A Look at Dye-Sub Printing for Garments
This article describes effective and profitable ways to integrate a large-format dye-sub printer into your garment-decorating operation.
Understanding the printers, RIP software, bulk ink systems, color management, and heat press technologies can seem a bit overwhelming when you’re new to dye-sublimation printing. By breaking down these system components piece by piece, printers can get a detailed screenshot on how a sublimation garment system works. A matrix of the square-foot-cost relationship to the return on the investment also provides bottom line costs and profits. The first question is what does one need to know to become successful day in and day out with this printing technology?
While running my inkjet print shop in 2006, I decided on investing in a couple of 44 in. wide-format Epson 9880 printers, a Roland SP540, and a George Knight 42 x 64 dual shuttle heat press. The larger printers and heat press allowed us to print up to 3XL custom all-over T-shirts as well as providing full-sized production runs. The core of my sublimation business was providing runs of 20 x 20 in. or less sized sublimation prints, also referred to as front or back hits, along with all-over sublimation garments to a wholesale/reseller base. These two types of sublimation printing techniques should be something all screen print shops should consider bringing in-house to escape from turning away smaller job runs and add the ability to produce fully sublimated T-shirts with the all-over graphics process.
While running an in-house sublimation operation, it always comes down to how many jobs are on the sublimation printers and to keep them running. For some garment screen printers, a market for sublimation may not be in place, but opening up your clientele base with sublimation technology can allow for some very rapid growth. We must also not forget the higher profits, less time to produce a garment and the endless amounts of other products that you can also be introduced to customers that are sublimatable—koozies, mouse pads, banners, flags, hardwood panels, etc.
One of my biggest recommendations and/or selling points with sublimation garment printing is to make a sample with a customer’s logo incorporating a photo or graphics. Take the time necessary to build a good, clean graphic template and import the customer’s logos to sublimate. This introduction can really show the wow factor of sublimation and how it can complement short-run custom capability versus screen printing. Then, downsize the image to a koozie template, sublimate the logo on it, and watch how the sales immediately begin pouring in on the sublimation side.
When introducing the sublimation system, the most frequently asked questions that I get are: What is required for running a large format sublimation system? Do I need profiles? Is it very difficult? Sublimation can be a challenging process at the onset, but if you are you willing to take the time to learn and integrate this technology, it can be very rewarding. I would say that most people who see sublimation at a trade show and become so fascinated with the quality and products produced with sublimation eventually end up deciding not to buy either because they fear that they don’t have the market in place. They also anticipate with fear the cost of a larger heat press. Many of these shop owners need to realize that they already have a customer base that would love to see something different like sublimation and don’t understand that profits can payoff the investment quickly.
One of the other misconceptions with sublimation T-shirt printing is that 100% polyester and polyester/cotton blended garments have come a long way and can now be quite comfortable to wear. Don’t be afraid to bring some test shirts to the next trade show you attend and have some samples run on-site to see for yourself.
Let’s look at the large-format sublimation printers and what is needed for running sublimation production. In the U.S. market: Mimaki, Roland, Epson, and Mutoh appear to be leading the race. All of these manufacturers make printers with sizes ranging from 44-124 in.
My recommendation for a garment shop is to consider starting out with a 44-in.-wide Epson 9700 at a low entry cost and work your way up to a Mimaki or a Roland as the business grows. The difference in cost between an Epson and a Mimaki or Roland can range between $10,000-$15,000 depending on the size of printer. If you are concerned about speeds and production with all-over printing, stepping into a 54-in.-wide Mimaki JV33 would be one way to start. All of these sublimation printers require a bulk ink system to be installed to run third-party sublimation inks.
Be aware that some of the bulk ink systems can range in cost of $500 to $2,500 and have chip resetting devices to override the factory firmware settings. Also, once sublimation inks are installed into most large-format printers, they will void most manufacturers’ warranty. Most of the warranty issues should be handled by your system integrator for support and onsite repair.
Now that we have some printer considerations, running this system with RIP software is essential for success with color accuracy and production running. In the U.S. market, we have Ergosoft, Wasatch, Onyx, and PyroRIP, among others. These software applications are very simple in what they do—RIP and print. But this can overwhelm an end user with all the bells and whistles on a sales sheet. The bottom line on RIP software is having a good PC that will run your printer and maintain good RIP times and not bog down your day-to-day activity.
I would highly recommend not running any specialized front-end software on the PC running your printer or printers. This will only cause more frustration down the road as you grow your business in sublimation production. Installing RIP software, creating profiles and learning how to run image production should be taught during your installation and training package offered by your sublimation systems integrator.
A heat press is mandatory when you’re printing dye-sub transfers. It initiates the process of transforming inks from a solid phase to a gaseous phase without passing through a liquid phase. Once this occurs, the ink becomes permanently embedded in your fabric or substrate.
One of the most crucial points with a heat press is maintaining consistent heat on your platen. Changes to heat, time, or pressure can affect color quality. The U.S. market has many manufacturers of heat presses, including George Knight, Practix, and AIT. All of these manufactures have heat presses in all shapes and sizes for sublimation. If you are looking for a true garment solution, I recommend investing in a small 16 x 20-in. swing-away heat press and a larger 42 x 64-in. single- or dual-shuttle press for the all-over garments.
When it comes down to your day-to-day heat-press production, use what works well in your environment with respect to time, temperature, and heat settings. For example, I have a customer who uses 375°F at 25 seconds of dwell time with 40 pounds of pressure and profiles that match for color. If it works, keep it simple. Always use heat-temperature test strips to control temperature, time, and pressure settings. Typically, a golden rule for sublimation is 400°F and 40 pounds of pressure for 35-40 seconds. Keep these settings in mind when you create your own in-house standard for your products.
Ink and paper costs
Running a square-foot cost analysis on paper and ink is the best way to find your true cost for sublimation printing. Let’s say your cost of ink per liter is $150.00 and ink yields are 1000 sq ft of printing. Total cost per square foot on ink is $0.15. In reality, most companies will likely produce 800 sq ft/hr with ink costs more along the lines of $0.20-$0.25/sq ft. Being conservative is a golden rule when it comes down to analyzing the cost of ink and paper. Running the math and incorporating the ROI on your total investment gets you closer to a true cost-per-square-foot analysis (Figure 4). As most companies grow their sublimation business, buying ink in bulk quantities and pallets of paper will decrease your overall total cost per square foot.
When it comes to color matching, developing your own in-house set of standard sublimation colors with your machine, imaging resolution, inks, heat press, and decorated product is the optimum way to match and find custom colors. Using a Pantone solid-to-process color wheel can assist you to best match with a customer’s colors; however, having your own internal receipt for that CMYK or RGB color is the key. Using in-house color charts and correcting color on the front end in your artwork will save lots of time and aggravation when the job gets repeated in the future.
Most RIP software applications allow for spot-color replacement in the RIP and allow you to apply it to your file. This can be beneficial for a quick job or a library of colors that have logos that are consistently printed. Over time, you gain an understanding of the dyes, dot gain, and post-heat-press processes that can change everything with color.
Installing and training is your key to success with a dye-sublimation system. Anyone upgrading their system or buying a new system needs to get the purchase in writing and have a qualified technician onsite for installation and training. If you decide not to have a trained technician, profiling your material with your specific heat, time, and temperature will throw off color in a heartbeat. A thorough understanding of how a sublimation system is integrated can go a long way. Learning how your printer works, installing software, storing inks, resetting chips on your bulk ink system, creating on-site profiles, heat-press calibration, can set up your business for success.
Running a sublimation operation is not easy in the beginning, so make certain you get the proper start. Paying a little more at the onset for installation and training package will ultimately lead to a successful start. Having a support team that will answer your calls and supporting your sublimation system can make a break that big job when you software losses connection to the printer.
Having your own equipment and controlling your internal processes is the key to success. Keeping all of your data confidential and your staff well trained is important. Learn as much as possible during the installation. Attend trade shows that have sublimation printers. Over time, you will become successful and profitable using sublimation.
Syd Northup is the inkjet division manager for Gans Ink and Supply Co., Inc. He is responsible for managing and running all facets of the inkjet product line. This includes successfully implementing a digital-to-offset proofing system for the sublimation market. As part of his job, Northup works with turnkey inkjet solutions comprised of installation, color management, and training for sublimation, UV, pigment, and security-inks sectors.