What’s a rotary drum heat press?

A rotary heat press, also known as a calendar transfer machine, is used to continuingly transfer dye-sublimation prints onto a fabric. Machines like this are used in many types of applications. You can use it for printing fabric rolls, creating signage, producing flags, working with cut part pieces for cut-and-sew apparel, and even for making pieces of ribbon or long straps.

Rotary presses are typically manufactured two different ways and come in widths that range from 10-220″. The two types of presses are referred to as a roll-to-roll rotary press and a cut part rotary press (the latter features a table).

  • Roll-to-roll rotary press:  This type of rotary press is used to transfer your designs on to a roll of fabric. The items you will need with a roll-to-roll rotary press include pre-printed transfer paper, tissue paper, and fabric. The pre-printed transfer paper has a slight tackiness to it, and it’s used to hold the fabric in place. The tissue paper keeps the sublimation ink from getting on to the belt that goes around the drum. The fabric you use will always be composed of polyester, a polyester blend, or some other kind of polyester-coated substrate. Roll-to-roll rotary machines typically come with three unwinds and three rewinds. The three items listed above are loaded onto the unwind rods of the rotary press. They come together and go through the press, looping around the heated drum. This part of the process is called the “dwell time,” and this is where the sublimation process happens. The rewind rods then roll up the now-printed fabrics, the used transfer paper, and used tissue paper.

roll to roll rotary press

Above: Roll-to-roll rotary heat press. (Images courtesy Coastal Business Supplies)

  • Cut parts rotary presses:  This type of rotary press is used to transfer your design on to pre-cut pieces of fabric, but it can also create rolls of fabric. You still need pre-printed transfer paper and tissue paper for this kind of rotary press, as well as your cut pieces of fabric. Cut parts rotary presses have a table attached to the front of the press, giving your production team the ability to lay down pre-cut fabrics on to the pre-printed transfer paper. The pre-printed transfer paper is loaded on the unwind rod and fed into the heated drum area. The cut parts are laid down on the pre-printed transfer paper and fed into the printer. A press that is set up for cut part application typically comes with three unwinds and three rewinds as well. This affords the press the ability to operate like a roll-to-roll rotary press if needed.

cut parts rotary press

Above: Cut parts rotary press.

Specialized rotary press accessories are available, but they are optional items. For example, if you are working with ribbons or straps, you can purchase a rotary press that has webbing features. Some manufacturers have this as an optional item to add on when purchasing your press.

As with all new equipment, there will be a learning curve until you feel comfortable using your machine. Feel confident knowing that this is a low learning curve, and it’s just a small matter of time before you’re a master at operating your rotary press. Three basic variables affect your results: heat, pressure, and time. Some ink manufacturers give a recommendation on the dwell time. Based on that recommendation, you will need to experiment by adjusting the temperature and time to achieve ideal results.

If you are considering a rotary press and trying to decide which type of rotary press to purchase, you should ask yourself, “What type of production line do I want?” “Do I want to work with a fabric where I roll and cut pieces out after printing?” Or “Do I want to work with pre-cut pieces and then sublimate them?” Do you want the option to do both? These questions, and many more variables (such as oil-filled drums vs. electrical, the press’ ability to telescope, the types of fabrics it can work with, etc.), are the things you want to think about. Overall, it’s best to talk with an industry leader to assist you in your decision making and learn through their experience with rotary heat presses.

—Coastal Business Supplies

Coastal Business Supplies July webinar presentations direct-to-garment printing sublimation

Coastal Business Supplies

Coastal Business Supplies Inc. is an industry leader in sublimation, heat transfer paper, heat transfer vinyl, and wide-format solutions.

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