By Olivia Cahoon
Sublimation inks utilize inkjet presses and heating devices to produce full-color, high-quality images for applications like apparel, banners, and flags. Inks are applied with direct printing technologies as well as a transfer printing processes.
Available for some time, sublimation remains popular in the textile market for its advancements in both hardware and inks. Improvements in print stability and sustainability make it easier than ever for print service providers (PSPs) to achieve cost-efficient, vibrant images and rich colors.
Above: Mimaki’s TS30-1300 and TS300P-1800 sublimation transfer models use single-phase AC 100 to 120V with a minima amount of power consumption for sustainable printing.
When it comes to sublimation ink, PSPs look for certain features such as print stability, fast drying capabilities, color vibrancy, and reduced consumption of water and ink. As a result, today’s vendors create ink sets that meet these requests and overcome associated challenges.
Print Stability & Fast Drying
Today’s print providers seek ink sets with print stability and fast drying characteristics to improve production efficiency and reduce the need for reprints.
Stability depends on several key factors including the colorant’s particle dispersion. Suitable dispersion grants constant ink flow at any printing speed without nozzle blockage or interrupting the printing process for cleaning, which generates a decrease in productivity, says Marco Girola, marketing and communication manager, JK Group and MS Printing Solutions, Dover Companies. Studying ink flux motion also allows accurate and consistent printed products over time, taking advantage of digital printing’s productivity.
Consistent color among each print is critical, especially for sublimated products. Accurate color is increasingly important in retail environments that display final products in varying sizes on one rack. “If the final products are going to end up on a retail rack where multiple sizes are placed next to each other, any noticeable differences in color are typically rejected,” shares Tim Check, product manager, professional imaging, Epson.
Along with print stability, ink sets with fast drying capabilities offer efficient products with accurate graphics. Fast drying prevents wet ink from transferring to the back of rolls and allows for increased productivity as well as continuous high-speed printing. Additionally, Girola explains that it drastically reduces cockling—the tendency of the printed paper to corrugate—granting long print runs, processing standardization, and meeting response times.
Sublimation inks are known for vibrant color, especially on polyester fabrics. Therefore, most PSPs expect the ink to provide eye-catching graphics. As a result, ink vendors work to make their products stand out from the competition with new features for expanded color gamut, fluorescent colors, and high-density black.
An expanded color gamut helps print providers achieve difficult brand colors—maintaining accuracy for the end user as well as the product. This translates to brighter, more noticeable colors. For example, Sawgrass Inc. developed its SubliJet-HD FLEX high-viscosity ink set to provide customers with the ability to reach an expanded color gamut for hard-to-achieve brand colors, shares Robin Kavanagh, public relations manager, Sawgrass. Within this formulation, the vendor also provides fluorescent capabilities.
“High load inks may have larger gamut, or the customer needs may be outside a four-color CMYK gamut —necessitating additional colors like orange, red, green, blue, or violet, which also work to reduce graininess in facial tones,” explains Randy Anderson, product marketing manager, Mutoh America, Inc.
Just as wide color gamut is important, so is color vibrancy. “A big part of the appeal of dye-sublimation (dye-sub) products are the vivid colors that really pop,” comments Lily Hunter, product manager, textiles and consumables supplies, Roland DGA Corporation.
Specially formulated inks play a role in ensuring rich, vivid colors. This is further accomplished with the use of fluorescent options, which feed growing demands for vibrant sublimated output, especially in athletic apparel. According to Hunter, solutions like Roland’s fluorescent Texart SBL3 sublimation inks are popular thanks to the ability to stand out.
Print providers seek ink sets that complement brighter and stronger colors, such as high-density black. It produces a better and richer tone ideal for apparel and signage production. In response to this demand, Sun Chemical launched its SunTex inkjet inks. “The inks provide excellent show through for double-sided output, such as flag printing where the image is viewed from either side. Vibrant, strong color and dense black reproduction is crucial for high visual impact soft signage,” explains Tony Cox, business manager, Sun Chemical.
Color accuracy and repeatability is also important. “Color accuracy, being able to reach the colors the customer wants. Color repeatability, being able to not only achieve but reproduce those colors consistently. They need to be able to balance workload across multiple printers or multiple locations, or deliver reprints weeks or even months later,” adds Tom Wittenberg, HP Americas large format strategy, planning and content manager, sign and décor, HP Inc.
To offer print providers the best type of ink for sublimation printing, ink sets are formulated for reduced water, ink, and energy consumption. Typically, inks with less water in the formulation have higher dye content, which means a little bit of ink can go a long way.
“The environment is everything around us and we should treat it carefully and with respect,” adheres Monica Cingolani, image and communication manager, JK Group and MS Printing Solutions. Both printing professionals and large brand owners often share this sentiment with a common goal—to make the production chain sustainable. “Thus, saving water is a fundamental stage of the global commitment.”
Ink vendors meet reduced consumption needs by focusing on innovation, sustainability, and reliability. In JK Group’s J-Teck division, it chooses a global approach with sustainability at its core. According to Cingolani, it complies with the International and European REACH regulations and directives related to chemical hazards and to the most well-respected textile standards of a sustainable production chain. Further, the vendor has a department devoted to studying legislation to ensure it’s always in line with potential risk classifications inherent to ink usage—providing clients with clear and transparent information.
Single-pass solutions equipped to handle sublimation play a role as well. “Single-pass solutions help migrate more textile production to reliable methods that have a positive impact on overall sustainability in the textile industry,” agrees Micol Gamba, textile product manager, EFI Reggiani.
While ink sets and safe practices reduce consumption, a complete sublimation solution—including presses—also offers print providers the ability to use less ink and energy for vibrant colors. David Lopez, textile solutions specialist, Mimaki USA, Inc., says Mimaki demonstrates this with its TS30-1300 and TS300P-1800 sublimation transfer models, which use single-phase AC 100 to 120V with a minimal amount of power consumption for sustainable textile printing.
“Because Mimaki engineers its own inks, it maintains total control of how to change the ink for new technologies,” explains Lopez. “As the market continues to grow, Mimaki tries to stay ahead by creating new inks with even brighter colors and more stable printing qualities.”
PSPs often seek sublimation inks with features that promote a better, higher quality product. However, technical support, transfer papers, and heat presses are just as important to the printing process as the ink formulation.
Syd Northup, inkjet division director, Gans Digital, finds that a print provider’s largest request is for technical support rather than chemical properties. “We provide onsite and remote support for all of our customers. We have a whole team of support technicians to keep our customers printing and producing products,” he adds.
Technical support is integral, as one of the largest challenges PSPs face—especially those unfamiliar to the market—is understanding the requirements, standards, and financial commitments to purchasing a sublimation system. Northup suggests print providers better their understanding by creating internal procedures to maintain consistency and equipment upkeep daily.
To help its customers, Gans specializes in integrating the whole product solution, including printers, heat presses, RIPs, color management, technical support, inks, and paper.
In transfer sublimation printing, the entire printing process is especially important to achieve the best output. To do so, it’s integral that PSPs keep printers clean and well maintained, heat presses calibrated, and use transfer paper that provides consistent results. “If sublimation users don’t pay attention to the entire process, the quality of their output suffers. We find that many tend to focus just on the printer itself,” admits Kavanagh.
For example, while it may be tempting to lower costs by using cheaper transfer paper, she says it may also result in lower image quality, such as less defined lines and borders or increased ink bleeding. Similarly, a malfunctioning heat press can leave uneven colors across the image. “We encourage users to check their presses using inexpensive heat strips. If the temperature varies noticeably, we recommend that they have their press recalibrated,” adds Kavanagh.
Relevance & Users
With a variety of digital printing methods now available, sublimation technology maintains a strong position in the textile market. Its relevance is due to simple, sustainable processes and the extensive benefits it offers polyester applications.
“Dye-sub offers the lowest capital investment route to textile digital printing. It is applicable to polyester fabrics. It is particularly well suited for signage applications and most apparel segments. The majority use print on paper and then transfer, which allows one paper printed pattern to be applied to several fabric types,” adheres Eric Beyeler, global marketing manager, DuPont Artistri inks.
Polyester fabrics have an economical advantage over cotton fabrics. “In North America, fabrics composed of polyester represent a near equal amount as fabrics made of cotton,” shares Check. With polyester, he says sublimation technology is the most efficient means to color/dye the materials in terms of cost, productivity, quality, and environmental impact.
Additionally, more of today’s fabric manufacturers offer polyester fabrics that mimic the look and feel of cotton, silk, or linen. According to Hunter, this allows dye-sub users to increase their product offering with versatile looks.
While this technology is popular in fashion and athletic apparel, it’s also used for a growing number of home décor companies. “Exhibit and display companies use dye-sub as well to produce soft signage, as are businesses within just about every vertical for trade show booths and other promotional needs,” adds Hunter.
According to Lopez, polyester fabric manufacturers prefer sublimation technology over other methods because of the color vibrancy and how easy the post process is compared to acid dye or reactive dye that requires pretreatment, steaming, washing, and drying. “Since the rise in popularity of dye-sub, many polyester fabric manufacturers have huge success with different polyester fabrics.”
Because sublimation ink dyes the actual fibers of the polyester materials, it produces an image with a soft feel. There are also inventory and stock redundancy advantages with transfer inks compared to directly printing on the garment. “The financial risk of holding stock of printed transfer paper is lower than holding stock of finished garments, and the disposal cost of unwanted or unsold stock is significantly lower,” explains Cox.
Transfer Keeps Up
Pigment ink advancements allow direct print technologies to serve as an alternative for sublimation transfer printing. While pigment offers compatibility with a variety of fabric types, sublimation ink tends to hold greater value when used with polyester.
“Some corners of fashion, in particular fast fashion, adopt polyester fabrics and dye-sub because the fabric is a man-made material that is quite stable, colors are vibrant and impressive, and barrier to entry an be quite low,” explains Wittenberg.
Due to its vast benefits in the polyester market, sublimation ink for transfer printing is still in high demand. Sublimation print methods are increasingly used for producing colorful polyester athletic apparel, which is popular due to its anti-wicking qualities and easy care, shares Hunter.
Both sublimation and pigment inks offer distinct advantages for certain applications. “As long as there are polyester products, dye-sub will remain a viable option for decorating those items,” she adds.
“Dye-sub does not work for natural fabrics, meaning pigment is the choice for natural fabrics,” explains Anderson.
While textile pigment printing produces good quality prints on a range of fabric types, sublimation inks yield better results in the fabric’s touch. “Sublimation does not have a hand or feel as the ink is infused into the fabric, whereas textile pigment sits on the surface of the fabrics and may have a noticeable feel,” continues Check.
Colorful & Vibrant
Sublimation ink offers vibrant colors while providing print stability and fast drying capabilities to improve efficiency. While pigment printing produces good quality on a range of fabrics, sublimation ink sets continue to dominate the polyester market with advancements designed for accurate color as well as reduced consumption.
Sep2019, Digital Output