Inside Output: Dye Sublimation on Rigid Materials

Why this application may be the next best offering for your print shop.

Pictographics began printing on fabric with dye-sublimation ink 20 years ago thanks to RasterGraphics electrostatic printers. While e-stat printers are a bit of a throwback, they were wonderful back in the day. They were also the closest things in print technology to “rocket science” I have ever experienced. E-stats were exceptional because they printed at about 650 square feet an hour, a big step up from 10 square feet an hour via the inkjet printers of those days.
We had three e-stats in-house, which gave us tremendous production capacity. The best thing about them was that we could switch between direct print/wet transfer, vinyl wraps, and dye sublimation on any of the machines in about 20 minutes simply by swapping toners and giving the machine a quick cleaning. The worst thing about them was they could only print to about 54 inches wide.

And now to the rocket science part: I won’t go into the complicated details, but if you were going to achieve the best image quality and maintain it throughout the day, you had to employ seriously talented technicians who could perform color, toner, and electrical-charge management. Our technicians were up to the challenge, and that separated us from the ordinary shops. I miss that. Now, almost anyone can print stunning graphics consistently and easily.

During the first decade of printing dye-sublimated fabrics, there wasn’t much competition. At one point, we were the only large-format, dye-sub shop in Vegas, and that was wonderful.

Today, it’s amazing, gratifying, and a bit scary how many of our colleagues are adding dye sub. But it’s no surprise. Walk any tradeshow floor and you’ll see that dye-sub fabric is everywhere, from P-O-P to interior décor. Screen-printed wool felts are no longer featured throughout casinos; it’s all dye-sub suede polyester. All-over sublimation prints on assembled garments is the rage – and don’t forget, you can make any garment, hat, or sports shoe with traditional cut and sew. We have even printed dye-sub costumes for many major Vegas productions, amusement-park costumes, and even Broadway shows.

Learning Curve
Dye-sublimation printers went from 44 and 54 inches to 64 inches, in the range we now call narrow goods. The next jump was to 74 and 100 inches. Then there were grand-format dye-sub printers; the first wave printed up to 10 feet wide. Until recently I could count the number of 15-foot dye-sub printers in the US on one hand, but now we have one in our own backyard.

With all this competition in dye-sub fabrics, what’s an old dye-sub guy to do? Take the 20 years of experience and apply it to sublimating beautiful images to steel and aluminum sheets, fiberglass-reinforced plastic, medium-density fiber board, wood, phenolic, and composite board.

Just as with fabrics, there are small, bigger, and biggest printing capabilities based on the size of the production equipment, available sheets, and other substrates. Shops have been using desktop inkjet printers with dispersed dye inks and T-shirt presses for years to print the little, hard substrates such as ceramic tiles, bag tags, coasters, mousepads, magnets, etc.

The good news is the latest generation of wide-format inkjet dye-sublimation printers can rival the image quality of the best desktop printers, so all of these small products can be produced at a much faster pace and lower cost.

On the large-format side, most sheet goods come in 4 x 8- or 5 x 10-foot dimensions. Because many shops now have router tables, sheets can be cut to customer specifications, but they can also be cut with less-expansive table saws.

What most shops don’t have is a large-format, flatbed heat press that would allow them to sublimate full-size sheets. At our shop, we have three small heat presses and one large-format, dual-platen hydraulic heat press. The dual platens allow us to stage on one platen while we are pressing on the other. Thus, we can have serious production volumes.

We have found dye sublimating rigid products more challenging than sublimating fabric, but we continue to get better at it. We have produced some stunning products and therefore have had satisfied customers. The learning curve includes mistakes and products that take multiple tries to meet our exacting standards. The issue with that is some sheets can cost well over a hundred dollars, so we can end up with some expensive waste.

Market Potential
I will make a bold statement, without reservation: In all of wide- and grand-format printing, if you select the right printer, ink, paper, and substrate, there is no combination of print technology and media that can produce large images that rival dye sublimation to rigid media. It’s simply the best.

This superiority is consistent across all qualitative measures. The colors are the brightest, most vibrant, and most saturated. Because the image penetrates the surface with dye gasses and not ink drops, the result is a continuous tone look. This feature also allows the sheen to remain unchanged. Whether the substrate is a matte, luster, gloss, or super-gloss, the print process does not alter it. Also, the latest and best dye-sublimation printers output amazing sharpness because of their ability to print variable drop sizes down to single-digit picoliters at resolutions over 1000 dpi.

For most of us, UV-cure printing is the de facto method for printing rigid media. Sublimation printing is unlike UV-cure deposition printing, where the ink builds up a physical texture on the surface of the media and alters the sheen of the substrate.

Dye-sublimated images are as abrasion-resistant as the coating they’re sublimated into. So, if you’re sublimating into some of the most durable paints, like polyester powder coat or a coating with aluminum oxide, the image is as durable as that paint or coating. With deposition printing, the image is as durable as the adhesion of the ink to the surface. It can be very good or it can be awful.

Is dye-sublimated rigid media the best choice for every purpose? No, and the word “dye” in its name tells you why. If you need color light-fastness outdoors, you must print with pigments. For example, if you plan to direct print to metal or wood for an outdoor application, UV-cured flatbed or hybrid printers are still your best bet.

What are some of the potential markets for dye-sublimated rigid media? We sell large aluminum and hardboard prints to a photographer for his high-end gallery. We produced the back wall for a show kitchen on the Vegas Strip using polyester-powder coated sheet metal. We have made clear-coated maple sublimation wooden prints for a fine artist. We provide small, sublimated prints on various media for a pet photographer. We have produced phenolic door skins to change the look of doors without removing them. We currently have a large order for fine art prints on coasters, and we are about to launch our own retail line of products.

So, if you currently own a high-resolution, large-format inkjet printer for fabric sublimation, you’re an inexpensive T-shirt heat press away from sublimating small, rigid materials. If you like the results, you can start shopping for a large-format, flatbed heat press. We traded three decommissioned printers for our large, used unit, so we added large-format capacity on the cheap. If you are looking to branch out and expand your print offerings with the most amazing, jaw-dropping prints in our industry, you should give dye sublimation to rigid materials a try.

Read more "Inside Output" from Craig Miller or explore the rest of our September 2016 "Outstanding Out-of-Home" issue.

View more from this Big Picture issue