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Wide-Format Digital Dye Sublimation

(January 2009) posted on Mon Jan 12, 2009

Fabrics printed with sublimation inkjet technology make up a fast-growing and lucrative market within the wide-format-graphics industry. From trade-show displays and banners to upholstery and architectural graphics, you’ll find dye-sublimation prints hanging around everywhere. This overview looks at equipment and ink options for dye-sublimation printing and how you can use the technology to produce unique graphics for a variety of applications.

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By Lori Leaman

Andrew Oransky, director of product management for Roland, says there are a few factors to consider when using the sublimation transfer process, specifically in regards to the transfer paper. Users must be aware of buckling or cockling, which can result in irregularities in the transfer of color. In terms of transfer yield, different papers have different capabilities for releasing the ink they carry and will yield different results when combined with different types of media. Oransky says that papers with a higher gauge in grams are designed to accept greater ink loads and typically perform best when used in rigid-substrate sublimation transfers. Still other factors to consider with transfer paper include shelf life and the impact of the actual printing environment on the receptiveness of the media to the ink.

Direct-to-fabric printing systems, such as the HeatWave DFP-74 printer, Mimaki DS Series system, and Velotex Express offer an all-in-one system that prints onto fabrics without the need for transfer paper and separate post-treatment processes. The learning curve for using a direct-to-fabric printer is often significantly lower than that of sublimation transfer printer because the printing process is the same as printing vinyl graphics on a conventional inkjet printer—no separate transfer process is required.

Keith Faulkner, president of Richardson, TX-based Splash of Color, says that some of the advantages of direct-to-fabric printing include a one-step process, greatly reduced processing time, efficient workflow, roll-to-roll operation, and no requirement for transfer paper or a heat press. Direct-to-transfer printing, however, is not as flexible as sublimation transfer printing in terms of the types of fabrics that can be used.

Labella says that some untreated fabric can be printed on direct-to-fabric systems, but in many cases, pre-treatment is necessary. He says it is really the pre-treatment of the fabric that holds the ink droplet in place, prevents wicking, and allows the ink to penetrate through the fabric under heat. In terms of image quality and results, when the proper fabric is used, direct printing is comparable and, in some cases, superior to transfer printing.


Cost considerations

With sublimation transfer technology, purchase considerations include ink, transfer or carrier paper, fabric, a printer, and any required post-treatment equipment. Direct-to-print technology costs include inks, fabric, printer, a pre-coating machine and treatment solution for applications using special fabrics, and a heat press or heat calendering system if the printer does not have a built-in heat-fixation or curing unit.


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