Dye Sublimation And The Sign Business
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Dye Sublimation And The Sign Business

Diversifying with subliminated products

By Jack Franklin & John Pratt

Some sign shops, especially vinyl sign shops, are increasing their bottom line by diversifying with sublimated products. Many others are interested, but don't know enough details to decide if it's right for them. This article is the first of a series, designed to provide you with the basics of the dye sublimation process and the opportunities it presents.

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  • Dye sublimation is a process that uses a special heat sensitive dye to print graphics and text onto paper. This is called a transfer. The paper is then placed on a sublimatable item and both are placed into a heat press for about 30 seconds at 350-400 degrees, depending upon the type of material.

    When the (sublimation) cycle is completed, the image on the paper has transferred to the item and has actually become a part of the surface. If you run your finger across the surface of a sublimated plate you will feel nothing.

    This is because true dye sublimation is always done on a polyester, polymer, or polymer coated item. At high temperatures, the solid dye converts into a gas without ever becoming a liquid. The same high temperature opens the pores of the polymer and allows the gas to enter. When the temperature drops, the pores close and the gas reverts to a solid state. It has now become a part of the polymer.

    For this reason, true dye sublimation cannot be done on natural materials, like 100% cotton. Natural fibers and non-coated materials have no "pores" to open.

    Inkjet printers (like the Epson 3000 or 980) use a liquid filled inkjet cartridge that has a suspension of the sublimation dye in it. Because of the liquid, transfers have to be printed on special, coated inkjet paper so the liquid won't soak in.

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    The printer should be dedicated to sublimation, as the cartridges cannot be easily or cheaply switched with regular cartridges, for regular document printing.

    Monochrome (single color) laser printers (like the HP III, 4 and 5) use a regular cartridge that has been re-engineered to deliver the special (dry powder) sublimation toner dye correctly. Like regular laser printer cartridges, dye sublimation cartridges only need ordinary copier paper for transfer printing.

    Because a dye sublimation cartridge is completely self-contained, there is no problem in using the same printer, with a regular cartridge, to print documents.

    Except for the few shops trying to do T-shirts and ball caps, 95% of the work done in most sign shops is producing black print on gold-tone plates. Because of this, most shops use a laser printer.

    Not only does a laser printer produce faster and cheaper transfers than an inkjet, the images produced are a much deeper black. A good black image from a laser sublimation cartridge will compare to screen-printing.

    Full color inkjets can produce nice colors, but it must be on whites or very light colors. This is because the dye goes on much thinner with inks than with laser sublimation cartridges. This allows the gold color of a plate to "bleed" through the ink colors and produces a faded look. Even a silver color bleeds through ink colors (even when printing just black).

    This makes inkjets a good tool for full-color, personalized or short-run T-shirts, mousepads, mugs, etc. Single color laser printer sublimation toner is too powerful for "whites" and produces a noticeable background haze.

    However, most sign shops doing sublimation are interested in producing small wall and desk signs, nameplates, badges, ID and legend plates and other items that are very profitable, but too small to weed.

    Another reason is because those items more logically fit what they are already doing, especially in the customer's mind. The more logically your diversification fits into what you are already doing, the more products you will sell. A tire company wouldn't be very successful selling flowers. It doesn't logically fit.

    Last, but not least, is the fact that profit margins on sublimated metal plates are equal to (and in many cases higher than) regular vinyl lettered signs and adding the process requires a very small investment.

    These facts make laser printer sublimation ideal for vinyl sign shops. After all, rule #1 in business is: Make Money. Every edge you give yourself just makes that job easier!

    The next article will examine the actual production process of laser printer sublimation, what the process can and cannot do, and some of the competitive advantages it gives shops over their competitors.

    About the Authors: Jack Franklin and John Pratt from Alpha Supply Company. Alpha is an international distributor of laser printer sublimation cartridges and a national distributor of HIX heat presses. Take a guided "A to Z" tour of their "Sublimation For Sign Shops" web site, by clicking here: http://www.alphasupply.com/forsignshops.htm

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