Dye sublimation transfers rely on special inks to put an image on paper, which is then transferred onto the final substrate during a heat transfer process where the temperatures can get as high as 400 degrees. The result is an embedded image that will not peel, crack, fade, or discolor over time. Sublimation transfers offer a high level of color vibrancy and permanence.
However, the latest buzz has been the introduction of direct inkjet fabric printers that can image directly onto fabric and other media without a transfer process.
The alternatives to dye sublimation and direct inkjet printing seem pale by comparison. Heat transfers created with color laser, inkjet, or wax thermal printers use a polymer coated transfer paper to fuse ordinary toner or ink particles onto the surface of a substrate. "The result is a decal-like transfer that can peel, crack, fade, and discolor," says Ken VanHorn, senior product manager, Roland DGA Corp.
Dye sublimation is popular because ink is infused into the fabric for brighter colors, and the material has a softer feel. "We are seeing a preference in some cities in North America and several countries in Europe for fabric applications because they like the look and feel of fabric rather than vinyl. Also, graphics printed on fabric can be folded and stored for reuse without the worries of wrinkles as with vinyl," says Jane Cedrone, marketing communications manager for EFIís VUTEk. "Fabric is also lighter in weight which means lower shipping costs."
"At SGIA, I saw a lot of interestóa lot more fabrics, and combo printers that have two sets of inks, one for solvent printing and one for dye sub. Because of dye subís durability and the color you can achieve, it is gaining more strength," says Paul Choiniere, graphics director for Moss Inc., which makes tensioned fabric solutions for the exhibit, event, and retail interiors industries using dye sublimation technology.
"We have noticed a definite spike in interest for wide format dye sublimation in the past two years," says Michael Labella of US Sublimation, a manufacturer of dye sublimation inks and direct-to-textile water-based pigment inks. "I believe that there are three reasons for this new interest," Labella continues. "The first is driven by competition in the solvent market. As printers try to compete for business in an overly saturated solvent-based printing market they are looking for printing solutions to attract customers and increase the ever shrinking profit margins. The second reason has to do with the advantages that fabric offers for the banner and tradeshow graphics markets. Finally, many screen printing outfits are tapping into the short run market emerging from the advent of digital technologies to make up for the increased competition from overseas."
Manufacturers are introducing these presses in response to market demand. The equipment is being used to image custom flags, tradeshow booth banners, corporate banners, exhibition graphics, wall murals, stage graphics, promotional items, awards, signage, tile murals, snowboards, billboards, and the list goes on. "If you want to do something on acetate or nylon material, today it is done with dye sublimation," says Steve Urmano, marketing manager, Mimaki USA, adding that he has seen dye subs used to create gaming and card tables, where printers start with a light felt and transfer the green field onto it as well as areas designated for cards and chips using Texas holdíem types of layouts.
Rolandís transfer sublimation systems include the HeatWave line of sublimation printers and printer/cutters in 30-inch, 54-inch, and 104-inch models, and the new Hi-Fi Express FJ-740, a 74-inch sublimation printer. It runs at print speeds of up to 548 square feet per hour and maintains image quality even through long production runs for consistent, reliable prints. Each system offers sublimation ink, transfer paper, and powerful RIP softwareóelements that work together to produce vibrant color transfers quickly and easily.
For many Roland customers, dye sublimation technology has allowed them to enter new markets with truly unique products that reflect the highest levels of color vibrancy, image quality, and durability. Sublimation has expanded the range of substrates customers can incorporate into their product lines as well. "In addition, sublimation opens the door to digital wide format for screen printers by offering a durable, vibrant, environmentally-friendly solution for creating flags, banners, and apparel as well as sublimated rigid items such as awards and plaques," says VanHorn.
For these reasons, many industry experts tout dye sublimation printers for sign shops, but not everyone agrees. "I think the sign shop as a key target market for dye sublimation may be a misnomer," says Urmano. "I think the silk screeners have seen the benefit of dye sub early and they are the ones creating flags and specialty dyed materials used in trade show booths, and decorating everything including the cosmetic areas in department stores. These are uses that weíve seen for quite awhile now. They learned early on that there is a business here, so theyíve been in it for awhile. As far as sign shops buying new dye sublimation equipment, they have simply adapted their existing printers for dye sublimation."
Direct to Fabric
Several manufacturers such as D.Gen, Dupont, EFI, Mimaki, and TexPress, among others, have direct to fabric systems.
Among the new products is Mimakiís new direct-to-fabric press, the DS1600, which the company introduced in September 2006. Images are heat-set to the material using an external heater stage that sits in front of the machine and heats the material.
EFI offers a VUTEk paperless dye sub printer that images direct on fabric. The VUTEk FabriVu 3360 is a three meter roll-to-roll printer available in four- and eight-color models. The VUTEk 3360 has a three meter platform and can switch from solvent roll-to-roll to dye-sublimation in less than five minutes.
D.Gen is another direct-to-fabric printer with a built-in heat fixation unit. Most direct-to-fabric printers still require that the fabric be run through a separate heat fixation machine to bind the ink to the polymers in the textile material after being printed. The Teleios has this unit built in, so the user only has to buy one machine and there is no extra labor involved. It offers resolutions up to 1440dpi and costs $85,000 for a 74-inch printer.
TexPress has introduced the DSS-1800-II, which prints direct-to-fabrics up to 74 inches wide via an integrated printer and TexPress LF inks that deliver finished, printed fabrics on uncoated polyester stock that do not require any post printing processes. The machine also includes built-in heat cutters that can perform some, but not all, vertical cutting. "In many shops, this can save as much as an entire employee cost by just doing a majority of the cutting," says Charles Sharp, president, TexPress Inc.
The DuPont Artistri 2020 was also designed for textile applications ranging from apparel and home furnishings to soft signage and tradeshow displays. Using innovative Adhesive Print Blanket technology, the 71-inch-wide printer can handle most fabric types, including stretch, knits, and wovens - with no transfer paper required.
More and more manufacturers are revealing direct-to-print solutions that are meeting buying demands. Moss Inc. has two VUTEk FabriVu 3360s by EFI that they use to print the fabric skins that are hung from lightweight metal structures. "Anything you can do digitally, we will put on a sign. Our business used to be simple logos, but with digital printing, especially with the FabriVu, we can put any combination of vector art and bitmaps on a sign," says Choiniere.
Moss Inc. uses the FabriVu presses to print direct-to-fabric when it prints shear materials and they want a softer look that bleeds through. "If we print onto fabric direct, the ink will soak into fabric and the colors are not as vibrant, resulting in a softer look. However, our primary substrate is polypoplin, which is an opaque fabric with a tighter weave. So we mostly print onto paper and when we put that through the sublimation process, the colors that are transferred onto the polypoplin are more vibrant and virtually indestructible," explains Choiniere.
"Thatís the big difference between solvent inkjet printing and dye sublimation. Itís all about the pop of color you get from dye sublimation," he adds.
Before Moss Inc. purchased the FabriVu, it relied on a Raster Graphics 5442, which used electrostatic technology, along with Xerox printers. "Back then, the big push from clients was to have materials without any seams. Color wasnít as important," says Choiniere. Now with the FabriVu onboard, Choiniere says there is no comparison between colors. He also likes the durability it provides. "Durability-wise it is better than the solvent equipment where the image could scratch off or crack."
Will Direct Printing Replace Dye Sub?
Most users prefer dye sublimation because of its vibrancy but direct-to-print continues to improve.
"There is no doubt that all-in-one direct textile and fixation printers will make dye sub obsolete," argues Melissa Ackerman, marketing coordinator, NuSign Supply. "It is easier, less time consuming, and cheaper to use one machine where two were needed before. Direct-to-fabric printers eliminate the risks of the traditional dye sublimation and heat transfer process. These risks include skewing or wrinkling of the image if it is not transferred properly or the transfer paper buckling during printing because the ink saturation is too high, which causes head strikes and damage to the print heads. Direct-to-fabric printers save the user the cost of transfer paper and the labor of transferring an image from paper onto fabric. Printing directly to fabric also means that no ink is lost in the transfer process, so prints come out with brighter, more saturated colors."
TexPressí Sharp agrees, enumerating the cost-savings of direct-to-fabric processes eliminate the cost of paper and its disposal. "It also uses less than 50 percent of the volume of ink versus dye sublimation transfer. All of the processing is done within the machine, so no additional capital transfer equipment is needed. The entire operation can be done with one operator, thus saving labor cost."
However, despite its advantages, Sharp does not believe that direct-to-fabric printers will replace dye subs any time soon. "There are still applications for each type of printing. Most shops will still want to be able to print using both technologies. For example, dye sub transfer is capable of transferring to a wide variety of materials in addition to fabrics. The direct-to-fabric printers will certainly fulfill much of the need for printing to fabrics, but not the other materials for the time being. Previous to SGIA, there were a limited number of companies who could do direct-to-print fabrics due to the high costs of the machines. Now, with TexPress and other lower cost alternatives, we believe this will be one of the fastest growing segments in the digital printing market," he says.
"Everyone wants the one printer that will do it all," admits Choiniere, who works with both technologies on a daily basis. Moss prints almost everything on fabric, they are starting to look at some of the direct printers for different materials, but it is not easy, given their requirements. "A company that is printing backlit vinyl that will go into a window or shadow box and is shipped carefully on a core, put up behind glass, and isnít touched, can go with a solvent inkjet printer. The same goes if youíre printing banners that will go up once, not up and down, and up again, like ours."
Will Digital Fabric Printing Replace Screen Printing?
"I donít think any one technology will easily replace another," says Urmano. "There is a traditionalism that exists in the market. It is hard to break people out of different workflows."
Because dye sublimation offers shorter set-up times, greater color vibrancy, and durability, many think that it could replace screen printing as the process of choice. "It also facilitates the production of more complex graphics and is well suited for short-run variable-data applications," says VanHorn.
"I donít believe it has replaced screen printing but certainly it can be a compliment to this process," counters Cedrone. "Itís a different way of generating revenues and also, with a device such as the VUTEk3360, which can print solvent and dye-sublimation solvent applications at the flip of a switch, the print shop can offer more applications without the need to invest in a dedicated dye-sub unit until the business levels justify such a device."
Urmano agrees. "I think people that buy dye subs dedicate them to a task. Printers purchase one to either add more capacity or create capacity, but they are not buying them to replace a workflow."
One example of a user who dropped screen printing in favor of dye sublimation is Craig Oakland, president, DAMCO Inc. DAMCO makes two products using a combination of the Roland FJ-540 and FJ-740 printers with dye sublimation presses that Oakland had hand-built from scratch. Oakland has been manufacturing snowboards for 15 years and recently added large format tile to his product mix as well. He originally tried screen printing the snowboards. "But screen printing and snowboards donít go well together," he says. "Screen printing scratches and a snowboard takes a lot of abuse. One run down the mountain and itís gone, especially on the bottom of the board."
With no alternatives, he resorted to screen printing, even taking the extra steps of printing graphics to be placed on the bottom of the board on the inside of a piece of glass and using epoxy inks to ensure the bond would stay put. "It was a real pain," says Oakland, who eventually turned to dye sub because of its durability and built his own 8x11-foot, 3x7-foot, and 1x6-foot presses. He now uses dye sub for the top and bottom of the board as well as for large format tiles.
Itís a Tie
In todayís signage world, fabric is a popular choice. Customers, marketing firms, and the sign shops themselves want elegant, colorful fabric-based graphics that wonít fade, crack, or peel. The most popular choices for fabric-friendly shops and their consumers are dye sublimation transfers or direct inkjet fabric printing. The better choice depends on who you ask. There are numerous advocates for both technologies and numerous manufacturers providing solutions for one, the other, or even both.