Wide range of applications wins fans for sublimation

By Barney Cox, Monday 26 October 2015

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If you think Dai Sub is a Welsh submariner then you could be missing out on a low-cost technology with the potential to grab a bigger share of your existing customers’ print spend and open up a range of profitable new markets.


It’s not Dai; it’s dye – as in a colouring. And the sub bit is short for sublimation, the process in which a material goes directly from a solid to a gas. Special dye-sub inks can be printed using a standard inkjet printer, the clever bit comes in the next stage. Using a press to apply heat and pressure the ink then sublimates and penetrates the substrate. As it cools it solidifies and is tightly bound under the surface resulting in a smooth and robust image.

The crucial thing for making dye-sub work is polyester, due to its ability to absorb dye. For textile applications there are a huge range of polyester-based fabrics and for product decoration there are ‘blanks’ with a polyester coating to accept the ink. 

“The message I try to propagate is that whatever sector you are in, the customer is after a branding opportunity,” says Epson sales manager, Prographics, Phil McMullin. “Customers have a shopping basket, and the more products in the basket that you can produce the bigger their spend. Most printers are generalists, so it makes sense to offer as much as possible.”

McMullin is backed up by Stephen Woodall, national sales manager, textile & apparel, at UK and Ireland Mimaki distributor Hybrid Services. “The beauty of dye-sub is the breadth of the applications from mugs and smartphone covers, through signage to work wear, sportswear and fashion. One minute you could be printing mugs and the next placement print onto t-shirts followed by a display graphic, a marquee or a gazebo. Think of the requirements of just one customer. For example a rugby club’s personalised shirts for the players, banners for the field, a gazebo, branded mugs and the bar runners in the club house,” he says.

Application split

There are two major applications that use dye-sub as a printing technology, textile and direct to object printing. The fabric market is mostly direct disperse (that is printing direct to the textile then fixing in a heat press), whereas for objects the route is print to paper and then transfer the image to the item in the heat press. However it’s not quite that cut and dried in practice, and there is a degree of flexibility within the technology. Fundamentally the hardware can be the same for both direct and transfer – some printers can handle both paper and fabric. Likewise, heat presses can be used for both transfer and fixation.

North Yorkshire-based display graphics firm The Solution House uses both methods for its soft graphics.

“We use the same kit to produce both direct and transfer print,” says managing director Shaun Day. “We decide which based on what will work best for a particular job. There are some substrates and some images that work better via transfer than direct. I’d rather get a good job that the customer is happy with than fuss over the extra cost and additional time to transfer.

“It’s a black art to decide which route to go. Dye-sub is not as simple a process to use as regular inkjet as there are lots of parameters including the time and temperature of the heat press.”

Hybrid’s Woodall agrees: “Getting dye-sub to work is about tying the variables down, although in that respect it’s no different to laminating or any other post-press process.”

The consumables are an area where there is a lot of potential for variability, and those with experience caution that chopping and changing materials and suppliers can be a false economy. 

“We learned the hard way about the importance of using good quality transfer paper and blanks,” says to Tom Heyward, sales director of Clever Printing (see case-study boxout). “You’ve got to consider how robust it is to washing. Now we just use Xpres and Neil Brothers. It comes down to using the right ink and blanks with good support from the vendor.”

He highlights the importance of consistent operations as well as supplies: “We are consistent in our use of colour profiles and workflow settings. If you get one wrong it can make a big difference to the colour. Some colours are difficult – especially reds. If it’s a big order the best thing is to send a physical sample.”

At the entry level, the necessary kit – both printer and heat press – can be as little as £1,500, with the printer itself only costing a few hundred pounds. At the other extreme, bigger and faster devices run into the hundreds of thousands.

New uses for old kit

You don’t need to buy new either. Old aqueous inkjet machines can be converted to run aftermarket dye-sub inks – though not any that have previously run solvent or eco-solvent. There is also a market starting to emerge for secondhand machines. 

Vendors include familiar names such as Durst, EFI (via its recent acquisition of Italian textile printer manufacturer Reggiani), Epson, Mimaki, Mutoh, Ricoh and Roland DG. There are also more specialist suppliers such as Dgen and Sawgrass. 

Broadly the market divides into two categories, cut-sheet desktop machines and wide-format roll-to-roll devices. Ricoh dominates the desktop market with its A4 3110 and A3 7100 series, versions of which are also sold by Sawgrass under its Virtuoso brand. These are aimed at product decoration and some small-format placement print onto smaller textiles. 

Entry-level wide-format systems are available from the likes of Epson, Mimaki, Mutoh, Ricoh and Roland DG, starting with the 25in systems. There is currently a flurry of excitement about Sawgrass’ Virtuoso VJ628 as a stepping-stone for firms currently using desktop kit.

The advantages of roll-fed machines over the sheetfed desktops are the ability to produce larger products, bigger batches of smaller items and lower costs. 

“The big seller for us is the SC-F6000, a 44in-wide dye-sub machine that costs £5,000 and can be used for both objects and textiles,” says Epson’s McMullin.

Mimaki’s JV and CJV ranges can be configured with dye-sub inks. The 1.3m-wide machines start from under £10,000. 

“The CJV (C stands for cutter) is useful for product decoration and placement print as you can cut the transfer paper to size precisely using the printer, that eliminates a manual step,” says Woodall

Beyond that, wider and faster machines are more suited to textile production with common widths of 1.8m and 3.2m.

“Within the markets there are different preferences for the technology,” says specialist dye-sub reseller I-Sub’s sales director Nick Davies. “Soft signage firms tend to go for 3.2m wide machines to enable wide panels and deep drops. Flag firms prefer 1.8m wide printers to print two flags side by side and get the best use of the material.”

While the really high-end machines from the likes of EFI Reggiani, Dgen, Durst and Robustelli remain in the hundreds of thousands, as the market develops there are advances that make high throughput more affordable. 

One example is the Fespa-launched Mimaki TS 300P-1800. 

“For £22,000 it’s a 100m2/hr of deliverable quality in an industrial strength machine. Compared to the previous generation it’s half the price and two-and-a-half times faster,” says Woodall

If you’re worried about rapid developments in the technology leaving you with obsolescent kit I-Sub’s Davies has reassurance: “Nearly all our customers who buy a small machine end up going for bigger and/or faster machines and use the original machines for proofing and sampling to ensure the bigger unit remains productive.”

As stated before, there’s more to dye-sub than just the printer. You also need a heat press. A wide range is available from small manual devices through to huge automated lines. Just like the printers they are available in roll-fed and flatbed configurations depending on the applications. There are special presses to handle 3D objects such as mugs and even vacuum presses to cope with uncommon and irregular shaped 3D objects. Heat press manufacturers include HeatJet, Monti Antonio and Transmatic.

Then there are consumables, including inks, fabrics, polyester-coated blanks and transfer paper. Inks are available from the printer manufacturers and from specialist third parties such as Sawgrass and Sensient. Transfer papers are produced by a number of specialist mills and supplied by inks specialists including Sawgrass with True Pix. Specialist mills and their products include Beaver Tex Print, Cham Paper Transjet and Coldenhove Jetcol. Polyester blanks are produced by firms such as Unisub, which also makes a rigid graphics panel called Chromaluxe, and mug specialist Neil Brothers.

Tying it all together are specialist resellers that offer the complete product line, often from a range of different vendors for each, along with support. Some specialise in textiles and others on product decoration, while some serve both markets. Examples include Isub, Nova Chrome, RA Smart, The Magic Touch and Xpres.

If you do your homework and begin by dipping a toe in the water with a low-cost initial investment, dye-sub could prove to be an important addition to your business. 


Clever Printing

Tom Heywood started out selling phone cases to school friends in 2012. He now runs his own business, Clever Printing, based in Clitheroe, Lancashire, which employs five people. “As my business grew I was looking for someone to print graphics onto the cases and I was about to place an order with a Chinese supplier for 1,000 cases when I found a UK supplier with no minimum order, so I started to work with them,” he says. 

After six months with volumes increasing he decided to buy the kit and bring it in-house starting with a Ricoh 3110 A4 printer using Sawgrass inks. As volumes increased he moved to a Ricoh 7100 A3 printer for lower ink costs. 

The 18-year-old is now embarking on the next phase of growth: “We’re currently researching getting a bigger machine to enable us to widen our product range to include t-shirts and wall art.”

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