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Wide-Format Digital Dye Sublimation

(January 2009) posted on Mon Jan 12, 2009

Fabrics printed with sublimation inkjet technology make up a fast-growing and lucrative market within the wide-format-graphics industry. From trade-show displays and banners to upholstery and architectural graphics, you’ll find dye-sublimation prints hanging around everywhere. This overview looks at equipment and ink options for dye-sublimation printing and how you can use the technology to produce unique graphics for a variety of applications.

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By Lori Leaman

When you think of digital dye-sublimation printing, products such as T-shirts, mouse pads, mugs, and ceramic tiles might come to mind. These days, however, sublimation printing is taking on a new, bigger meaning as it explodes onto large-format fabric applications. Whether you are sitting at a blackjack table in Vegas, attending a performance in a theater, perusing the cosmetic counter at Macy’s, or walking through a museum exhibit, if you stop to take a look around, you may notice that the graphics surrounding you or decorating the table in front of you are fabrics printed with dye-sublimation technology.

Wide-format dye-sub printing opens up a world of opportunities for print shops that want to offer unique, light-weight graphics solutions for events, trade shows, home-décor applications, sports-arena displays, and more. As the applications and markets for fabric printing continue to grow, businesses can expand their fabric offerings to complement their existing screen-printing and/or digital imaging products. Now let’s take a closer look at how digital sublimation technology works.


What is sublimation printing?

Sublimation printing is a process that uses specific sublimation inks that, when heat activated, transform their dyes into a gaseous state that penetrates the fibers of polyester materials, infusing or embedding an image into the fabric. There are two types of sublimation printing: printing onto a transfer paper or carrier sheet and then transferring the image to fabric under heat and pressure, and printing sublimation images directly onto fabric.

In sublimation transfer printing, ink is applied to a carrier or transfer paper typically composed of a bond paper with an ink-receptive silicate coating. The coating is designed to allow the sublimation ink to be received onto the paper, and the coating controls the dot gain of the ink and optimizes the sublimation process. The image, which is a reverse image of the final design, is placed onto fabric and then pressed at a temperature of approximately 375°F until the image transfers or sublimates into the fabric.

In the direct printing method, fabric moves under inkjet printheads, and the image is printed onto the fabric, which may include an ink-receptive coating. The fabric is then passed through a heat-fixation device that causes the inks to sublimate and permanently bond to the material. The heat-setting equipment may be part of the printer or a standalone device.


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