Wide-format Printing: Dye sublimation goes big

Photos courtesy Gans Ink & Supply

Photos courtesy Gans Ink & Supply

By Peter Saunders
The process of dye sublimation has traditionally represented a niche business opportunity with specialized applications. These days, according to a panel discussion hosted in March by the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA), there has been a surge in adoption among mainstream sign and graphics shops.

One reason for this trend is the diversification of sign shops’ offerings into new areas, including ‘soft signage,’ interior décor and flags, along with smaller-format ‘hard’ items, like mugs, awards and keychains, which can also be dye sublimated. Another reason has been the higher quality of output when compared to the other printing processes with which signmakers are already familiar.

Surging sublimation
SGIA’s members include both garment decorators and large-format display providers. The panel discussion focused on how dye sublimation has only recently expanded from the former community to be embraced by the latter.

As such, it was a chance to provide a ‘snapshot’ of ongoing dye sublimation developments in the wide- to super-wide-format digital inkjet printing sector. Moderated by Dan Marx, SGIA’s vice-president (VP) of markets and technologies, and Jeff Burton, SGIA’s digital printing analyst, the panel included:

  • Rob Eversole, director of dye sublimation for Axiom America, which distributes printers and supplies.
  • Mike Wozny, product manager for Electronics for Imaging (EFI), which manufactures super-wide-format Vutek printers.
  • Syd Northup, inkjet division manager for Gans Ink and Supply, which manufactures dye sublimation inks.
  • Ralph Terramagra, a sales manager for Mutoh America, which develops large-format dye sublimation printers.

“We see a lot of growth in the large-format display sector with soft signage,” said Eversole, whose company has traditionally focused on customers in the garment decoration community. “We’re getting more involved in those areas, even though we’re already very busy in the cut-and-sew business.”

Dye sublimation equipment suppliers have traditionally focused on customers in the garment decoration community.

Dye sublimation equipment suppliers have traditionally focused on customers in the garment decoration community.

“We’ve been selling super-wide-format printers to the soft signage market for more than 10 years,” said Wozny, “but the business has increased dramatically in the last three to four years and there are big volumes of output going through those presses.”

“I’m in my 13th year working with dye sublimation inks for large-format printing,” said Northup. “The market ebbed and flowed five or six years ago, but now a lot of sign shops are coming onboard and I see it continuing to grow.”

Catching the heat
The panel participants agreed a heat transfer process, whereby the ink turns into a gas in the presence of heat and under pressure with the material, is still preferable to the seemingly simpler and increasingly common option of direct printing onto fabrics.

“With good heat transfer paper, the quality really comes through the press,” said Wozny. “You can put more ink down and it holds better, resulting in more ‘pop’ and better text quality. In high-speed printing, the material is put under significant pressure, but you can print on a wider range of materials with transfer paper. It is more difficult to print direct-to-substrate successfully, where the material tends to stretch.”

“I have a background in colour matching and you just can’t get it with direct dye sublimation printing,” said Eversole. “Also, the fabrics available for direct printing are few and far between—and considerably more expensive. If material sits in the printer with the dye, it can end up changing colour, but if that material is transfer paper, you can throw it out. It’s just paper or a cheaper fibre, not an expensive fabric.”

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