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Why Hard-Surface Dye Sublimation Is Heating Up

(April/May 2017) posted on Thu May 18, 2017

High-definition dye sublimation on rigid substrates offers fresh options for printing gifts, interior décor, and more.

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By Eileen Fritsch

Rising interest in rigid substrates for dye sublimation can also be attributed to advancements in transfer (“ink release”) papers. In the early days of dye sublimation, separate papers were required for textiles and rigid substrates. Manufacturers of papers designed for textile sublimation were more concerned about releasing ink deep into the fabric than with high quality photo reproduction.

New hybrid dye sublimation transfer papers can transfer designs onto either textiles or rigid substrates. Hybrid papers make sense for sporting-goods businesses that use a single dye sublimation printer to decorate a mix of sportswear and equipment.

But for higher-volume, color-critical printing of soft signage and metal prints, you might want to load one wide-format printer with transfer papers optimized for textiles and another with papers for high quality imaging on rigid substrates. At Photokina 2016, Sihl introduced one such product, SubliColor Impact Paper 110 Matte, specifically for dye sublimation of high-resolution photos, images, and graphics on coated metal, wood, or ceramic items.

Photo courtesy of Sawgrass.

Image permanence has been another focus of intense research. ChromaLuxe, for example, has been working with ink developers at Sawgrass to reduce the effects of UV light on the colorfastness of dye sublimated photo prints. The eight-cartridge set of Sawgrass SubliJet IQ Pro Photo XF inks features three shades of black inks that not only promote longevity, but also enhance skin tones and the neutral blacks and detail that fine art and photographic prints demand. The inks are used in the Sawgrass 25-inch Virtuoso HD Product Decorating System.

Image permanence tests by Wilhelm Imaging Research have given dye sublimation photo prints on ChromaLuxe panels an image permanence rating of 64 years with Sawgrass SubliJet IQ Pro Photo XF inks and 65 years with Epson UltraChrome DS inks. This means the unframed metal panels are more stable and longer-lasting than prints on photo papers used in traditional silver-halide photo processing.

Extending the outdoor life of dye sublimation prints on rigid panels is another avenue of research. Currently, some dye sub prints can last 12 or 18 months outdoors without fading. Advances in inks, coatings, and substrates might make it possible to create signs that could last three to five years outdoors.

“Our current products are perfect for indoor use, but are not rated to outdoor use,” says Holtzman. “People do use them outdoors, though, and have varying levels of success based on placement. We will have a product coming out soon that will be intended for outdoor use.”

Wilhelm notes that not all materials for making metal prints have the same properties: “Very complex interactions take place between sublimation inks and the ink-receptive polymer coatings of dye sublimation prints, both during the short, high-heat image transfer step involved as well as very gradually over time, during the long-term display and storage of the prints. What a print looks like when it emerges from the heat press tells you nothing about how long it will last.” Such advancements will further refine a technology that has proven itself in the market. “Dye sublimation technology can be considered mature in that it is stable and repeatable,” says Hope. He believes continuing innovation in dye sublimation will reduce production times, bring costs down, and increase the number of substrates for dye sublimation.

Barry Brown of Visigraph believes dye sublimation printing will continue to emerge as one of the favorite forms of printing products, both rigid and fabric: “New breakthroughs are pointing to the potential for dye sublimation to be used on printed signs and displays where long-term usage is required,” he writes in a recent blog. “Literally the sky is the limit with dye sublimation printing on rigid substrates.”

Explore the rest of Screen Printing's April/May 2017 edition or check out more from Eileen Fritsch.


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