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Sublimation Print Technology

Breakthroughs in printer, ink and fabric technologies provide a plethora of new textile print possibilities

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Over the years, technological advancements in equipment and media have continued to change the landscape of the fabric printing market.  From innovative transfer and direct-print sublimation printer technologies to vastly improved ink disbursement systems as well as a new host of colorful lightweight fabrics to print on, these new development are also revolutionizing the entire industry as a whole and helping create new applications for output providers to offer their clients.

“The growing diversity of polyester fabric is quite interesting right now. Also, fabric signage-either reflective or backlit-is popular because it is lightweight and foldable (easy to carry/install and economical to ship), and the colors are vivid,” comments Ryosuke Nakayama, product manager, Textiles & Apparel Business Development & Marketing, Mimaki USA. “These are desirable qualities that cannot be accomplished by printing on PVC and banner materials. Other trends are eco-friendly processes and materials, and polyester is recyclable,” he adds.

Improved Polyester Fabrics

Nakayama reports that he is noticing that fabric manufacturers are expanding and tailoring their products so that they’re compatible with dye-sublimation inks. “For example, there are different types of polyester fabrics intended to mimic the look and feel of materials such as cotton, nylon, and silk, which are all materials that are incompatible with dye-sublimation ink.”

Randy Anderson, product manager at Mutoh America, agrees, adding that the look and feel of polyester fabrics have improved phenomenally in the past few years, and this has benefitted and spurred growth in the fashion market more than any other application.

Anderson reports that he is seeing more industrial type printers being introduced for the smaller format markets and higher speed models for users to address production needs in the large-format markets.

Innovations Abound

Lily Hunter, product manager, Textiles and Consumables at Roland DGA defiantly feels that recent developments in equipment and media have played major roles in the growth of this category.  “Manufacturers such as Roland are constantly innovating to improve printer image quality, productivity, reliability and ease of use,” Hunter says. “We offer higher-density inks that dry quickly and we offer a wider color gamut and deliver greater opacity. Additionally, end users are looking for high quality output while keeping overall operating costs to a minimum.  That includes not only printers designed for optimum efficiency, but also lower-cost consumables, including ink and paper.”

Knit Fabrics Gaining in Popularity

Hunter points out that trends on the fabric side include the rise in knit fabrics, which are typically less expensive, ‘stretchier’ materials, whereas woven fabrics are stiffer, higher-cost fabrics. “We are starting to see more knit fabrics that can be used in place of woven fabrics, providing the same look and feel at a lower cost.  Today’s polyester is not your stereotypical ‘shiny’ leisure suit fabric anymore.  There is ‘spun’ polyester, which looks and feels like cotton, and companies like Premier Textiles now offer polyester fabrics that look like linen and other home décor textiles.”

She adds that traditionally, flags and backlit signage were direct printed in order to get the desired ink saturation. “However, thanks to new and advanced dye-sublimation printers such as our Roland Texart RT-640 and XT-640, it’s now easy to achieve this same level of saturation for these applications with transfer sublimation.  It’s also important to keep in mind, that with direct sublimation, you need to use coated fabrics, which can limit your choices. Transfer dye sublimation does not require coated fabrics, allowing for a wider choice of materials.”

Transfer Vs. Direct Printing Options

Both transfer and direct-print sublimation printing technologies have their advantages and drawbacks. As we know, the main difference is that with transfer, you are limited to printing only onto polyester or polyester-coated substrates, and the process requires reverse printing onto transfer paper as well as a heat press to get the image onto the fabric. With direct fabric printing no transfer process is required and you can print onto more types of fabrics, but but different fabrics require different ink types including reactive dye, acid dye, disperse dye, etc. In addition, some direct processes also require post-print treatment such as a heat press to set the inks.

Transfer Process More Precise

Nakayama says that transfer versus direct-print sublimation printing varies from market to market. “One advantage of printing on transfer paper is that you generally achieve better overall quality. For example, the transfer process is more precise when printing smaller text, as well as images.  Printing on transfer paper allows for the dots of ink to be more precise. A drawback of transfer printing is the added cost for the paper needed throughout the process.”

He says that an advantage of direct-to-fabric printing is that customers can run high-production output. “This is ideal for applications such as soft signage, because it requires less time to manufacture. Also, with this type of printing, customers usually produce larger output, which is seen from a distance and does not require fine-resolution printing.

“One drawback of direct-to-fabric printing is that the margin of error is greater because the ink can sometimes bleed through the fabric and the imprecision of the ink dots are sometimes more noticeable. Both printing processes require a heat press that will enable the ink to set and bond with the fabric. Overall, both methods are effective for specific uses.”

Flying the Flag for Direct Printing

Anderson says that perhaps the biggest advantage to direct-print sublimation is in the production of flag and flag-type fabrics.  “Using a dispersed dye to print directly on a flag fabric can allow some print through to the other side, which when sublimated, can give a better two-sided appearance to the flag over singled-sided transfer.”

“There is a whole market of coated polyesters and coated natural fabrics that can utilize a dispersed pigment to print directly to the fabric with good results,” Anderson says. “This provides good results for soft signage and specialty markets.” He adds that heat press technology still relies on the fundamentals of heat, pressure and time to sublimate or set inks to fabrics in the most popular applications.

Fabric Printing with Mutoh

Anderson points out that Mutoh offers the RJ-900x, VJ1624WX, VJ1628X, VJ1638WX, VJ1938WX and the VJ2638X printers for dye sub applications and they have just released the VJ1938TX direct-to-textile 75-inch printer, that is designed for high-production textile printing.

Anderson says that there are two major things to look for when purchasing a printer for this market-reliability and versatility. “Reliability is a big key. Dye sub can be an application where a printer that is a real workhorse is a major asset for an output provider. Versatility is also important. Many printer manufacturers try to lock you in to a specific ink/media/RIP combination.  An open source machine allows you to customize your supplies to match the needs of your particular business application,” he concludes.

Mimaki Sublimation Offerings

Nakayama reports that the Mimaki TS300P-1800 dedicated dye sub printer is very popular right now. “It’s a 77-inch dedicated transfer paper model for digital textile printing or applications requiring transfer to hard surfaces,” he says. He adds that the recently introduced Mimaki TS500P-3200 printer is a super wide 129.9-inch, dedicated transfer model developed for production transfer runs to create extra-wide textile applications such as soft signage, home furnishing and hospitality fabrics. Both printers offer high print speeds and the ability to print onto very thin transfer papers.

Nakayama also says that for shops in the market for a printer in this area they should ask if the printer includes functions to support unattended printing for long print runs. “Mimaki printers, for example, include technologies that assist with unattended printing: Nozzle Check Unit plus Nozzle Recovery System, bulk ink supply (2L ink pack or 3L external talks), uninterrupted ink supply system on some models, and tension bars for proper take-up alignment.”

He says another question for them to ask is regarding the inks. “Who makes them? Who warrants them against defects?  This can be an issue when using third-party inks. We always recommend using Mimaki original inks to achieve the best performance.”

Roland’s Textile Printer Lineup

“We offer the Texart RT-640 dye sublimation printer, which is a versatile 64-inch inkjet designed to optimize sublimation output while minimizing operating costs,” says Hunter. “Our line up also includes the 64-inch Texart XT-640 dye-sub printer, which is uniquely engineered to maximize output in high-volume apparel and textile production environments. Printing with both the RT-640 and XT-640 using Texart inks allows production of items that are OEKO-TEX Standard 100 Class 1 certified. This opens up opportunities for products that can be sold into the children’s market, such as clothing, décor, toys and accessories. It’s now a safety requirement that these kinds of products meet OEKO-TEX Class 1 certification,” she points out.

Other Buying Tips

Hunter says it’s important to make sure to purchase a printer that’s designed specifically for dye sub applications.  “While these printers may look similar to eco-solvent printers on the outside, what’s ‘under the hood’ can make an enormous difference.” 

She adds that’s it’s important to keep in mind that dye-sublimation ink droplets are a lot smaller than eco-solvent ink droplets, so you need a printer that provides outstanding ink-firing accuracy. “Equipped with this type of printer, even if your graphics have a lot of fine lines and details, you’ll be able to achieve optimal image quality. You should also take a close look at the finished output (after sublimation). That will give a good feel for the quality of the printer and the inks.”

She says to make sure shops consider the overall productivity of the printer, not just in regard to speed, but also when it comes to maintenance and cleaning.  “Remember, less time spent to maintain and clean your printer means more time to print. Consider the printer’s overall cost of operation, too-not just the cost of the printer and consumables. Efficient dye-sublimation printers can save you a tremendous amount of money in the long run.”

Lastly, she adds to take into consideration what comes with the printer as well. “For instance, does it come with powerful and reputable RIP software?  How about a quality take-up system? Finally, consider the reputation of the manufacturer, the level of service and support provided, and the product warranty.”

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Matt Dixon

Matt Dixon is the managing editor of Graphics Pro.

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