Four Key Trends Driving Dye Sublimation

The impressive growth of dye sublimation is expected to continue over the next five years, as the once-disruptive technology aligns increasingly well with market dynamics.

Dye sublimation has been one of the most exciting areas of inkjet printing recently, and it will continue to present new business opportunities for print service providers and their suppliers, especially in the textile segment. Exclusive research from our report, “The Future of Dye Sublimation Printing to 2023,” estimates that the worldwide dye sub market rose to $8.97 billion in 2018, an increase of 9.3 percent. The strong compound annual growth rate of 10.2 percent that we’re projecting over the next five years would result in a total market value of $14.57 billion by 2023.

 

Fashion trends continue to play into the unique strengths of dye sublimation. Shown is a creation by designer Ariel Swedroe. Photo © Allana Wesley White.

Dye sublimation is a diversified market geographically with a strong presence in those countries active in the textile and fashion industries, such as Italy, India, and Bangladesh. North America, through companies like Sawgrass, ChromaLuxe, Condé, Beaver Paper, and PrinterEvolution, has played a pioneering role in the progression of the technology. In 2018, North America represented 38.9 percent ($3.49 billion) of the worldwide market, about the same as Western Europe. Italy, projected at $1.4 billion in 2018, represents over 40 percent of the total Western European market.

Globally, our forecast shows that the demand for dye sublimation-printed textiles and rigid media won’t expand quite as rapidly as it did in the first half of this decade, but this is simply evidence of a disruptive technology slowly maturing. Around the world, companies in this space are adjusting to a more competitive business environment. Smithers’ analysis identifies four critical trends for dye sublimation printing across 2018-2023.  

Higher Productivity Presses 

Dye sub equipment vendors have historically obtained new clients by selling them entry-level presses, and then providing a pathway to upgrade progressively to high-end machines via midmarket solutions. This may involve changes to modules, adding printheads, or buying a new machine at each stage. 

Demand for lower-cost production and higher volumes is driving single-pass technology, a more industrial process generally associated with high-end printers that have more printheads.

Smithers Pira’s survey of new machines introduced to the market over the past few years points to the availability of more printers priced in the upper end of the mid-productivity segment. Significantly, these are designed for optimum flexibility so as to behave, as much as possible, like the highest productivity machines. They achieve this via greater print widths twinned with the capacity to scale down smoothly for personalization or variable data work, and can allow print service providers to postpone the major capital investment of buying a press with top-tier productivity. 

Greater Automation

Printing, as with other industries in developed economies, is navigating a market pull for increased automation. Technology developers often advance the concept using the term “Industry 4.0,” incorporating existing disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence and enhanced machine vision. 

In practical terms, digital print does help enable faster turnarounds for short to medium run lengths compared with conventional printing due to the reduced make-ready times. Beyond this, technology developers can achieve further productivity gains in dye sublimation through greater automation of:

• Ink and fabric loading

• Head cleaning and alignment

• Fabric handling 

• Software for web-to-print ordering and press management

These improvements can be implemented now, and their growing use and adoption in the industry is imminent.

 

Meeting the Needs of Fashion and Online Retail

The increasing prevalence of the internet as a sales channel is having a profound impact on the supply chain for printed fabrics used in the fashion and related clothing segments. 

The fast fashion trend pioneered by the likes of Spanish fashion retailer Zara has resulted in brands launching multiple collections within a traditional quarterly season. The idea is to increase the number of mini-seasons in a given length of time with a steady stream of unique new stock entering stores and posted on websites, giving shoppers more reasons to interact with the brands.

In this environment, designers and suppliers – including printers – that can turn around new products quickly have a significant commercial advantage. Digital print platforms, such as dye sublimation, are a key enabling technology toward this objective, and the impact is multiplied when print service providers pair it with new software tools to collaborate with retailers and brands on designs in real time to create clothing more rapidly. The same online world enables more use of big data to determine how designs should change over short spans of time to maximize sales and profits.

However, moving just the design work online has limited benefits so long as the production model still involves large quantities and big distances between producers and points of sale. A parallel trend to online design collaboration is to reshore printing work to national markets where the consumers are, allowing the same-day printing and next-day delivery that modern consumers demand.

Automation across the value chain can lower the labor costs associated with making such a switch. It also allows retailers and brands to maintain more control over stock and quality, meeting the new expectations on delivery while minimizing inventory and the costs (financial and environmental) of transport.

Satisfying the Demand for Personalization

Despite the wider trend toward higher productivity on larger presses, about one-third of the newly released machines Smithers surveyed since the beginning of 2016 are designed primarily for direct-to-fabric or direct-to-garment work via transfer printing.

This indicates that the consumer market demand for unique personalized pieces – principally clothing – is far from satiated. Further evidence came through an analysis of recent patents filed by US-headquartered Hillman for a vending machine that employs on-demand dye sublimation printing. The customer places an order via a touch screen in store or a similar location, transmits an image file from a smart device, and the garment is printed immediately. If commercialized, this solution would optimize automation, efficiency, and customer interface.

This type of experience is entirely different from that of a long supply network for an industrial textile run, which produces undifferentiated garment designs for many international locations after many thousands of miles of shipping.  

Janine Young is editor of reports and publishing for Smithers Rapra, a division of the UK-based Smithers Group. For more information about “The Future of Dye Sublimation Printing to 2023,” visit smitherspira.com.

Read more from the February/March 2019 issue, including additional info on dye sublimation. 

 

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