How Does Sublimation Printing Work?
Sublimation is a printing procedure for transferring full colour graphics or photographs on to a wide selection of products. These products need to be either made from polyester or feature a polyester coating. The inks are then set into the product, almost like a tattoo. A sublimation print cannot be felt on the surface of the material you’re printing on.
Sublimation printing utilises specific water-based dye inks and a release paper that, under heat, transfers the image from the paper onto a polyester textile or sublimation specific substrate. The process takes the ink from a liquid when printed, to a solid on the paper, to a gas under heat and then solid when infused into the printable substrate or fabric.
The benefits of using sublimation for printing include; relatively low initial investment costs, the huge range of printables available, ideal for more intricate designs and the process is simple.
What Equipment is Required?
A sublimation specific printer is required for the process. Depending on the size of product you want to produce, a sublimation small format set up should be sufficient. A common misconception is that the desktop printers are the same as home office printers, however the ink lines and internals have been updated to allow the thicker gel ink to flow through them.
There are a wide range of sublimation printers available; from A4 desktop units up to wide and grand format machines which have up to 5m print width, with many configurations in between, such as A3, 24”, 44” and 64”.
The wider format printers have a greater choice of ink configurations depending upon the main substrates printed, however entry level desktop printers allow for printing onto all substrates with commercially viable quality too. You only really need the larger printers if the scale of your business warrants this kind of investment. Make sure you speak to an expert before purchasing, to ensure the printer meets your needs.
Next, you need a heat press to transfer the inks from the paper onto the substrate. These can be flat bed presses, like that used for garment printing (HTV/Laser) or cylindrical presses for bottles and mugs etc.
The flat bed heat press should ideally be a swing style press, as these give the most reliable pressure on all areas of the press. A clam press would also be sufficient, but pressure occurs at the back near the hinge more than the front. This could lead to noticeable colour gradient shifts on blocks of colour. The most consistent pressure will come from a pneumatic press, as the pressure can be set the same and is not reliant on ‘feel’.
Heat presses, like printers, come in a wide range of sizes. They are available from A4 through to greater than 2x1m and the size required will depend upon the size of the printer owned, or volume of product being printed.
Some form of RIP software will also be required to ensure the colour reproduction is accurate. Desktop solutions, such as those available from Sawgrass, come with Virtuoso Print manager, which has intuitive features to enable optimum output for photography and graphic artwork alike. It also adjusts the ink amounts depending upon the substrate being printed.
Larger format printers have an array of RIP software available, often packaged with the printer during purchase. The RIPs for these printers have greater functionality for production and allow for custom profiles to be created and achieve even better colour reproduction.
Desktop printers utilise a general-purpose paper, generally about 100gsm, suitable for both soft and hard substrates. Wider format printers benefit from a range of available paper grades, some specific for textiles and other designed for high quality photographic output, like ChromaLuxe.
Depending on what you are looking to print, you will need the consumables or garments to print on. These are sometimes available from the same place you purchased your printer/heat press.
Which Are the Best Markets to Target?
The first thing to consider when looking at what market you’re looking to target is the scalability of your business. Can you handle the demand? Is it a stable area? Will you be able to react to any fast changes that may occur? These are all questions to ask yourself.
That being said, there are a few markets that are looking particularly healthy at the moment and could be worth targeting:
Giftware can be a rewarding market to enter due to the vast array of products available and trend-driven additions frequently becoming available. For example, stainless water bottles and tote bags are very popular at the moment, due to the demand for reducing single use plastic.
For larger format printers, it is possible to produce home décor applications such as cushions, blinds and blankets. However, entering this area is dependent upon the skillset of the employees at the business.
Soft signage can be a great market for signage businesses, as the textile applications could replace those printed with solvent inks. This market can be better for the environment due to the water-based inks and possibility to recycle textiles after use.
No matter what you decide, you can find more information on sublimation or other printing methods on our website.