Textile-based applications—including garments, flags, décor items, and industrial products—represent a major trend in wide format digital print. Processes for digital printing onto textiles vary. Popular methods include dye-sublimation (dye-sub)—both direct and transfer—and direct digital printing. There are both low- and high-end markets in the digital textile space, with each method focusing on the range. The low end of the spectrum includes consumer-based personalized goods from mouse pads to calendars. Whereas the high end includes highly specialized home décor, apparel, and more.
Transfer dye-sub printing involves printing on a special paper and sublimating the ink to fabric with heat. This method requires the use of a capable output device, transfer paper, and a heat press. Direct dye-sub printers output directly to fabric, and then similar to transfer dye-sub, inks are fixed to the fabric with heat. A third option is direct digital printing to textiles, which involves printers designed to handle textile substrates without the need for transfer paper or a separate heating unit.
No matter what process is used, it is clear that digital textile printing is gaining notable traction within overall wide format. According to analyst firm InfoTrends, the global textile industry is worth approximately $1 trillion. Of that, the firm estimates that the worth of digitally printed textile products is valued at $10.3 billion in 2012—less than 1.5 percent of the total market. However, InfoTrends points out that while the digital textile printing market is small in comparison to the entire textile industry, it is growing rapidly. The company estimates that revenues from digital textile equipment and ink sales will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 30.7 percent.
While acknowledging advantages and disadvantages to each process, this article focuses on the ins and outs of transfer dye-sub printing.
“When people think of dye-sub transfer, they typically envision high output environments with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of massive, dye-sub printers and fixation units the size of Brazil,” points out David Hawkes, group product manager, Roland DGA Corporation. “And, there are print service providers (PSPs) with football field-sized warehouses churning out dye-sub garments by the truckload in multiple shifts,” he admits. “What many people don’t realize, however, is that some of the highest margin custom garment applications can be done with a simple, inexpensive dye-sub transfer and a heat press,” he adds.
Several advantages are offered with transfer dye-sub printing, beginning with the look and feel of the finished fabric, says Michael Syverson, director of special projects, PrinterEvolution, LLC. The transfer sublimation process infuses colorants into the fabric, dying the fibers. “Upon completion it has the same feel—or hand—and the color is rich and vibrant, which adds to the high-end perception. In many other processes—such as latex or UV printing on textile—the hand of the fabric changes as the ink is cured on the surface of the substrate,” he explains.
Direct digital textile printing may eliminate the need for transfer, but Catalina Frank, product manager, professional imaging, Epson, points out that in addition to the hardware investment, limitations include low production speeds, necessary pre- and post-fabric treatment, and printing quality. “With this being said, dye-sub transfer print is still the most effective method of printing to textile,” she explains.
Benefits of transfer dye-sub processes include fast turnaround times, reduced or eliminated setup, no minimum production required, and affordable polyester fabrics that generally cost less than high-end or specialty fabrics required for direct textile printing.
Dan Barefoot, president, Graphics One, LLC (GO), says the ability to produce crisp, vibrant images, as well as the low cost of entry and return on investment are advantages that stand out for transfer dye-sub over alternative digital textile printing processes. “Additionally, dye-sub printers produce true continuous tones, and prints are dry and ready to handle as soon as they exit the printer. Fewer moving parts and dry output make dye-sub generally a more reliable technology over inkjet printing,” he says.
One notable limitation to the transfer dye-sub process is its media compatibility. “For textiles, sublimation decorating is limited to polyester fabrics,” says David Gross, president, Condé Systems Inc. “Interestingly, in clothing, polyester is all the rage with digital sublimation leading the charge,” he adds.
Another viral market is metal art, which many are calling the “new canvas,” according to Gross.
Overall, the dye-sub transfer process is known to be more labor intensive and generates greater waste than direct digital print methods; however for many it is a worthwhile endeavor. For example, Marcus Tam, marketing officer, Eastsign International Ltd., shares that the transfer speed of dye-sub is higher than that of direct print, generating more profit for users.
In addition to an investment in a suitable output device, transfer dye-sub requires a heat press or sublimation calender as well as transfer paper and compatible substrates to create output.
Gross says dye-sub transfer offers the lowest operating cost of any technology due to the maturity of inks, transfer paper, and polyester. He adds that because the ink is transferred, the polyester is uncoated for the lowest costs. “The typical cost for paper and ink on full coverage printing is less than $0.25 per square foot,” he reports.
Frank agrees, explaining that compared to direct digital textile printing, business owners can produce sellable output, featuring rich and vibrant colors, at a cost of approximately $0.20 per square foot with dye-sub transfer. “Any polyester-based fabrics, including blends above 50 percent polyester that do not require pre- and post-treatment are available from $3.50 to $8 a yard, while high-end, direct-to-print fabrics retail from $30 to $50 a yard,” she offers.
Gross admits that equipment cost is greater for dye-sub transfer than some alternative technologies such as direct to print. This is mainly due to the cost of a heat press, which varies with size and type. He estimates that a typical 44-inch sublimation printer with a Geo Knight & Co., Inc. 44x64-inch air operated press is around $28,000.
From a total cost of ownership perspective, Mike Wozny, product manager, EFI, says transfer applications have the advantage over alternative processes as they yield a higher sale price that more than compensates for the additional cost of transfer paper.
The space required for transfer dye-sub is another consideration. “This can vary greatly depending on the unit purchased,” says Syverson. To put it into perspective, he notes that PrinterEvolution offers the Evo33 series industrial ten-foot dye-sub printer that prints direct and transfer, and is paired with another piece of equipment—the calender—for sublimation. “These two pieces of equipment combined will command more than 24 linear feet of floor space,” he explains.
When considering other methods for digital textile printing, Syverson states that a UV printer is approximately 15 to 20 feet wide and the depth varies with or without a table, which possibly adds another eight to ten inches in depth. He estimates that latex printers vary between eight and ten feet in width, depending on the model.
Application range is another major consideration—and draw—for transfer dye-sub. “Perhaps the greatest advantage to dye-sub transfer over direct textile printing is versatility,” says Randy Anderson, product marketing manager, dye-sub and textiles, Mutoh America, Inc.
He adds that transfer printing can be done on anything from an 8.5x11-inch desktop-type printer with a mug or mouse pad press up to 120 inches in width with a high-end calender unit.
With this flexibility, Anderson explains that customers can start out small with a minimal upfront investment to create mugs, buttons, awards, photo frames, and phone covers—all which can be done with a small footprint. From there, they can move up to smaller printers and larger presses, adding on applications such as apparel, banners, flags, and art. As the business continues to grow, printers are added to increase width capacity and overall output for jobs such as banners, backdrops, and trade show displays.
Applications produced with transfer dye-sub are abundant. Hawkes notes that in addition to high-end garments, which are often made of performance polyester, the capabilities of dye-sub transfer extend into décor, tile, flooring, and even china.
Some of the biggest opportunities in transfer dye-sub may be a little less obvious and alluring. “Some of the fastest and most profitable dye-sub applications aren’t as glamorous as those featured on the covers of digital décor magazines,” says Hawkes. “The pet industry has continued to grow at a compound rate of over five percent, despite the recession, according the American Pet Products Association. So, while you may be eating dinner off of unremarkable dishware, your pet is dining on a personalized dog bowl with her name and photo sublimated on the surface,” he quips.
Syverson suggests that transfer printing offers the most ease and flexibility in the substrate range, therefore offering the most ease and flexibility in applications. “From the standpoint of the equipment operator, it is simple and efficient, as you only need to setup a single profile for the selected transfer paper. That transfer paper, once profiled for the printer, can be used to sublimate onto any and every fabric being used—virtually any coated or uncoated polyester,” he says.
Frank notes transfer dye-sub offers the flexibility of producing minimums as small as one piece—versus thousands of yards or hundreds of pieces required with other textile printing processes.