Dye Sublimation: A Process Whose Time Has Come?
With the market for short-run, highly customized products taking off, printers are finding that the unique imaging capabilities of dye sublimation are providing great opportunities for growth.
Dye sublimation has been recognized as a decorating process for decades. But the convergence of a number of trends is creating a market environment that plays to its advantages as never before, according to veteran decorators and suppliers. This is especially the case with small-format sublimation transfer printing on garments and hard goods, where, some assert, the stars have aligned.
Traditionally, dye sub has been known for its rich, vivid colors; high-resolution, photorealistic reproduction capabilities; extreme durability; virtually imperceptible hand; and suitability for one-up printing. These attributes line up nicely with heightened expectations regarding image quality and hand, as well as the increasing demand for highly customized, fast-turn, short-run imaging among today’s consumers. But these are only some of the reasons that market observers say sublimation is poised to take on a greater role in apparel and accessory decorating, in particular.
The digital revolution has impacted the decorating marketplace and sublimation printing on several levels. By changing the mindset of both consumers and embellishers, it has fueled technological advances and the development of new business models. “Digital technology has created a generation of folks that want it now and want it their way, as well as an endless source of images, and digital decorating processes offer a convenient way to meet the resulting demands,” says David Gross, president, Condé Systems.
On the decorator side, the pervasiveness of digital technology in business and everyday life has increased the comfort level with digital decorating. “I think the overall digital climate has encouraged people to step into digital decorating,” says Dave McClaskey, president, S&K Manufacturing Inc. “They’re used to computers and inkjet printers, and they’re comfortable with that technology. That’s made it easier for them to understand the process and what it offers.”
Advancements in digital technology have been instrumental in the growth of sublimation in small-format applications. “Offset sublimation has been around for a long time,” notes Christopher Bernat, chief revenue officer, Vapor Apparel. “But it wasn’t until digital printers started getting faster and smaller that sublimation in the garment and small-format decorating industry really started to take off.”
Over the past 20 years, the use of inkjet printers to create sublimation dye transfers has grown and the equipment continues to be refined. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the OEMs. “I think one of the most noteworthy developments is the players that are coming into the sublimation printer market now,” asserts Aaron Montgomery, director of sales and marketing, Coastal Business Supplies. “Huge companies like Epson and Ricoh are starting to embrace the process with sublimation-specific printers. Instead of off-the-shelf desktop printers that have been adapted for sublimation, systems are available specifically for the process that are supported by the manufacturer.” This is both evidence of and a contributing factor in the growth of sublimation printing. “Without the digital tech, there wasn’t enough volume to make sublimation impactful,” says Montgomery. At the same time, changing market demands and sublimation’s unique capabilities for meeting them have shined new light on the process’s potential.
Like other digital decorating methods, dye-sub printing lends itself to short runs. “The process we have today with an inkjet printer makes it possible to produce personalized products on-demand in minutes with dye sublimation,” Gross states. “You can change things like names and numbers on individual items quickly and easily, and print just what you need; there’s no waste. It’s very efficient.”
Sublimation: It’s a Gas
The general definition of sublimation is the process of going from a solid to a gas state without passing through a liquid phase. (Dry ice is often used as an example.) Sublimation dyes are compounded using natural pigments that bond with substrate molecules when heated. These pigments can be combined with additives (surfactants) to create a liquid vehicle (ink) that is commonly used in inkjet printers to print onto a paper, which serves as a vehicle for transferring the dyes to a sublimatable substrate. After the liquid carrier dries, the dye remains on the paper; when it is placed in contact with the substrate under heat and pressure, the dry (solid) pigment particles turn into a gas, which can bond permanently with substrate molecules.
“When the substrate fabric or coating is heated, its molecules open and the dye turns into gas and lands in them,” explains Bernat. “When the heat source is removed, those molecules close in a nanosecond, trapping the solid dye – and its color – inside.”
The science at the heart of the sublimation decorating process presupposes certain conditions. ”First, the material being decorated must be made of or coated with ‘oil-loving’ molecules for sublimation to occur,” says Gross. “Second, it must be capable of handling the heat required to activate the sublimation process (typically about 400 degrees F/200 degrees C). Third, it must be white or light-colored for optimum color reproduction.”
It’s Not For All Substrates
The process doesn’t work on just anything. “You can’t do sublimation on cotton, and you can’t do it on just any mug you pick up at retail,” says Montgomery. “Sublimation has to be done on polyester, whether it’s fabric or a coating, to achieve the full benefits of the process.”
The polyester content of a fabric has a direct impact on the durability, washfastness, color, and hand of a sublimation print. “Dye sub will not adhere to cotton or any natural fiber,” stresses McClaskey. “When you print on a cotton or 50/50 shirt, the image looks wonderful until you wash it and all the ink that’s on the cotton fibers washes out. Doing sublimation printing on cotton is simply trying to defy science. If you want a sharp print, it has to be on 100 percent polyester.”
Invented only a few years after the accidental discovery of naturally occurring sublimation dyes, polyester has grown up with the process, and is the material with which sublimation is most commonly associated. “Although,” Gross points out, “if it’s a synthetic material that is made from oil, it’s light-colored or white, and it will handle the heat of sublimation without melting, you can sublimate it. So you do see sublimation on Spandex and nylon materials as well; but in the case of nylon, while it does sublimate, the colors are not as bright and vivid as those that can be achieved on polyester.”
In years past, its association with polyester worked against sublimation because of the fabric’s image problems. However, when performance wear exploded on the scene about 10 years ago, spearheaded by companies like Under Armour, polyester experienced a rebirth. “Polyester has always been naturally moisture wicking,” says Bernat. “But when Under Armour came along and promoted it as a better fabric for athletes and fitness activities, suddenly polyester was no long about leisure suits; it was about athletics. And that market likes very bright colors, but typically not the feel that many types of ink create.”
Because sublimation bonds with and becomes part of the fabric, it offers both softness and breathability through the print. “And as polyester has become more important on the field and in garments for running, fitness, and adventure sports, demand for sublima- tion printing has reached critical mass,” asserts Bernat.
“The fact that printed sublimation dyes actually bond with and become a part of the polyester substrate also translates to durability,” notes Syd Northup, inkjet division manager, Gans Ink and Supply Co. “It can fade, but it can’t be washed out.”
“Sublimation works like nothing else for performance wear,” McClaskey says. “It looks like a million bucks and is comfortable to wear. You can put as many colors down on a poly fabric as you want and there will be no hand to it. It’s embedded in the fabric, so it will be there as long as the fabric exists.”
The inability to print on dark garments is caused, in part, by the properties that make dye sublimation’s vivid colors possible. “All sublimation inks are translucent, so you can see through them,” explains Montgomery. “They have to be translucent to mix together to make the other colors. Starting on a white background, this gives you really bright colors. The only way to do sublimation printing on a dark fabric is to put a white base or patch underneath, but then that’s what you’re actually printing on.”
“When you’re sublimating onto a polymer carrier that is then being placed on top of a white transfer sheet and applied onto the shirt, you’re not embedding the sublimation dyes directly into the molecular structure of the fabric,” says Bernat. “This does away with some of the core benefits sublimation is known for, like the ability for the fabric to continue to wick through the print.”
Beyond performance wear, other vertical markets are emerging where the color limitations of dye sublimation are outweighed by advantages such as hand, breathability, appearance, and versatility. Among them, observers cite the coastal, surf, resort, and outdoor sports retail arenas, markets where light colors have traditionally been popular.
Another hot area for sublimation is accessories, particularly socks. “I’ve watched accessories within the clothing space become big for sublimation,” comments Bernat. “People are spending $150 or $200 for a pair of sneakers, and they want their socks to match that color. A lot of retail brands are getting into sublimated socks in diverse arenas such as high-end surf and outdoor wear. There were even team socks for this year’s NBA All Star game.” The use of sublimation is also growing in cut-and-sew and all-over printing, say industry veterans.
The Swiss Army Knife of Printing
And then there are the myriad applications outside of apparel. Versatility has always been one of sublimation’s big selling points. In today’s competitive environment, decorators are seeking to expand sales to existing customers and grow new business. Sublimation can offer a cost-effective way of doing this and cashing in on the market for short-run, custom-decorated items. And suppliers are continually introducing new and improved sublimatable products, including ceramics, metals, and glass, as well as process-specific fabrics. From mugs to guitar picks and even compression sleeves, there are thousands of potential substrates, says Gross.
The sublimation process is basically the same on hard goods as on fabrics, says Bernat. “Typically, an item is coated with a polymer that can work with sublimation. When heat is applied, the molecules of the coating open, receiving the ink from the carrier sheet in gas form and closing up and trapping the dye inside when the product is removed from the heat source.”
Key among sublimation’s advantages in the hard-goods arena is its ability to produce accurate colors, fine detail, and durable prints. “Just as the ink becomes part of a polyester garment and will be there for the life of the shirt, on hard goods, it becomes part of the coated surface and is therefore very durable,” says Montgomery. “The print is long-lasting and scratch- and solvent-resistant. Plus, you get a lot of detail and can create really good, photorealistic prints.”
“Sublimation makes it possible to make plaques and trophies with full-color images,” says McClaskey. “Nothing beats the color and detail it can achieve on metals, and it provides additional value without an additional investment in time or costs. That translates to profit and an edge in the marketplace.”
One limitation of the process that can be more noticeable on hard goods is fade resistance. “One drawback is that it’s not UV-protected, so the inks will start to fade if they’re exposed to it,” says Montgomery. “This typically isn’t a problem on soft goods, unless they’re exposed to direct sunlight for a prolonged period.”
Keep reading: Getting Started with Dye Sublimation