By Michael McEnaney
The growth that began a few years ago in the dye-sublimation (dye-sub) print market continues as more print service providers (PSPs) discover the process has evolved quite nicely of late. Expansion of the market beyond printed fabrics toward many other receptive products is rapidly emerging.
Just the type of news you want to hear if you’re considering running through what appears to be a wide open door to profit—but you may want to do your homework before taking the leap. Those that know this market well will tell you the process can be complicated, expensive, and requires a close examination of both your customer base as well as your shop’s physical space.
Add to this to the simple fact that dye-sub presses can take some getting used to—regardless of the level of your in-house personnel’s printing experience. That’s not to say the road to entry is paved with problems. Those that play it smart take advantage in a big way, discovering new profit potential in a market that is still very much on the upswing.
Background information on dye-sub inks and the adhesion process might be in order for those not familiar. Here we breakdown the difference between reactive, acid, pigment sublimation, and disperse inks.
Both reactive and acid dyes are water soluble. “Reactive ink contains water-soluble dyes that create covalent bonds with cellulose when heated under alkaline conditions. The ink is printed onto pretreated fabric before fixation,” explains Bob Keller, GM, Marabu North America.
Similarly, acid inks require a pretreated fabric for proper fixation. The dyes that make up acid ink create ionic or electrostatic bonds with amino-containing textiles such as silk, wool, and nylon, adds Keller. Fabric with reactive and acid ink must be washed after transfer to remove any residual substances.
Reactive- and acid-based inks have to be set into the fabrics with a post-processing steaming procedure to permanently set the dyes, particularly with Lycra and Spandex stretch apparel fabrics. Silks and nylon also use steaming for acid-based inks to produce high color saturation with bright, bold colors on these specific fabrics,” shares Paul McGovern, regional sales manager, Dallas technology center, Mimaki USA, Inc.
Sublimation inks are pigments. “The solid pigment particles undergo a phase change from solid to gas when heated to their sublimation point. When in gaseous form, the dyes penetrate the molecular structure of polymer materials—polyester—to form a physical bond as the material returns to the ambient temperature,” says Keller. Unlike reactive and acid, sublimation ink does not require pretreatment or post processing.
Disperse dye is similar to sublimation, in that both are insoluble in water. “Disperse dyes are a category of colorants that can dissolve into polyester and some other man-made fibers under the influence of heat,” continues Christophe Bulliard, commercial director, Sensient Imaging Technologies.
Another difference between disperse and sublimation, the amount of energy used to undergo a change between one state of matter to another. Keller points out that disperse dyes require a higher energy input to change the phase of the pigments from solid to gas. The higher energy level allows for the use of disperse dye technology in high lightfastness markets such as automotive.
Although it presents new application opportunities, disperse dye’s need for more energy—which also translates to a longer amount of time in a steamer or heat press—is a disadvantage over sublimation ink, according to Bulliard. “Besides requiring less energy, sublimation inks offer higher color intensity and can be used with four instead of eight colors, thus making the printing process faster and more economical,” he adds.
Vive la Dye-Sub Difference
There are important differences in digital dye-sub compared to the traditional silkscreening. For one, digital doesn’t require preparation of a screen, plate, or cylinder prior to print, which cuts down on time wasted in the preprocess.
Catalina Frank, product manager, Epson, points out the advantages of this workflow. “It eliminates all screenprinting equipment and chemicals. It also dramatically reduces floor space requirements and it cleans up the production process.”
“When using a traditional silkscreen process, a separate screen must be created for each color in the graphic. Contrastingly, in digital the four process colors—and occasional spot colors—are printed together using half-toning methods to convert the image from the RGB color space to the printed CMYK output,” adds Keller.
Ease of scale is a bonus. Graphics are altered more easily and adjusted to the size of the intended garment. Bulliard suggests imagining a design with a fairly large flower. “With traditional printing the flower will appear small on an extra large garment and very large on a smaller size. Digital allows for the adjustment of the proportion of the design to the size without preparing a new mask,” he shares.
“Screenprinting is the ultimate solution for large-scale textile printing, but what if you have a small job and do not want to go through the setup and the expense of running it? This is when digital printing will provide the best value and solution without wasting materials and avoiding setup downtime,” says Kineret Muller, marketing and public relations manager, Bordeaux Digital PrintInk.
Trevco Sportswear, located in Detroit, MI, expanded into the dye-sub space in August of last year. Now, as part of its business, it holds rights to licensed properties and sells products to retailers nationally. The Detroit location has grown to include seven artists and creates thousands of designs annually.
Regarding dye-sub, Trevco currently does contract sublimation work for many third-party accounts. This includes t-shirts and some flat textiles such as woven throws, fleece blankets, pillow cases, and towels.
Dye-sub means more variety. “Sublimation allows us to increase the design parameters so we can now cover the entire garment—if we want to, sleeves and all, including the back of the shirt too,” explains Jim George, CEO, Trevco.
“The press we purchased features top and bottom heat, which allows us to sublimate two sides of a tee at one time. Many, if not most of the designs we create are two sided, but since two-sided designs are more expensive, customers have the option of purchasing the shirts as front-only or front/back prints,” he adds.
Perhaps the most important part of the dye-sub mix—and a key to the entire process—are the inks. “Vibrancy and excellent resolution are what we look for on our finished products,” says George. Trevco uses PyroJET inks from Gans Ink and Supply Co. and experiences excellent results.
The company chose dye-sub ink over direct digital print partly due to fabric options. “Direct printing only works on 100 percent cotton garments. Sublimation works on 100 percent polyester or a polyester/cotton blend. Based on research we found that blends are preferred over 100 percent polyester,” he explains.
The Dye-Sub Advantage
Dye-sub holds many advantages for PSPs. As Trevco has learned, it continues to offer more than just t-shirts, creating products such as flat textiles that it manufactures into blankets or pillowcases and wholesales to other dye-sub shops.
“There is an enormous range of products and services that can be offered in this space today,” suggests Frank. “The applications include things like soft signage, flags, sportswear, promotional items, interior decoration/furnishings, and even many hard substrates.”
Bill Emery, founder, Billy the Printer in Levittown, NY and currently handling consulting work for PSPs on Long Island, says that today’s dye-sub equipment on the whole allows “for testing this market with a manageable entry cost. Users can start with a smaller printer as the offerings lend themselves to a nice range of applications, sizes, and entry costs.”
Regarding choosing an ink set between multiple vendors, Keller says cyan, yellow, and magenta are standard. However, he cautions that black may differ. “Because black is the result of blending various dyes, there are an infinite number of possible combinations. Some vendors offer five or more different black inks depending on the customer’s preference.”
Lead the Way
This space continues to see an increasing array of new and innovative combinations of media, inks, hardware, and software that continue to lift the printing process to new heights. Dye-sub is now becoming a more versatile and less expensive process compared to direct and screenprinting methods. As the technology continues to improve, new markets will emerge.
Aug2014, Digital Output