Heat Transfer Machines Are One Hot Topic
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Heat Transfer Machines Are One Hot Topic

Exploring the choices in heat presses offers many choices. This will show the different types to find the right choice for your budget and application.

By James Ortolani, Sales Rep, HIX Corp.

New digital transfer technologies have added a new dimension in heat transfer decoration. They allow you to take orders for short-run jobs from one garment to 20, which you would have never considered undertaking with the screen print process. And with the current advancements in digital sublimation transfers, a whole new market has opened up for decorating mouse pads, mugs, tees, ceramic tiles, glass and a large variety of rigid flat and 3-D substrates.

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  • Heat transfer machines have played an instrumental role in the garment embellishment industry since the early 1960s, and are still a vital part of the industry. Many people ask; “Why would I screen print my design onto a piece of paper, and then transfer this image to a garment, when I can screen print the design directly onto the garment and skip the heat transfer step altogether?” It’s a logical question, but as you research the flexibility heat transfers can provide, you will understand. True if you have a firm order for 1,000 printed garments, direct screen printing is your best option. But if you are a retailer, heat transfers provide better inventory flexibility by allowing you to transfer a given design onto any garment size, color or style without stocking hundreds of pre-prints. Plus, you don’t run the risk of having a slow moving design that may tie up your garment inventory. Most major retail chains favor heat transfers for the aforementioned reasons plus the fact that today’s screen-printed transfers are far superior to the heat transfers of the past!

    New digital transfer technologies have added a new dimension in heat transfer decoration. They allow you to take orders for short-run jobs from one garment to 20, which you would have never considered undertaking with the screen print process. And with the current advancements in digital sublimation transfers, a whole new market has opened up for decorating mouse pads, mugs, tees, ceramic tiles, glass and a large variety of rigid flat and 3-D substrates.

    Clamshell Versus Swinger — The term “clamshell” means the upper heat element in the heat transfer machine opens like a clamshell. It’s a popular machine style for garment printers for several reasons:

    • The clamshell press is compact in design, saving counter space.
    • It provides a simple solution to heat transferring on a variety of products.
    • The clamshell machine generally is smaller in size compared with swing-away machines.
    • Motion study experts have found a couple of seconds are saved with a clamshell machine by not having to swing the heat platen away from the garment and back again for the next transfer cycle.

    Swing-away machines feature a heat platen that swings away from the lower platen for easy access when placing transfers or lettering on a garment or substrate. Swing-away machines are popular for applying athletic numbers as well as applying transfers to 3-D items, such as wooden plaques and ceramic tiles. Choosing between a clamshell and swing-away model is a combination of personal preference and functionality. For shops transferring designs on T-shirts, awards and 3-D substrates, a swing-away machine usually is the best choice. The swing-away design also can reduce the amount of heat and steam rising in the operator’s face after he opens the press to apply heat transfers. Additionally, the risk of the operator burning his hands is reduced.

    Control Options
    There are two types of controls available on a heat transfer press: digital or analog. The analog timer or heat controller is best described as a knob that you set to a desired position on a numbered grid. The analog controller has been popular for decades on heat presses and is still widely used today. However, digital heat controllers have gained sales momentum in recent years. Both systems work quite well, but analog controls are less expensive than digital controllers. The price gap between the two technologies is expected to narrow as digital controllers become more mainstream. On the flip side, digital controllers are perceived to be more accurate than analog controllers.

    The Heating Element
    There seems to be a lot of confusion for first time heat-press buyers as to how the heat element is constructed. Most heat press manufactures use an aluminum upper-heating element with either a heat rod (cal-rod) cast into the aluminum or a heating wire attached to the heating element’s backside. Both construction types work quite well in terms of providing the correct wattage to heat up the aluminum platen. Since aluminum is an excellent heat conductor, providing the right watt density to the aluminum mass is the key, whether you use a “micro-winding” wire attached to the back of the aluminum or a “cast-in” cal rod. A cast in call rod construction provides great heat penetration and minimal heat loss from the aluminum backside since the element is embedded in the heat platen. The construction also is better since the heating rods are not able to touch together because of a heat expansion and contraction, creating a dead short in the electrical system.

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    Heat Element Sizes
    The two most common heating element sizes are 15-inch-by-15-inch and 16-inch-by-20-inch, depending on the press manufacturer. Knowing your art design requirements is the first step in deciding what size heat press to buy. Identify your largest design size and determine if these dimensions fall outside of the 15-inch-by-15-inch range. If they do, you will need to go with the 16-inch-by-20-inch format. But the majority of stock transfer designs fit within the 15-inch-by-15-inch format. Many first-time buyers — who have a hard time deciding on what size to go with — will buy the larger size heat element to be on the safe side. Oversized platens in the range of 30-inch-by-40-inch and up are available for large-format textile and flat-stock heat transfer applications. The growing sublimation sign and tile businesses have made these oversized machines more in demand over the last five years.

    Pressure Adjustment
    It is important for the heat transfer machine to have an easy adjustment mechanism to increase or decrease downward clamping pressure. With a manual machine, your main guide is the sense of touch when setting the pressure from light to medium to heavy. Some manual presses have a numbered guide to help you set the machine for repeat pressure settings. But this is not an exact science in terms of knowing the exact pounds per square inch of pressure that you are exerting. With an air machine, you can rely on the air gauge (dial indicator) to use as a guide for repeating successful pressure settings. (Example: 40 PSI for light pressure, 50 PSI for medium pressure and 60 PSI and up for heavy pressure.) But remember, these PSI gauge readings are airline pressure, not actual pounds per square inch of downward force!


    Despite what you are commonly told in terms of pressure requirements for applying a heat transfer, no off the shelf manual or automatic heat presses in our market will apply 60 PSI to 90 PSI of actual platen pressure to the garment! Example: 15 inches times 15 inches equals 255 square inches of platen area (15” x 15” = 225). Then, 225 square inches multiplied by 90 PSI equals 20,250 pounds (225 x 90 PSI = 20,250 LBS). That’s over 10 tons of platen pressure with that little (15inch-by-15-inch) heat press. I don’t think so! In the real world, we are back to using application instructions like light, medium and heavy pressure. Experience and wash testing is the key to success here.

    Manual versus Automatic Presses
    Most T-shirt decorators start their business with a manual heat-transfer machine and upgrade to an air automatic one as their business grows. After you work on an air automatic, you will wonder how you could have ever worked all day on that manual machine! This air machine provides muscle power instead of using your arm strength to lock the heat platen down! For an eight-hour shift, this physical-energy saving feature is a huge benefit, as workers are less fatigued and will produce more garments per hour. Most large-volume transfer shops use multiple air operated heat transfer machines. In many shops one person operates two air automatics. While one machine is locked down and transferring, the operator loads the second machine just in time to shift over, peel and re-load machine number one. This dual heat-transferring technique sets a very fast pace that is hard to beat even with a shuttle-type press.

    High Volume Heat Presses
    Along with the need to print large-volume jobs comes the challenge of how to actually heat transfer thousands of designs in a short time period! To meet this high-volume need, automatic shuttle transfer presses were introduced to the market. With these high-production heat transfer systems, garments are continuously loaded on the lower (load) platen of the machine and shuttled under a heat platen to be pressed. While one garment is being pressed (transferred), a blank garment is loaded on the empty platen to be shuttled under the heat platen and will be transferred next. This transfer cycle is repeated continuously over an eight-hour shift, producing hundreds of heat transferred garments each hour.

    Roll to Roll Transfers
    The tagless T-shirt has created a new demand for heat presses that apply transfers from a continuous roll of transfers. These roll transfer labels have the size and washing instructions all on a 1-inch square! Several hundred 1-inch transfers come on a roll and can be indexed and transferred in as quick as two seconds.

    The Future of Heat Transferring
    With the new heat transfer graphics and technologies of today, you can expect to see heat transfer machinery’s popularity rise to all-time highs over the next decade. Some experts are banking on direct-to-garment (inkjet) printing to eventually replace screen printing. But they should not take their eyes off of the heat transfer process. My guess is that heat transferring will come out on top as the most productive method for volume production jobs over the new direct to garment digital inkjet printing method.

    Note: Photos courtesy of Geo. Knight and HIX Corporation


    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, 3rd Quarter 2006 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2006 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.

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