By Cassandra Balentine
While we often highlight the benefits of dye-sublimation (dye-sub) for textile applications, the processes are also applicable to rigid substrates like ceramic and aluminum.
“Sublimation is a two-step process that requires a printer with sublimation inks and a suitable heating system to fixate the inks to the substrate. Sublimation and heat transfer processes are similar between rigid products and fabrics. The differences are in the print settings and heat transfer parameters,” explains Tim Check, senior product manager, Professional Imaging, Epson America.
Patrick Moore, print lab manager, Beaver Paper Group and Graphic Media Inc., points to three heating methods for dye-sub on rigid substrates—flatbed heat process, conveyor ovens, and vacuum heat presses.
Aluminum panels can be sublimated with flatbed heat presses, and can be manually or pneumatically operated with a range of temperature and time settings. “Mug presses fit into this category as well. Special mug presses are available that squeeze the dye-sub paper against the mug or tumbler at certain time and temperatures. They can be pneumatic or manual as well,” adds Moore.
“Choose a heat press that enables you to grow your business without having to upgrade later. We recommend a 44×64-inch heat press for sublimating up 42×62 inches as good entry into rigid panels,” suggests Richard Dettman, sales director, Duraluxe Panels.
When using conveyor ovens, Moore says aluminum tumblers and ceramic coffee mugs can be wrapped with dye-sub printed paper, secured with a silicone sleeve, and put in a conveyor oven at various times and temperatures.
The third sublimation process is a vacuum heat press for three-dimensional objects such as phone cases, plates, or ornaments.
Dye-sub is attractive for rigid materials because they tend to hold detail and visually take advantage of a printer’s higher resolution mode. “Only the top surface will be colored, so little ink is needed. During the heat transfer process, the transfer paper for rigid materials needs to be able to handle the moisture in the paper that will turn to steam as the rigid surface is impenetrable. This involves allowing moisture to pass through the backside of the paper, while keeping most of the dye colors moving forward into the sublimation material,” offers Check.
It is a good idea to choose a sublimation printer that provides the highest quality color palette and resolution for photos and graphics, adds Moore.
Above: Duraluxe Panels are Class A Fire Rated, which means they are safe for use in environments like hotels, hospitals, cruise ships, and elevators.
Dye-sub works well with a variety of rigid substrates, including flat, curved, and irregularly shaped—so long as they have a polyester coating or exterior—the opportunities are immense. “Businesses can expand orders to accommodate larger clientele and create new opportunities to expand into different markets. For example, businesses can easily create wood décor panels, aluminum photo panels, fiber board coasters, steel dry-erase boards, vacuum insulated water bottles, metal pet tags, ceramic mugs, porcelain steins, holiday ornaments, mobile phone cases, vehicle license plate frames, snowboards, trophy name plates, and award plaques,” notes Check.
Dettman points out the interior and exterior design appeal that dye-sub offers, including printing kitchen backsplashes, showers, outdoor signs, elevator interiors, exterior façades, and wayfinding signage.
For those already invested in dye-sub for textiles, is it time to consider rigid mediums as well?
“The sublimation printing segment has evolved to be very profitable and does not require a high initial investment,” adds Dettman. If you are currently using sublimation for textile printing, he says the investment should be minimal. “For starters, if you are already using a sublimation printer to print transfers and are currently using a flat press to sublimate, then no additional equipment may be needed.”
On the other hand, Moore believes there are significant changes and investments to consider. “Rigid substrates provide a smooth surface that requires high-resolution printing. The higher resolution introduces a higher ink concentration, so a new RIP software configuration i.e., print settings and color management, is necessary to sublimate on rigid substrates.”
A new printer may be required if high-resolution printing cannot be achieved, as well as alternative paper. “Dye-sub papers vary in weight and coating chemistry, which cater to a customer’s substrate. Most textile papers are lightweight and may or may not have an adhesion layer. Rigid substrates need a heavier paper with a specific coating chemistry capable of handling the higher ink load and resolution that a smooth surface needs,” says Moore.
He adds that a pressure increase is necessary since the smooth surface can allow the dye gas to escape or outgas out the sides of the paper. “Typical textile dye-sub facilities use calender heat presses, so new heat press equipment is a necessary purchase. Then the transfer settings need to be optimized. A pressure increase is necessary since the smooth surface can allow the dye gas to escape or outgas out from the sides of the paper. Low heat for a longer time may be required for large panels since aluminum has thermal expansion.”
Tony Simmering, product manager, Mutoh America, Inc., addresses one difference involving the sublimation paper. “The sublimation paper used for rigid blanks should not be classified as tacky, which is almost exclusively reserved for textile sublimation. The transfer paper is typically marketed as general purpose or non-tacky and should not stick to your fingers or become reactive to water.”
Once you get into it, the dye-sub processes is efficient and low cost. Check says a typical mug would only cost pennies to print. “Businesses that require high production can balance the number of heat transfer presses with one or few printers for maximum production throughout, resulting in lower production costs and potentially savings for end users.”
For traditional print providers looking to add rigid dye-sub services, Check suggests considering turnkey solutions that deliver professional-quality prints with powerful software right out of the box. “Look for printers that come in compact, space-saving designs. Print providers needing to fulfill large orders in shorter lead times can leverage industrial-level solutions to bid on large contracts from clients that require goods at a higher volume and increase revenue.”
Finding the right sublimation paper is an essential step in the process for rigid mediums.
“It’s important to consider multi-use transfer paper that tackles a variety of print jobs and matches with print settings and ink to produce high-quality output,” says Check. For example, Epson’s DS Transfer Photo and Multi-Use Papers instantly dries to avoid print smudges and roller marks and produces excellent photo quality on rigid materials.
Dettman suggests those that fall between 70 to 80 gsm. “For transfer onto hard surfaces, we recommend a transfer paper that allows the vapor to escape through the paper. This type of paper is similar to photo-quality inkjet papers, which dry immediately after printing and prevent paper shrinkage.
“To accommodate rigid substrates, you need a transfer paper with enough weight to handle the high ink load coupled with a coating chemistry that absorbs the ink evenly across the sheet,” adds Moore.
Several players support dye-sub to rigid substrates. Here, we highlight a sampling of paper, printer, and panel manufacturers.
Beaver Paper has several papers capable of providing rigid dye sublimated output. It offers its TexPrint MP95, TexPrint XP105, and TexPrint XP125 sublimation papers that work well on rigid substrates and provide smooth, high-resolution dye transfers.
“Since printer technology is always evolving we offer a variety of transfer papers. Older printers need heavier paper to absorb the ink and run efficiently. New printers are using higher ink concentrations, so the amount of ink is lower. And newer printers are faster, so they can use lighter paper,” shares Moore.
Duraluxe Panels are powder coated, and therefore more resistant to impact and flexible—making them better for post-forming applications. They are Class A Fire Rated, which means they are safe for use in environments like hotels, hospitals, cruise ships, and elevators.
“Powder coated sublimation has become a growing technology in the decoration field, this due to some inherent physical advantages of powder coated bases over liquid paints,” offers Dettman. They are resistant to chipping and wear because they can be applied in much thicker layers. In addition to their physical toughness, they provide superior color retention and are volatile organic compound free, which makes them a more environmentally friendly option, adds Dettman.
Canon Solutions America distributes the DGI line-up of dye-sub printers backed by the company’s trusted team of service, support, and financing experts, this includes ten-foot HF-3204 and FT-3204X hybrid-dye-sub printers which allows for switching between transfer and direct printing.
Epson offers a range of dye-sub printers engineered to offer a combination of reliable operation, exceptional quality, and fast print output to help businesses grow.
The 8.5-inch SureColor F170 and 24-inch SureColor F570 Pro offer complete desktop solutions for custom dye-sub printing. The printers deliver astounding print quality; bright, brilliant images with extraordinary color; and come equipped with everything that a business needs to start printing right from the box.
Featuring a robust print mechanism and exceptional printheads, Epson’s SureColor F-Series printers such as the 64-inch SureColor F9470, SureColor F9470H, and SureColor F7200 as well as the 44-inch SureColor F6370 printers can help turn the exploding demand for custom-printed products into bigger profits for businesses.
For high-volume printing, Epson offers industrial dye-sub printers such as the 76-inch SureColor F10070 and SureColor F10070H. Engineered to achieve industrial reliability and round-the-clock productivity—all at a low total cost of ownership, these SureColor F-Series printers help businesses maximize sellable output with enhanced performance, consistent quality, and reduced downtime.
Mutoh DH21 sublimation ink works well with sublimation blanks in many areas including color gamut, adhesion, and longevity, according to Simmering.
Once implemented, dye-sub is an efficient and cost-effective method to print on a range of rigid substrates. However, it is important to consider all of the elements required to make a successful set up, including a high-quality printer, effective heating system, the right transfer paper, and final substrate.
May2022, Digital Output