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The Growing Market for Dye Sublimation

Dye Sublimation focuses on two primary areas, including sublimation to textiles/soft fabrics as well as rigid substrates, dye sublimation enables the production of items such as point-of-sale applications, banners, t-shirts, custom flags, license plates, snowboards and promotional pieces.

By Jennifer Chagnon, InteliCoat Technologies

Dye sublimation, a digital printing process that uses heat to transfer dye to materials such as a plastic card, printer paper, poster paper, or fabric, is rapidly gaining market share due to the increasing availability of new and improved combinations of inks, media, hardware and software that have pushed the quality range of digital media much higher.

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  • Dye sublimation printing can reproduce images on a variety of flexible and rigid substrates, which can endure the amount of heat, pressure and dwell time necessary for image transfer. With two primary areas of focus, including sublimation to textiles/soft fabrics as well as rigid substrates, dye sublimation enables the production of items such as point-of-sale applications, banners, custom flags, license plates, snowboards and promotional pieces.

    In the digital imaging arena, the sublimation process takes place in a special laminator in which temperature, dwell time and pressure vary depending on the polymer receiving material. Surfaces for sublimation need to be specialty-coated or polymer-coated to accept inks and sublimation conditions vary depending on the heat transfer press being used, making it necessary for print providers to determine optimal temperature, pressure and dwell time conditions based on individual heat presses. When the heating process is completed, the image on the paper has been fully transferred to the item and has become part of the surface ­ requiring no surface protection and resulting in a permanent, durable image that cannot be rubbed or washed off.

    DS 100 Hybrid Image Provided by InteliCoat

    New Applications for Dye Sublimation Printing: Driving Market Change
    With the new generation of wide-format digital printers and the expanding variety of specialty media designed for them, the creative possibilities for producing applications using dye sublimation are endless. Prior to these technological advancements, entering the dye sublimation market required a considerable investment of time and money, but now it is often favored as a less expensive alternative to other printing methods.

    In today’s market, it remains the preferred method over direct printing. One of the main advantages is that dye sublimation papers used for high quality sublimation transfers are designed to print a wide gamut of vibrant colors while enhancing the release of ink during the sublimation process, allowing for a permanent “color pop” that does not fade over time. While the colors produced by screen printing are comparable to dye sublimation, screen printing usually requires large minimum order quantities and tooling costs. Alternatively, sublimation enables the flexibility to produce one-offs digitally with the image permanence of screen printing at a fraction of the cost, allowing print providers and sign shops to produce items as ordered rather than committing to a large inventory position.

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    Magic DS130 Image Provided by InteliCoat

    Despite its versatility, dye sublimation has typically played only a small role in the signage industry. While sublimation is an ideal fit for any application where the intent is long term use, the signage industry is generally geared toward more short term purposes and is primarily dominated by materials including polypropylene, vinyl and photorealistic substrates. Additionally, even with direct-to-print sublimation, dye sublimation is a multiple step process. However, with breakthroughs in digital printers, inks and media dramatically expanding dye sublimation opportunities for sign shops, there will likely be a continued growth in the popularity of sublimation for use in trade show and novelty, where it is preferable for signs and displays to be used several times.

    An appealing aspect of sublimation is that it provides the most cost-effective way to customize projects, both in small and large sizes. Customized products produced using dye sublimation techniques feature superior image permanence and color pop. Since dye sublimation allows products to become one with the substrate, the process enables customized products such as t-shirts and mugs to feature strong durability and sustain multiple uses, washes, etc. Customization of the various aspects of sublimation is design based and usually completed with desktop printers, where requested image is printed to the transfer paper and then transferred to the substrate using a heat press. While a standard heat press can be used for flat transfer substrates such as t-shirts, mouse pads and key chains, three dimensional items such as coffee mugs require custom molds available for presses.

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    Using Hybrid Transfer Papers to Streamline the Process
    Choosing the right media is critical to producing effective dye sublimation applications that meet requirements for image quality. Among the wealth of new products available, new hybrid transfer papers can dramatically streamline the production process ­ resulting in the expansion of revenue channel. Hybrid transfer papers carry the unique release attributes that hold relevant to both sides of the sublimation market: rigid and fabric. By simply investing in these new hybrid transfer papers, it is possible to create innovative, high-quality applications that can dramatically increase profitability.

    With two primary areas of focus - flexible and rigid - it is fairly common for different specialty papers to be used for each application; however, hybrid transfer papers provide a solution to this market frustration. This takes a lot of the guess work out of dye sublimation and ensures the production of not only high quality fabric substrates, but also high quality rigid substrates, using the same media.

    In conclusion, although it was widely believed that dye sublimation would lose market share to other methods of printing, it remains a market favorite. The increasing availability of new and improved combinations of inks, media, hardware and software are fueling the usage of sublimation as a less expensive, long lasting, and customizable alternative to direct and screen printing methods. Breakthroughs in technology will also likely lead to sublimation playing a larger role in the sign industry, particularly in instances where it is preferable for signs and displays to be used multiple times.

    About the Author
    Jennifer Chagnon serves as product manager, digital imaging for InteliCoat Technologies. Chagnon has a strong background in commercialization of manufactured products, as well as experience in marketing and promoting consumer products. Prior to joining InteliCoat, Chagnon was the senior program manager for Omniglow Corporation’s consumer product division.

    Chagnon is also a frequent speaker at industry conferences, trade shows and conventions.

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