presses. You could personalise the interior of a car, a boat or a kid’s bedroom using dye-sub. You can print tablecloths, shower curtains or furniture. You can also print football, rugby and cricket strips, kit for running, rowing or cycling. It’s all doable and it’s all being done using dye-sub."
Despite these factors – plus the all-important higher margins that this form of print typically commands – the UK is still a long way behind the likes of France, Italy and Spain when it comes to dye-sub, but it’s slowly catching up and there’s now a much better infrastructure in place for printers looking to dip a toe in the water, says Melanie Enser, marketing manager at Colourgen, which sells dye-sub kit from Mutoh.
"In the past there weren’t that many options, but that’s changing. As the market opens up, and people get used to the technology and the benefits of it, it will become much more accessible to more people."
Accessibility is being further aided by the growing number of manufacturers that are "jumping on the dye-sub bandwagon", as Magnus Mighall, partner at textile kit reseller RA Smart, puts it.
"A lot of manufacturers that specialise in offering textile systems have been producing these machines for some time, but we’re now seeing manufacturers from other fields starting to offer them," he adds.
The reason manufacturers are attracted by this market becomes apparent when you examine the numbers. Around 30bn square metres of textile fabric is printed globally per year, but at the moment only around 3% of this volume is digitally printed (although digital textile print is showing double-digit percentage growth at the moment).
And these new entry-level machines mean that cost is no longer such an issue, says iSub’s Davies. "With Epson coming out with the SureColor SC-F series for circa £5,000 you could get into production for less than £10,000. So it’s not impossible to become a commercial textile printer, albeit small, for a modest sum."
Even dye-sub market stalwarts, such as Mimaki, which has historically specialised in high-volume kit, now offer machines that sit at the lower end of the production scale to entice new entrants to the market.
"Mimaki’s dye-sublimation printers start from just over £10,000 enabling companies to get into this area of print at relatively small cost," says Duncan Jefferies, marketing manager at Hybrid Services, Mimaki’s UK distributor.
"A heat press – be it flatbed or rotary – is required to fix the print, but there are multiple printer options capable of delivering a range of capacity for companies from small start-ups to blue-chip multinationals."
At the moment a lot of commercial printers considering making a move into dye-sub are already doing some sort of printing onto textiles, but Mighall says that printers who have no experience of textile printing shouldn’t rule out making the switch.
"Dye-sub printing can be a bit disconcerting for people who come from a non-textiles background inasmuch as it’s not a straightforward process of just printing onto a substrate and away you go. There are secondary processes involved, but as long as all of the different variables are kept constant you’re going to get consistent results," he adds.
Although equipment vendors say there’s been a lot of interest in dye-sub machines recently – particularly for soft signage work – there hasn’t been a great deal of investment so far, which is primarily due to the fact that a lot of trade printers have already invested heavily in solvent or UV systems. Indeed, most of the enquiries RA Smart has fielded have come from a very specific customer base, according to Mighall.
"A lot of people have been farming out soft signage work for a while now so we’re starting to get interest from these companies who at the end of the year realise they’ve that they’ve farmed out £250,000-£300,000 worth of business and suddenly they’re thinking ‘crikey, it’s worth buying a system’."
One printer who perfectly illustrates this trend is Stuart Maclaren managing director at Your Print Partner. The 16-month old firm set up shop as a print broker, but Maclaren says that he became increasingly frustrated by his dye-sub print suppliers who kept letting him down with lengthening lead times.
"I wanted to be able to compete with Europe on price so I decided to invest in my own dye-sub machine as I knew that would help me to reduce lead times and win more work," says Maclaren.
So in August last year he took delivery of a Mimaki TX400 printer for flags and banner work from RA Smart. Maclaren admits that at the start it was pretty daunting. "Especially when you think that you’ve got a £65,000 printing press, a heat sealing unit which cost around £15,000 and then you’ve got all of the staff involved waiting for whatever you’re printing to come off the printer so that they can start sewing it."
Despite initial teething problems, Maclaren says that the work he’s managed to win off the back of his investment has justified the outlay, particularly given the reduction in lead times he’s been able to achieve.
"They’re big bits of kit and they turn out fabric a lot quicker than any PVC printer," says Maclaren. "If someone wants 50 flags printed on a solvent printer, that’s about a day and a half’s print time, but this machine could probably do it in about three hours."
Although he’s impressed by what his dye-sub press is capable of producing – so much so that he recently added a Mimaki TS34 for extra capacity – Maclaren concedes that if he were to go through the purchasing process again he would spend more time weighing up the different press options.
"Ideally you should start with a smaller machine than we had. We were quite gung-ho so went with a very big machine to start with, which means that you have to find a lot of work to fill it."
Maclaren may have proved that it’s possible to successfully branch out into dye-sub work without having experience of the sector, but it won’t be that straightforward for everyone.
"You need to understand the dye-sub process before you jump in because you don’t just switch on the printer and out comes the textile," says Colourgen’s Enser. "For starters you need a heat press. You’ll also need finishing kit like sewing machines, although a lot of dye-sub printers outsource finishing."
However, while it may sound daunting, Jefferies says that successfully capturing even a small chunk of this market could lead to substantial growth in the future as it gives companies a competitive point of difference.
"Financial hurdles aside, perceptions of the process are probably the largest barriers to entry for companies seeking to invest," says Jefferies.
"At the end of the day, any form of textile printing is a series of processes that need to be tied down and this is no different to other forms of wide-format print provision. There is a strong attraction for delivering a dye-sublimation printed graphic – be it made into a flag, a suspended exhibition display, POS display or lightbox – with the knowledge that it delivers the strongest possible creative proposition, a high-quality print and a sustainable solution."
And because of the sheer flexibility of dye-sub printing, iSub’s Davies doesn’t see any danger of the market becoming saturated in the short term.
"I’ve been involved in textiles printing for 23 years, and it’s got bigger and faster and wider and cheaper. Because of the diversity of dye-sublimation printing, I can’t see us reaching saturation point quickly. I can see at least another five to 10 years of really good business ahead of us."
ENTRY-LEVEL DYE-SUB KIT
Mutoh DrafStation RJ-900x
Boasting a small footprint the DrafStation can be used for both technical drawings and dye-sub printing. The 42in machine, which will be shown at Fespa later this month and is priced at £4,495, is capable of producing high-resolution images in relatively low volumes.
Epson SureColor SC-F6000/SC-F7000
Starting at around the £5,000 mark these new presses represent Epson’s first move into dye-sub printing. The low- to medium-volume 44in SC-F6000 is ideal for producing small-format soft signage. The mid- to high-volume SC-F7000 is suitable for larger signage in addition to furnishings and furniture work.
The manufacturer has a range of dye-sub presses to suit all requirements and budgets. The TS3-1600, its latest entry-level machine, unveiled at Sign & Digital UK 2011, marries "high print quality with competitive running costs to deliver a broad range of polyester substrate products" and costs £20,995.