Digital dye-sublimation—the act of ink morphing into a gaseous state to adhere to fabric—is exciting and profitable for sign shops hoping to expand their capabilities and client base. Dye-sublimation equipment enables sign makers to produce soft signage, with perks such as durability and portability. Using soft signage allows sign makers to work outside of the traditional wide format box, capturing new business from non-traditional print buyers, such as professionals from the garment and interior design industries.
Beyond the Norm
Though founded as a digital prepress supplier in 1989, San Francisco, CA-based DPi was transformed when the digital workflow revolution unfolded in the early to mid-1990s. As its traditional prepress customer base slowly declined, owner Sanjay Sakhuja knew he had to adapt the business to new markets. In response, DPi became a full service commercial print supplier, and Sakhuja invested in a broad selection of print technologies—from offset presses to wide format inkjets, giclée printers, and UV flatbeds for rigid jobs.
Sakhuja says that his company’s philosophy centers around the ability to handle just about any print job a customer may need produced. For DPi this means staying ahead of the curve and investing in technologies that are sometimes beyond the customer’s immediate needs.
"We saw potential in the fabric market and bet that quality sublimation printing would attract customers. We knew we wanted to get into the fabric printing market and we needed to find the right sublimation printer to fill the gap in our product line," recalls Sakhuja. After evaluating available dye-sublimation (dye-sub) equipment, he chose two of Roland DGA Corp. Hi-Fi Express FP-740s. The company installed the two 74-inch sublimation printers in 2007.
Andrew Oransky, director of product development, Roland DGA Corporation, acknowledges that entry into the dye-sub market comes with its own challenges and demands, setting it apart from those faced by the average sign printing business. "Early on we realized that the requirements of production level, dye-sublimation houses were simply different from those of our traditional sign printers," he explains. "As a result, we set out to create a printer that would meet these needs by offering high production levels, less down time, and ease of use and operation."
To illustrate how Roland’s solutions accomplished these goals, Oransky cites the FP-740’s automated maintenance cycles; an optional bulk ink delivery system; and the integration of HeatWave SBL2 inks, which are specially engineered to work with the machine’s printheads. "It eliminates the clogs, print defects, and color problems often associated with third-party ink solutions," he confides.
The FP-740 is designed to print on sublimation transfer paper, and can be used for a myriad of dye-sub applications—flags, banners, jerseys, soft signage, and all manners of sublimated graphics using rigid poly-coated materials.
Today, DPi’s two Roland dye-subs are used to produce everything from traditional sign shop applications—banners, trade show graphics, and POP displays—to short-run apparel and décor products. The most popular substrates for dye-sub jobs are polyester and polyester-cotton blends, estimates Sakhuja.
"Graphics come out looking great," he notes. "We use our sublimation printers for everything from apparel printing to photographic output. We get great color accuracy, even for hard to produce skin tones."
Among DPi’s customers are national retailers, such as Levi Strauss & Co.—for which it recently created 300 six- by ten-foot banners featuring photographic reproductions of outdoor scenes. The Clorox Company’s marketing department recently relied on DPi to print special, non-woven giveaway bags to help promote its new environmentally "green" product line.
"One of our most challenging projects was a series of banners we produced for the National Cathedral in Washington, DC," he adds. "The artist found us on the Web, since we are one of the few shops nationwide that can produce a fabric job that big. We printed a total of 16 fabric banners on the Roland Hi-Fi Express FP-740. Each banner was six by 14 feet long. They were very pleased with the results."
Sakhuja also says he has a growing number of specialized accounts, such as local, San Francisco Bay-area apparel designers, boutique owners, and interior design professionals, thanks to dye-sub equipment additions in his shop.
"We have three broad categories for dye-sub now. We have the POP and display customers who come to us for banners, trade show graphics, in-store signage, and things of that nature. Then, we have the fashion and garment business. And the third market is made up of interior designers who come to us for upholsteries, draperies, home furnishings, shower curtains, floor mats, table linens—just about anything you can imagine," he confides. "The display market is well established, though printing on fabric is still relatively new to most people. But the other two markets are evolving fast."
Broadening the Gamut
"We love dye-sub! It is one of our busiest services," notes Craig Tinkelman, co-owner, Quaker Chroma Imaging in Moorestown, NJ. Along with partner Bob Marion, Tinkelman heads up the company, which was created in 2004 following the merger of two successful graphics businesses—Quaker Photo, established in the 1920s and Chroma Copy, founded in the 1980s.
The newly-formed organization’s capabilities comprise of digital photography, digital short run, wide format inkjet and flatbed, and dye-sub printing services.
Tinkelman recounts the company’s entry into the dye-sublimation market—"We started with a six-foot Mimaki USA, Inc. printer, which is, of course, really high quality. Then, we started to receive demand for even larger prints, so we purchased a ten-foot wide VUTEk FabriVu."
The EFI/VUTEk FabriVu is available in either four- or eight-color configurations. It prints at up to 360 dpi resolution, up to 1,622 square feet per hour, and produces no volatile organic compound emissions, according to the manufacturer.
"The FabriVu is also capable of printing either direct to textile or to transfer paper," notes RJ Sullivan, product manager, EFI/VUTEk. "Direct to textile is a more cost-effective process and results in better bleed through. However, using transfer paper yields better image quality, especially in terms of detail and edge definition."
"Materials are limited to less than 60-percent polyester blends," Sullivan explains. "And while the colors are great, perhaps the hardest color to hit is a nice deep black. As for speed, you can really run at maximum speed, because the sublimation process removes most artifacts."
"Quality is always of the utmost importance, but you’ve got to be able to provide any material that meets the customer’s needs," he stresses. "The job may call for a material that’s sheer, or something that’s more opaque. It may be single- or two-sided. You need a good understanding of precisely what the customer wants up front, so you can recommend the fabric that best suits the application."
Unlike other genres of print, in which most customers have a good understanding of what constitutes good output versus an unacceptable job, in the world of dye-sub, managing customers’ expectations up front is essential, Tinkelman confides.
"We make sure that they know what they’re getting, and generally, our customers are very happy. Honestly, it’s never a hard sell for us—not just because of the quality, but also because we have complementary services, like our in-house finishing department," he notes. "We used to outsource sewing, but I can’t tell you how much waste we had, and the amount of incorrect finishing was very high. Now, we have complete control over the job thanks to bringing all of our finishing needs in-house."
Quaker Chroma’s work can be found all across the country, especially now that the company is well equipped to produce soft signage for the nation’s largest retailers.
"We have a product called Fabric_Frame," Tinkelman states. "We are one of a handful of distributors across the U.S., and it’s a very hot product for us. We sew an edging onto the fabric, and it slides into a groove and tensions out the fabric. It can be double-sided, single-sided, stand with feet, hung with eye hooks, and mounted on a wall."
The company also introduced a new fabric-based lightbox. "We can produce things like eight- by 30-foot lightboxes made of fabric. And it looks outstanding," he marvels. "The types of things we can do with dye-sub are all across the board. We’ve done everything from apparel for superhero figurines to displays for some major retailers, to signage we donated to the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Philadelphia, PA. Fabric street banners hung on lamp posts around the city for the breast cancer charity event.
"We strongly prefer dye-sub over direct print to fabric," he adds, "mainly because the feel of the fabrics is a lot better in dye-sub, and the saturation and brightness is better. For us, there’s no comparison, and if you’re looking for the best, that is the best."
The Makings of a Great Team
Bill Groff opened the doors of Team One Display Services in 2002, with the hope of providing custom exhibit and display graphics to any industry, nationwide. He equipped his Marietta, GA facility with a slew of Mimaki USA, Inc. print engines, including a Mimaki JV3-160, Mimaki JV33-160, and Mimaki CG-160FX.
Most recently, the company installed a Mimaki DS-1600, a direct dye-sub engine, to print trade show graphics for Mimaki itself. "We find the Mimaki DS-1600 a very popular solution for other clients looking to create trade show graphics as well," Groff notes.
Team One runs the Mimaki DS-1600 as a six-color engine utilizing Mimaki supplied inks, and Groff says that it’s adept at printing on any dye-sub-friendly fabric, though the most requested material is polyester-based.
To ensure that fabric is processed through the printer without a problem, Mimaki’s DS-1600 is equipped with a drive roller, friction roller, take-up unit, and a feeding unit with a dancer roller, which causes tension on the fabric and prevents it from wrinkling. A fabric retainer holds both edges of the media, preventing it from touching the printhead.
Also, to ensure that inks penetrating the fabric don’t redeposit on other fabrics, the printer is equipped with an ink ditch that collects excess.
"This is our very first dye-sub machine," Groff remarks. "We used to sub this type of work out, and it was very expensive. Now, it seems to be cheaper than solvent printing."
Investing for the Future
Most print suppliers involved in dye-sub—or direct to textile—print businesses will likely acknowledge the difference between the traditional sign making market. Not only is there a learning curve for the technical aspects of dye-sub printing, but there are also key differences in how customers should be served. The investment in time and capital, however, has the potential to pay off exponentially as demand for dye-sub printing evolves.