Dye Sublimation And The Sign Business Part III
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Dye Sublimation And The Sign Business Part III

Full color inkjet dye sublimation: possibilities, pitfalls and profits.

By Jack Franklin & John Pratt

Narrow format, full color dye sublimation is one way many family owned sign companies are diversifying. Approached correctly, this diversification not only adds additional revenue from sublimation sales but also from increases in the company's regular sign sales. By most business standards, the initial investment cost for equipment and supplies is modest.

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  • There are two different methods of adding full color dye sublimation to your shop. One is with an inkjet color printer and the other is with a laser color printer.

    There are two important factors to consider and research, before you buy anything. First, make sure that you understand exactly what the equipment and process will and won't do. Second, have a clear idea (and game plan) of how you will market sublimated products, and to whom.

    This article is intended to provide a very basic overview of the above two factors. If, after reading the article, you think dye sublimated products offer you possibilities, we suggest that you do more research.

    Color Inkjet Dye Sublimation

    Three pieces of equipment are needed for this process: an inkjet printer, a set of CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) sublimation cartridges and a heat press.

    The strong point of an inkjet printer is its ability to reproduce very good color on white sublimatable (polymer or polymer coated) substrates. Its weak point is that it does not reproduce very good color on gold and even silver metal. The color of the metal has a tendency to bleed through the image and make the colors look "thin."

    A Micro Piezo print head must be used with sublimation inks. The two most popular printers are the Epson 3000 and Epson 980. 3000's print at 1440 x 720 dpi and will handle single sheets up to 17 x 22. The 980 will only handle 8.5x11 sheets but will print at 2880 x 720 dpi.

    Interestingly, while the 3000's produce an excellent image, users of both systems report the 980 gives a little sharper image, because the print technology is older in the 3000.

    The most important thing to remember about any color printer is the fact that it is not an offset printing press. A color printer reproduces color. While the results can be excellent (and saleable) do not expect printing press quality.

    The 3000's have four separate cartridges, one for each color of ink. The 980's have two cartridges. One holds black and one holds the other three colors in separate compartments. When one color runs out, the cartridge must be replaced.

    To get around cartridges having to be replaced so frequently, several manufacturers have introduced what is popularly referred to as "bulk ink" systems. Just picture in your mind a sort of I.V. transfusion going into the cartridge and you will have the basic idea.

    While this method holds great promise, the process has not been on the market long enough to be able to judge if it is 100% effective. The process is needed so much however, that manufacturers will continue to develop and refine the method.

    As of this writing, there are three major players on the market, with sublimation inks. It is not within the scope of this article to discuss the pros and cons of the different inks. We have read happy reports from users of all three inks. We also think that in less than a year, other sublimation ink manufacturers will enter the market. This will help to lower prices and probably raise quality even higher.

    Dye sublimated transfers are applied with heat. The two most common sizes of manual heat presses are 15 x 15 and 16 x 20. The size you should get depends on what you want to do and your wallet.

    Four features are needed to provide you with maximum ability to sublimate anything on the market now, and in the immediate future.

    1. Many possible items need 400 F to sublimate. The press should have the ability to go up to 450, so it is not always being run at maximum temperature.

    2. Digital timing longer than 60 seconds is very desirable and, in some cases, necessary.

    3. The press needs to be able to adjust to accept items up to 1" thick 4. The press must be able to provide even pressure across the surface of the item being heated.

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    Products and Materials

    While many sublimated products can be offered, the most common materials used are special coated FR plastics, coated hardboards (similar to clipboard material, with a white coating) and white aluminum.

    The most common sublimated products are interior signage, badges, desk name sets, point of purchase signs, trade show and special event signs and magnets. To a lesser extent, some also offer special clocks (the entire face is sublimated) luggage and sports bag tags, clipboards, license plates and coasters. A crafty few even offer recognition plaques (understandable, with the profit margins involved).

    Only a rare few offer t-shirts. First, the profit margins are not all that great (by sign shop standards) and second, the most successful diversification is usually into a different, but similar field.

    You are already a lettering/graphics expert in your customer's mind. Colorful signs, badges and even plaques "fits" in your customer's mind. T-shirts and coffee cups don't.

    Going Into Business

    As a rule, in the dye sublimation sign business, products using a full color bleed (the colors go all the way off the edge) have a higher perceived value. An entire sign or badge, with background color is much more impressive than just a colored logo and name, on a white background. With sublimation, the background does not have to be a solid color. It can be interestingly textured or patterned.

    While excellent profits can be made with full color inkjet sublimation don't let any sales person convince you that it is an easy, quick road to riches. Equipment does have to be purchased. You will have to spend time in learning how to use it. There is also a learning curve in learning good color management techniques. One important fact to remember is that currently, dye sublimation is for interior, not exterior, use.

    In our mind, whom you are going to sell to and how you are going to let them know about your products is as important as what you are going to sell. Among several good cards in the sublimation "hand" is one "Ace" for sign shops. The profile of a typical sublimation buyer is the same as a typical sign shop customer.

    You would be amazed at how many of your existing customers are already buying sublimated products. Almost without exception, sign shops who immediately notified all of their existing customers about their new abilities got a much faster and profitable start, than ones who didn't.

    One suggestion: If you do a mail-out, don't send a black and white announcement. Use your color printer and add color to the announcement.

    Like everything else that you could add to your shop, what the equipment can do is not nearly as important as what it will do: for you. This not only includes profits but also strengthening yourself, relative to your competition. There is no doubt in our mind that some type of dye sublimation would benefit the typical sign company.

    There is only one way to learn what is best for you: Research. It will pay off. If you want good research information about inkjet dye sublimation, just e-mail us a request, and we will be glad to point you in the right direction.

    We receive e-mail requests from all over the world, so be sure and mention this article and specifically what you would like information about.

    In our next article we will cover the features, advantages and benefits of full color laser sublimation.

    Alpha Supply Company, Inc. 800-908-9916 Fax: 877-252-6464 alphasupply@home.com

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