By Melissa Donovan
Grand format printers are used in the creation of fabric-based applications. The width in particular is advantageous because it means less seams. Digital Output considers grand format anything over 95 inches in width. Some models can run as either transfer or direct dye-sublimation (dye-sub). Further, certain printers are engineered to run both transfer and direct dye-sub, allowing the user to alternate between processes.
Above: Custom Color based out of Lenexa, KS, uses two EFI VUTEk FabriVU 340 printers to complete its textile printing.
Grand format dye-sub printers are ideal for fabric-based applications. Practical, visual, and aesthetic reasons play into this. Demand comes from a number of backgrounds, which means the final printed output is placed in a variety of environments.
Fabric is economically practical. “Traditionally, the larger something is printed, the more it costs and the heavier it becomes. Contrary to paper, vinyl, and rigid materials, as well as UV and latex technologies, dye-sub printed fabric can be washed and used repeatedly, making it more economical to go larger. Fabric can be folded down to and shipped or carried onto a plane inexpensively,” suggests Tara Lamb, president, Global Imaging.
“Trade show graphics are typically 8×10 feet or larger and grand format printers reduce the need for sewing panels. As silicone edge graphics (SEG) frames become more common, many are used as easy-to-change wall wraps,” says Randy Anderson, product manager, dye-sub and textile line of printers, Mutoh America, Inc.
Visually, dye-sub provides stunning imagery even at superwide sizes. “Grand format dye-sub is an ideal printing method for fabric because of its bright colors and photorealistic quality. With the width size of the fabrics, companies have to do less seaming or panels to achieve clean backdrops or very large fabric sign displays,” explains David Lopez, textile solutions specialist, Mimaki USA, Inc.
Fabric’s soft hand offers a high aesthetic value. According to Young Bae, product planning, marketing, DGI, “soft signage can be created with latex, UV, and water-based ink, but compared with dye-sub, there is a limitation and lack of softness in the printed materials. Some say it is more luxurious to put fabric signs up versus a PVC or vinyl. And when dye-sub is used, it gives a more natural look.”
This is because the ink adheres to the fabric in a chemical process, whereas with other ink technologies the ink sits on top of the substrate and is easily scratched off, points out Jason Bartusick, product development/strategic planning, Media One. “The elasticity of most knitted textiles creates issues with latex or UV ink due to the image distorting when stretched,” he adds.
With benefits in the form of economics, visuals, and aesthetics, digitally printed fabric is growing in demand and requested by different end users including the trade show/exhibit market, retail point of purchase (POP) market, and special event markets. “We’ve seen much growth in the trade show market over the past few years and the retail market has grown rapidly as well due to the fact that graphic installation is much easier and doesn’t require installation teams to properly change an SEG print,” admits Mike Syverson, textile manager – North America, Durst Image Technology US LLC.
“Businesses in the exhibition and trade show space now largely request dye-sub printed soft signage because it’s reusable and easy to store and ship to different locations. And, there is more demand for it in high-end retail POP environments because it creates that high-end look retailers need,” agrees Mike Wozny, senior product manager, EFI.
Other places fabric is used, according to Lamb, include wallcoverings in museums, at events, for television sets, in airports, and structural spaces. “These spaces were traditionally dedicated to paper, vinyl, and rigid pieces. Fabric is portable, reusable, durable, lightweight, and environmentally friendly and has a much more high-end appearance,” she adds.
Two Modes in One
Grand format dye-sub printers are available with the functionality to run as transfer or direct dye-sub on one device. This capability is ideal for print providers working with multiple buyers of digitally printable fabric.
Flexibility is essential, shares Syverson. “Some applications require a system that prints direct while others are best suited for transfer printing. Systems with offline sublimation in addition to the ability to print direct and transfer give the highest degree of flexibility.”
He provides examples like long print runs on fabric that may make sense to print direct and sublimate offline versus printing on transfer paper. If frequent material changes occur or a specific application requires a fabric that is not pre-treated for direct print—many interior décor fabrics—transfer printing makes more sense, according to Syverson.
“The ability to do both on the same printer with the same ink sets also ensures consistent and accurate color regardless of how it is produced,” adds Wozny.
“If a shop wants to offer the fullest range of applications—then a printer that runs both direct and transfer is the best choice. For anyone offering dye-sub they have to be able do backlit and flag material really well—as those are two of the most common applications in soft signage. These are typically done best with direct dye-sub. On the flip side, when printing with transfer, a much wider range of applications becomes available,” explains Lamb.
Bae agrees it is good to have transfer dye-sub as an option because of “troubled” fabrics with features like stretch, thinness, or transparency. Using a transfer process helps minimize any chance of error.
Conversely, Bartusick suggests that the direct printing method works for the clear majority of applications for the average to industrial dye-sub print house. “It allows for cost savings by eliminating paper and tissue. This is also generally a faster method, with less labor involved.”
“A print service provider (PSP) that offers both functionalities has the option to reach out to an array of clients at different price points. Transfer dye-sub is preferred due the fact that any polyester-based fabric can be used without any additional steps before printing. PSPs printing direct to fabric have to pretreat, but this method eliminates the cost of transfer paper, causing the price of the printed fabric to be less expensive,” shares Lopez.
Making a Decision
If a piece of grand format printer hardware offers the capability to print direct or transfer, one of the first things to ask is whether the process can be switched over on the fly depending on the job at hand.
If a printer is designed for both direct and transfer printing upfront, the changeover should be pretty straightforward, says Syverson. “The system is designed for convenience. Many times, it requires only adding a tray to catch overspray ink that passes through the knit/weave of a fabric and RIPping the file with the appropriate setup,” he recommends.
Allowing for alternating processes on the fly is easier when there is no ink changeover involved. The difference in transfer versus direct is usually removing or adding a piece of equipment. At DGI, to create its “hybrid” soft signage printer—the FH-3204—the device includes a vacuum platen instead of a flatbed or belt for the transfer dye-sub process. Bae explains that the vacuum platen is easier to remove. Once it’s gone, a special fabric pad is placed there to enable printing direct. At 120 inches in width, the FH-3204 prints up to 1,615 square feet per hour (sf/h).
The Durst Rhotex 325 is equipped with a single ink set, water-based dispersion inks paired with Durst WTS printhead technology. The 3.2-meter or 126-inch device is referred to as a dual purpose printing system and allows the user to alternate between paper transfer and direct printing on polyester-based materials. It reaches speeds of up to 4,195 sf/h.
Another example of single ink set usage is the 126-inch PrinterEvolution D3200—available from Global Imaging—which offers direct, transfer, inline, and offline sublimation at production print speeds of up to 1,620 sf/h. Equipped with water-based dye-sub ink, the device can alternate between direct and transfer by integrating a Transfer Print Kit into the system.
EFI also offers a dye-sub device that involves no ink changeover, its EFI VUTEk FabriVU 340i. It includes inline sublimation for direct to fabric printing, which can be turned off if an offline sublimation unit is added. The 3.4-meter printer reaches production speeds of up to 2,691 sf/h.
Some companies are advocates for separating transfer and direct dye-sub processes completely. Bartusick points out that while in the past it was thought transfer was required for printing to any stretch textile, today that isn’t the case.
Media One distributes d.gen dye-sub printers, specifically the Teleios Grande G5—available in 130 inches in width. The grand format direct sublimation device prints directly to stretch materials thanks to a unique textile feeding system.
Mimaki offers printers that do one type of sublimation printing or the other. The TS500P-3200 is a transfer model and the TX500P-3200DS is the direct to fabric option. At 129.9 inches, the TS500P-3200 offers 1,937 sf/h and is engineered to print on the thinnest transfer paper. The TX500P-3200DS is 129.5 inches wide and includes a fully integrated inline color fixation unit that aids in high productivity up to 1,399 sf/h.
“We separated the two because we have perfectly formulated the ink for each process,” explains Lopez.
Mutoh’s ValueJet 2638X is a 104-inch grand format printer offering print speeds of 1,168 sf/h. Equipped with water-based sublimation ink the transfer dye-sub printer offers a staggered dual printhead design for faster production speeds.
Manufacturers offer printers that can print both transfer and direct dye-sub with one ink set for the widest range of substrate versatility. Others sell devices that separate the two processes. All grand format dye-sub printers are used to create graphics for a number of environments including POP and retail, special events, and museums.
Dec2018, Digital Output