By Cassandra Balentine
The use of a heat press is necessary for dye-sublimation (dye-sub) printing and heat transfer. Heat from the press executes the sublimation process, which is the act of converting ink to a gaseous state and infusing the textile fibers. In the case of heat transfer, sufficient heat is applied to bond graphics to a variety of materials.
Depending on the specific application, the operator’s expertise, and a shop’s volume and budgetary needs, a print service provider (PSP) offering dye-sub has a variety of choices. A range of heat press options are available, including smaller flatbed solutions, like popular clamshell and swing away, or rotary equipment.
Flatbed heat presses are limited to single piece work, while rotary presses enable roll-to-roll transfers. Aaron Knight, VP, Geo Knight & Co, Inc., describes flatbed heat presses as flat, rigid, single-area pressing machines while rotary—or calenders—are continuous, roll-fed solutions.
Henri Coeme, global sales manager, graphics imaging, HIX Corporation, breaks down flatbed presses further, explaining that clamshell presses are mostly sold in traditional transfer and direct-to-garment applications, whereas swinger or swing away presses are mostly sold to customers working with textile and non-textile sublimations.
Rotary heat presses typically involve a higher upfront cost, however, as Dan Kane, marketing manager, graphics, Royal Sovereign International, Inc., explains, the average user gains the ability to scale up production based on needs. These presses are ideal for sports and activewear apparel production.
Cost and Productivity
Cost and functionality are primary considerations for any equipment investment. This holds true for heat presses. Additionally, the type of applications created, past and present volumes, and environment help to narrow down whether a digital textile printer is looking at a clamshell, swing, or rotary solution.
When it comes to cost, Kane admits that it is difficult to say what the average print provider should expect to pay for a heat press. The size, width, and heating technology are all factors that affect the total cost of ownership.
Generally, depending on the level of automation and production expectations, heat presses range from around $1,000 to upwards of $150,000. Flatbed options run on the lower end and rotary presses on the higher end.
Manual clamshell solutions are priced lower, and semi-automatic models retail for over $1,000. Larger sized clamshell solutions can run much higher.
Swing away solutions are priced around $2,000 on the lower end for manual and higher for automated.
Kane points out that when it comes to clamshell or swing away presses, volume may be sacrificed for price. “Small 6×8-inch solutions can be purchased for under $1,500, while 44×64-inch presses can run up to $50,000.”
Coeme adds that oversized twin-platen presses can go for almost $5,000 while large format options list for about $25,000. “Swing away models are generally a little more expensive than comparable clamshell models because of their need for a more robust cantilever construction. Of course, automatic models are more costly than their manual counterparts,” he says.
Rotary/calender presses offer the highest productivity and a much larger price tag.
Kane shares that an entry-level, quality calender/rotary heat press could cost anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000 depending on heat technology, width, and drum diameter, while higher end calender/rotary presses with widths up to ten feet and drum diameters of over 30 inches could run upwards of $140,000 to $160,000.
Matt Gusse, VP, sales and marketing, Advanced Color Solutions, explains that rotary heat presses are generally manufactured at 40 to 132 inches in width and the machine’s speed is usually measured by the diameter of the drum. “The larger the drum the faster the machine can continually heat and output product,” he continues. For perspective on speed, with a ten-inch drum size, users can expect about two to three feet per minute, and five to seven feet for a 24-inch drum.
“PSPs need to take the time to analyze the total cost of operating a press including operator labor, power, and space within the facility. Customers entering the dye-sub market often start out with a single flat press and as demand for production builds, add a second flat press, which requires an additional operator, power, and floor space,” says Michael Pender, president, Supply55, Inc. He says they should consider a rotary press, which offers a higher production capacity with a single device.
Budget, applications, and volume requirements are all factors that can bring a clear winner to the forefront when it comes to deciding on a flatbed option like clamshell or swing away, or a rotary heat press.
Flat Platen Presses
Clamshell heat presses include two platens that open and shut similar to a clamshell.
Zuzana Cloete, business development, Practix Manufacturing LLC, explains clamshell presses work exactly as they sound, the top opens up at an angle to expose the bottom platen. When the operator is ready, the top platen—or clam—comes down and the bottom platen will rise to meet the heater.
Clamshell solutions are ideal for environments with limited space. “The movement is up and down instead of side to side so the machine does not require a lot of area to operate,” suggests Cris Saunders, director of sales and marketing, Insta Graphic Systems.
Coeme says clamshell solutions provide the ability to open and close in a single motion—as opposed to swing away models that have two distinct movements, vertical and lateral.
Sue Wilcosky, marketing manager, Transfer Express, Inc., a Groupe Stahl Company, recommends PSPs consider portability. “A clam-style press is ideal for those planning to decorate on site at events,” she explains, adding that the size and weight of a clam-style press makes it great for traveling.
Jeff Hopkins, SVP, sales and marketing, Advanced Innovative Technologies, LLC, points out that while clamshell heat presses are easier to manufacture than other types of platen heat presses, he recommends vertical retraction platen heat presses for dye-sub due to pressure issues. “Clamshell presses are difficult to maintain even pressure over the course of the life of the press and especially in the case of varying thicknesses of substrates,” he offers.
Similar to a clamshell press, swing away models include two platens. However, with swing aways, the top platen always faces down. This provides unobstructed access to the entire platen and also keeps heat away from the user’s face and hands, explains Saunders.
While swing away presses enable operators to keep their hands away from the heat, they are a little more technical to operate compared to clamshell models. “The swing away presses are ideal for experienced operators and considered work horses,” advises Wilcosky.
Applications well suited for swing away solutions including sublimation, flock, rhinestone, and non-textile work.
Hopkins suggests that platen heat presses feature a simple design with few moving parts, leading to easy maintenance, installation, and servicing, as well as the ability to conform to rigid substrates.
In addition to the clamshell and swing away presses, tray or draw and shuttle-style platen solutions are also available.
Aside from a higher investment cost, rotary presses come with more moving parts and maintenance.
Cloete says rotary presses are either air or oil heated, and each come with advantages and disadvantages. She suggests that oil heated systems are more expensive but provide consistent heat, while air machines offer faster heat up and cool down times.
Hopkins believes a primary benefit of roll-to-roll rotary presses is that heat is continuous and allows for maximum production. “Rolls of continuous fabric can be produced with no limitation on length.”
Marcus Tam, marketing manager, Eastsign International Ltd., points out that a clamshell or swing away heat press requires one worker that can make about two shirts in one hour, while rotary heat presses can double that productivity.
“The calender or rotary press offers the most versatile options by allowing the user to perform roll-to-roll transfers virtually up to any length, single piece-to-piece work—again not limited by length—or piece-to-roll production,” says Kane, noting that it is ideal for sports and activewear applications.
In addition to roll-to-roll models, rotary heat presses are also available for the production of cut parts printing used for apparel and individual part printing and transferring, adds Hopkins.
Productivity is costly. Automated solutions enable more volume but also come with a higher price tag.
Saunders recommends that users anticipating high production volumes invest in an automatic heat press. “When manual heat presses are used for high-volume production, it seems that output tends to drop over the course of the day. Manual equipment requires a significant amount of physical labor to run the machines.”
Gusse agrees, noting that automated machines are designed with productivity in mind and lead to less user fatigue and lower error rate.
Automation also leads to predictability. “Automatic heat presses are far more consistent for setting pressure and relieve the operator of long bench pressing workouts due to the push-button automatic closing/opening nature of the operation,” says Knight. He adds that manual presses are more popular but require effort with opening and closing, and operators need to get a feel for setting the pressure.
However, automation does come with its own set of challenges. For example, these devices typically weigh more and cost more to ship. They may also require a compressor and consume more electricity overall.
Heat presses are affected by the recent trend of more digital textile printing applications. To serve this segment, new feature sets are added and existing ones are evolved.
Saunders believes that the push to digital textile printing has definitely affected the heat press industry in regard to machinery options, features, and usage. “With direct-to-garment machinery, you are using heat presses for pre- and post-curing of garments after the digital print. With the sublimation boom, you are seeing larger heat presses used for applications of digital papers to various substrates.”
Digital textiles require a variety of new features, including higher and more consistent heat applied with even pressure across the platens, clamshells with pre- and post-curing options, larger footprints, automatic release, and hovering and interchangeable platens for printing various substrates, offers Saunders.
“We’ve seen an increase in print providers moving from flat heat presses to calender heat presses to improve workflow and production capacity. Additionally, the direct-to-fabric market has grown to include natural fiber printing, which requires a calender press for fixation,” offers Pender.
Knight believes the rise of digital textile printing has led to more accurate digital controls, pressure indicators and helpers, and storable presets.
Turning Up the Heat
While a seemingly simple piece of equipment, heat presses are essential for sublimation and heat transfer. To ensure consistency, it is important to invest in quality solutions that are right for your particular environment.
Jul2016, Digital Output