Wide-Format Sublimation Offers Big Advantages For Decorated Apparel Shops
As sublimation printing has become a mainstream process in the apparel decorating industry, there a number of reasons to consider investing in a wide-format sublimation printer.
As technology in equipment, inks, papers and performance wear continue to improve, sublimation printing has continued to increase in popularity.
It is a great solution for short custom runs, photorealistic images, and the explosion of polyester-based fabrics and sublimatable products is making sublimation the preferred option for more and more applications.
Along with this increase in popularity has been a growing interest from within the decorated apparel industry for wide-format sublimation machines. Typically defined as units from 42 inches to 64 inches in width, with 44 inches pretty much the norm in our industry, wide-format sublimation printers have traditionally seen the greatest use in a sign and graphic companies.
But garment decorators are finding that the rising demand for all-over printing as well as production efficiencies (being able to gang more designs on a single sheet) are making wide-format sublimation a profitable investment. And of course, it also opens the door for T-shirt shops to expand into signage and graphic markets.
Buyers like the feel of sublimation, and with wide format, you can print a roll of paper and apply it to a roll of fabric to be cut and sewn. Or it can be used for test printing before going into full production, without being cost-prohibitive.
Wide-format sublimation printers allow not only for larger images but also for more economical printing of smaller items as well as an expanded range of substrates. In addition to things like blankets, beach towels, and scarves, they make it possible to print flags, fabric or metal photo panels, signage, and decorative pieces.
Wide-format sublimation also can be used to boost production speed and decrease cost through batch printing. The dwell time is the same for printing 100 cell phone cases as for one, and you can print as many cases at once as you can fit under the heat press.
Individually cut transfers are secured to cases with thermal tape or the whole sheet can be laid down and the transfers aligned and taped for high production. The RIP software performs automatic ganging for more efficient use of material and less waste.
In addition to supporting larger runs and faster production, wide-format sublimation printers can offer variable data capabilities, making it possible to add personalization to products on a production level.
Although the use of wide-format sublimation printers in the apparel industry is still predominantly concentrated in fairly high-volume operations, more medium-level shops are exploring it and making the jump. This has to do with improvements in print head technology, better-educated buyers, and simple economics.
The marketing of desktop printers has driven the advancement of sublimation in the garment-decorating field. This is still the level at which most first-time textile printers are introduced to the process. And when you compare the price of a desktop model, which is around $500, to the $7,500 or so you’ll spend for a wide-format unit, it’s easy to see why the desktop might seem like a smarter way to go if you’re just starting out in sublimation.
But there are other considerations. The sublimation ink is the “magic” of the process, and it is also the most expensive cost. Cartridges for desktop printers are significantly more expensive than for wide-format units. You can purchase ink for a wide-format sublimation printer for $115 a liter.
If you take the area you can print with that liter and calculate what the cartridges would cost to print the same area on a desktop model, you’ll find you’d be paying $1,500-$2,000 a liter for the same ink. If you’re talking about a large-enough job, the cost of the desktop ink cartridges might actually pay for a wide-format sublimation printer.
You have to be forward thinking and weigh the initial capital investment, including equipment, materials, setup and training; operating costs; and production needs against your company’s goals. With respect to the printer itself, you are looking at an upfront cost of about $7,500.
You’ll also need a wide-format heat press. The number of presses in the range between 16 inches by 20 inches and a 44-inch width is limited, but it is likely to grow concomitantly with the interest in wide-format printing. However, mid-level wide-format heat presses currently are significantly more expensive than standard sizes, and typically represent about a $15,000 investment.
If you’re planning to do transfers for items such as mugs and cell phone cases, you also will have to buy a separate cutter. Someone doing all-over printing can get into it with a manual cutter press for around $10,000. But you really should expect to spend $15,000-$20,000.
Also, because of the size of a wide-format manual heat press, it’s preferable to get one that’s air operated. If you decide to go to a 64-inch printer, it will increase your production speed, and you’ll still be able to use the wide-format heat press and 44-inch paper; but you’ll pay about twice as much for the printer. In general, if you give yourself a budget of $25,000, you should be in good shape and be able to recoup the investment quickly.
In terms of materials, there are three general categories of paper used in wide-format sublimation printing. The tacky paper is the most commonly used in the apparel arena. The tacky paper has a heat activated tack that keeps the garment from having ghosting when the press opens as those sublimation inks are still active for a few moments while the ink and polyester cools down and locks into the fabric.
There also is a universal paper for hard surfaces and a thinner, lighter paper that is for high-volume, roll-to-roll printing on calendar or drum presses, such as those used in cut-and-sew operations.
Beyond costs and ROI, there are other factors to consider when making the move to wide format. For one thing, you need to look at the footprint of the equipment. These printers are fairly compact, but they still require about a 6-foot by 4-foot space. And you’ll have to allow at least a 10-foot square area for the press.
Plus, don’t forget to take size into account relative to getting the units through the door, as well as with respect to floor space. It’s also important to be aware of the electrical requirements of wide-format equipment and the type of outlets you’ll need.
Then there are environmental considerations. These are inkjet printers, and they work best and require the least maintenance if they are in a controlled environment with optimal temperature (between 60 and 80 degrees F) and humidity (40 percent to 60 percent). When shopping, be sure to discuss things like this, as well as equipment features with the distributor or manufacturer.
Wide format isn’t for everyone. But as its capabilities become better understood and decorators become more aware of the potential value and return they offer, it is becoming a more accessible and viable option for a greater range of apparel decorating operations.