Dye sublimation is famous for its ability to imprint images onto a wide array of substrates, but it is, by all accounts, a tricky process. It demands technical proficiency and attention to detail. It has also been somewhat limited in super wide format applications. Thanks to a new influx of inks and media, however, that is changing.
New paper, fabric, and ink for the dye sublimation and direct-to-textile printing market are keying in on greater productivity, larger sizes, and improved value.
Getting an Inkling
Water-based dye sublimation inks are the market’s mainstay. Water-based inks owe their hold on the market because "they don’t smell, won’t make your hair fall out, and won’t make you forget your name," jokes Phillip Prieur, president, Beaver Paper.
"Water-based inks typically produce finer details and higher quality images with better color," says Mark Trimble, sales director, Sawgrass Technologies. "Water-based inks utilize electro piezo printhead printers such as Roland, Mimaki, and Epson that results in higher quality output. Additionally, water-based inks are environmentally friendly, which is very important in the industry today."
While water-based inks are associated with better color reproduction, they’ve struggled with wide format output because that volume of water inevitably saturates the paper and causes cockling, Prieur states. "Water breaks down the organic starch that’s in the paper, it turns it into mashed potatoes," he observes. That said, printers have been progressively better at getting good results from water-based inks at larger and larger sizes, he notes.
"Oil-based dye sublimation inks are really best used for applications wider than 100 inches," according to Trimble. "While they lack quality at close range, they are well-suited for any application seen from a distance," he adds. Mimaki is introducing the 120-inch JV5 that will run with water-based inks so there will soon be a higher quality, environmentally friendly option for most industry users, Trimble says.
Oil has its own challenges, however, because "it doesn’t stay where you put it," Prieur says. Oil dye sub inks do work, "they’re just harder than they should be," he adds.
To help dye sub go wide, ink makers have introduced solvent-based dye sub inks. "It’s one of solvent’s advantages," states Michael Labella, product manager, US Sublimation. Another is excellent print stability and high color density, Prieur adds.
Solvent dye sub output is prevalent when creating theatrical back-drops and has expanded into other markets as the quality improves, notes Drew Fields, owner, Next Wave Media Solutions. The company distributes Jetcol transfer papers by Coldenhove Papier for the dye sublimation industry.
"In comparison to oil- or water-based dye sub inks, it appears the solvent-based inks are still overcoming a couple of obstacles—primarily the selling price," says Moshe Shlomian, Service and Consumables Business, Hewlett-Packard (HP). "But they do have the ability for increased speed with the ink delivery system supporting it.
Also the color gamut of the solvent-based dye sub ink is very rich, the black is very strong, and the pop needed for the application is definitely there," Shlomian adds.
When Hilord, a supplier of dye sub inks, introduced its first solvent dye sub inks company CEO Donald Balbinder hailed solvent as "the obvious future of inkjet dye sublimation printing."
Solvent dye sub inks also offer the promise of a truly hybrid printer, capable of switching between dye sub and traditional vinyl printing applications with minimal fuss. The capability is available on new printers from recognized suppliers and, in some cases, as a retrofit option on older printers, Fields says. EFI offers its Fusion option for the VUTEk 3360 wide format printer. The ink-changeover system, working with new UltraTex dye sub inks, allows the solvent printer to convert to dye sublimation applications in, according to the company, as little as two minutes. Other wide format printer manufacturers, such as HP Scitex, Gandinnovations, and Nur, provide dye sub options using either oil- or solvent-based inks that let print providers expand into the dye sub market with existing solvent machines.
However, such a hybrid ink model is not without its challenges. "It’s hard to go back and forth between traditional solvent and dye sub applications," cautions Ulrich Tombuelt, executive VP, Ibena, Inc. The ink tanks can clog easily if not properly cleaned before a switchover, he says. Other printer manufacturers, such as Roland and Mimaki, generally advise customers to use the printer for a dedicated application and avoid transitioning between ink sets. Solvent dye sub inks also require ventilation and can’t be used on material that will touch human skin, Labella warns. Ink is always a work in progress. According to Prieur, "Products remain in development. Period." New advances in chemistry have allowed inks to achieve the same high quality color with 30 percent of the density. "There’s been an unbelievable progression," he says.
Just as with ink, the media available for dye sublimation transfer printing and direct-to-fabric imaging continues to advance. While much of the focus of technology advancements centers on printers, fabric mills keep on the cutting edge as well. "People forget we have digital instruments working in the mills—to measure fabric and manipulate in ways that were impossible before," Bernat says."There is a much greater variety of substrates today," Labella observes. New entrants have begun to populate the market, with Sawgrass announcing its first direct-to-print inkjet fabric line and established players like 3P expanding their lines—specifically with a new value-priced offering.
Fabric suppliers have spied an opening in the budding environmentally conscious printers, notes Thomas Potz, GM, U.S. Sales, 3P Inkjet Textiles. "Printers want to stay away from PVC and a textile is a very good alternative with a number of advantages—it’s soft, recyclable, lighter weight, and has more emotion than a PVC sign," he says.
New coatings have opened up a number of new fabric applications, including imaging to protective garments worn by police, Tombuelt says. There is also growing demand for custom fabrics for unique sublimation applications, says Chris Bernat, chief revenue officer, Vapor Apparel. While the overall dye sub market is healthy, the vertical applications, like gaming tables and high end fabric applications are really growing, he says."There are fabrics now that feel like an artist canvas so printers can create giclée-like sublimation with a nice gloss coating," Bernat says. "It doesn’t have any of the pits like a real canvas."
As solvent dye sublimation inks gain acceptance, paper mills are expanding their lines to offer transfer solutions. Coldenhove Papier recently introduced a line of JetCol paper—JetCol OS—for oil and solvent sublimation. "We see this as a very big market," states Gijsbert Harmsen, senior account manager, Coldenhove Papier.
Three dimensional graphics are also growing, Labella says. Dye subbing to poly-coated aluminum in particular is an intriguing application because it provides depth, like a photo glossy paper, Labella adds. A BMW cam-paign in the subways in London used dye sublimated aluminum to catch the eye of passengers.
Bridal satins and thin fabrics also provide depth and make for excellent "dimensional imaging" applications, Bernat says.
To ensure you have the right fabric "just ask for a swatch and test it," Bernat advises. Dye sub fabric must be pre-shrunk, or it will shrink in the heat press, Labella warns.
"This is definitely not a ‘trust-me’ market," Prieur states. "You have to deliver."
There is typically a good relationship between the price and consistency of the material, Bernat says. Inkjet receptive coatings add to the price of direct-to-print fabrics, Tombuelt observes, but they are crucial to achieving accurate color. New duty reductions will mean an influx of product from South America. "Their technology is very good," Bernat says, and the added compe-tition will help push prices down.
Transfer Versus Direct
Given that many dye sub transfer applications involve applying inks to fabrics, it’s understandable that transfer paper makers would be leery about the emergence of direct-to-fabric printers.
"Well, yes and no. There is a role for each," according to Prieur. Transferred graphics provide true, photo-realistic fidelity because fabric doesn’t have the same fluid uptake as paper. But for applications like flags that call for saturating fabric to achieve bold colors on two sides, a direct solution makes sense, Prieur says.
The cost equation is not straightforward either, he notes. Direct-to-textile printers still require disposal blotting paper when the fabric is brought to the heat press. "They print slower and use more ink," he adds.
Normally, paper costs are still lower per square foot than the cost associated with coated fabrics needed for direct to print." Though Beaver Paper plans to bring its inkjet printable fabric at costs competitive with the transfer process, Prieur adds.
Direct printers with integrated calendars give printers much greater control over the output, and hence, are less prone to mistakes," Potz says. The entire direct-to-fabric process is less sensitive to trip-ups from environmental factors, which can hamstring the transfer process, he says."The first direct-to-fabric printers scared me," Harmsen admitts. "Now we see where the industry is going and we see where direct fits in."
"People see transfer paper as waste. It’s not. It’s part of the process," Labella adds. "It’s like changing the oil in your car—you throw out the old oil, but without oil, your car won’t run." "Printing to paper is an established technology," Harmsen states. "If you make a mistake on the paper, it’s a minor loss. If you make a mistake directly to a textile, it’s huge. "The two methods will ultimately co-exist, each bringing a unique set of benefits to specific applications, Fields predicts.
"Direct-to-fabric is a roll-to-roll model, so you can’t do t-shirts or short runs without a lot of waste," Labella says. And dye sublimation transfer encompasses a much wider array of materials, including ceramic, poly-coated aluminum, wood, tile, and more. "You can make surfboards, snowboards, and mugs," he adds.
A transfer paper solution is still the most viable for sports apparel, Trimble adds.
Mastering for Profit
Dye sublimation is a "tricky wicket," admits Bernat. There are a number of variables which conspire to make the process much less straightforward than "laying ink on a billboard," Prieur seconds. "If you don’t use it every day, you won’t be successful," he cautions. "It’s technically sophisticated and hard to do well repeatedly."
For instance, transfer paper for aqueous dye sub inks use a hydroscopic coating to allow the paper to suck up the water-based inks. Yet the paper will also suck up any moisture in the surrounding environment. In high humidity and rainy days, the paper will guzzle the moisture in the atmosphere and be saturated before the ink even hits the page.
"Papers are very sensitive, so it can cause a lot of trouble," seconds Labella. "You need a controlled environment." Changes in temperature and humidity can "play havoc" with high release paper, he notes.
However a commitment to dye sub will bring rewards. "If you’re a sign guy, bringing dye sub onboard now means you get to say yes to things like t-shirts, for full promotional campaigns," Bernat says."You need a Swiss Army knife mentality," to survive in the business, Bernat observes, never relying on just one tool."The market demand is growing and almost everyone who prints for indoor wide format is talking about dye sub," Shlomian notes. "It seems like dye sub sub is the way to increase the prestige in the POP market while also increasing its creativity and differentiation. It is a fast growing and lucrative market."