You have heard it: Color sells—and it does. People like color, especially full color. Take a photo, multicolor image or color company logo and print it on any product—a mug, mouse pad, golf ball, phone case, travel mug, award plaque, sign, badge, pendant—and what happens? You instantly transform it from an undistinguished product to a multicolor personalized product and, in doing so, exponentially increase its real and perceived value. Indeed, studies have shown that the vast majority of consumers (85% according to one study) say color is a primary reason for purchasing certain products.
Color can be expensive and complicated to reproduce. But it doesn’t have to be. Fortunately for those of us in the recognition and personalization industry, we are seeing a surge in printing and color technologies that are getting better all the time while becoming more versatile and affordable.
In the early days, all we had were methods for producing a single color or several single colors on a product, e.g. hand filling (paint filling) an engraved name badge or sublimating a single toner color on a brass plate.
“Full-color” technology is quite different. With this technology, hundreds (even thousands) of colors can be printed all at once by mixing varying quantities of three or four primary colors. By mixing these basic colors, usually cyan, magenta, yellow and black (more commonly abbreviated CMYK), literally hundreds of thousands of colors or shades of colors are possible. The range and number of these colors is referred to as a gamut or pallet. Today, we have full-color processes available through a variety of technologies, including sublimation, UV printing, laser printing and more.
So, what process is right for you and your clientele? This article will explore a variety of full-color technologies available to the personalization specialist and what they have to offer. Nowadays the field is vast and your choices are many. This article will take a look at the major choices and provide an overview of each. Let’s get started.
Using a cylindrical fixture on a UV-LED printer allows you to print on cylindrical items like glasses and bottles. Photo courtesy of Direct Color Systems.
Although laser-printed heat transfers have been around for 15-20 years, they haven’t been very good. Until recently, they fell into the “it’s the best we’ve got” category. When applied to fabric, they didn’t peel away completely or they left a horrible “hand” (texture of the imprint on the fabric) or they would wash out in just a couple of washings. To top it off, they tended to be expensive.
Now, however, thanks to some huge advancements in the transfer paper technologies, you can create full-color heat transfers in-house using an off-the-shelf laser printer and these special transfer papers. Full-color transfers that are self-weeding and transfers that actually include white ink (toner) from a laser printer are some of the new technologies. Plus, there are now transfer papers available that allow you to go beyond fabrics and print on hard substrates, such as wood, metal, ceramic or acrylic.
The magic of all the possibilities with this technology lies in the transfer paper that is fed into a conventional laser printer. Not all color laser printers will work with these papers so talk to your supplier about which units will and will not work. Transfer sheets are available in 8.5" x 11" and 11" x 17" sizes. Of course, you must have a printer large enough to handle the 11" x 17" paper size to use it.
Some of these transfer papers require two heat pressing steps while others are done in one. Two-step processes don’t require two heat presses (although it sure is handy) but do require two different temperatures.
The most significant change over the years has surely been in the way these transfers apply to a garment without making a significant change in the hand of the fabric. True, it does change some but nothing like the hard, stiff feel of years gone by. Colors in this new world of heat transfer (that’s what they really are) are vivid and can even be applied directly to a black garment if your printer has white toner capabilities.
Laser transfers can be used to print on most fabrics, including 100% cotton and cotton blends. Using the correct transfer paper, you can also print on dark fabrics, including black. As mentioned, there are also transfer papers available for printing on nearly any hard, smooth substrate.
Full-color images can be applied to black garments without the need to invest heavily into a DTG digital printer. Even if you purchase two top-of-the-line heat presses and an 11" x 17" printer, you are still well under the investment cost of a single DTG printer.
These images hold up surprisingly well during laundering. After 25 test washings, there was almost no degradation of the image. Transfer papers can be stored for long periods of time provided they are stored correctly.
Entry cost for sublimation is low and although people often complain about the cost of ink, the actual per-image cost is as low as 1¢ per square inch with an average cost of about 3¢ per square inch. There are roughly 1,000 videos on YouTube teaching various skills of sublimation so there is plenty of educational information available (not to mention a huge number of EJ articles I and others have written).
With the exception of polyester fabric, almost all substrates you want to print have to be specially coated to accept sublimated images. So, for example, you can easily screen print images onto cheap, off-the-shelf coffee mugs, whereas with sublimation, you need to use specially coated ceramic mugs which are more expensive. Sublimation inks are not UV stable so when exposed to direct sunlight for a prolonged period of time, the dye images can fade over time. Some specialized coatings extend the life of sublimation in direct sunlight for a year or two, but fading is inevitable.
A fourth issue with sublimation is the fact that the dyes which form the image are slightly transparent. That means the image will be fine when you’re printing on a white substrate. However, images on black substrates will not show up or an image printed on a color substrate, such as a light blue shirt, will show a color shift, in this case a bluish cast to the image.
Entry level sublimation if you already have a heat press is approximately $600. A good heat press will add another $1,400 to that taking it to $2,000. A larger sublimation printer that allows printing transfers up to 13" x 21" will cost about $2,100 plus a larger footprint heat press. Watch for tradeshow specials to save several hundred dollars on a printer. There are also some special purpose heat presses available for printing hats, coffee mugs, etc.
- THE NEXT LEVEL:
So sublimation is now a mature, time-proven way to apply good quality color images to sublimation-receptive surfaces and laser transfers open up a realm of color possibilities in heat transfers. So what’s the next level of full-color personalization? It’s often called “direct print” where you are using an inkjet printer to print the color image directly onto an item/substrate, skipping the intermediate steps of creating a transfer and then applying it with heat. Direct print is today’s up-and-coming personalization process. Of course, direct print has also evolved into different directions which are often best suited for a particular range of applications. Let’s take a closer look.
Direct Color Systems offers UV-LED printers that can “stack” printed layers of ink to create raised lettering and Braille for ADA-compliant signs.
UV-LED printing is one of the newer technologies in the market and probably the most misunderstood. A number of major hitters have entered this market and shown up at tradeshows with their printers. They call them “UV” printers because the ink doesn’t air dry. Instead, it’s cured and dried using a UV light source that is built into the printer. UV printers will print on most substrates when an “adhesion enhancer” is added to the ink. Unlike sublimation, special coatings are not required although there is something to be said for specialized inks. For example, one manufacturer has introduced an ink for fabric making their printer capable of working like a direct-to-garment printer.
Many of these printers offer the ability to print using white ink which not only allows them to print white in process color images, it also allows using white as an undercoat for printing on dark colored substrates such as black. Because the white ink is opaque, only one coat is generally required, even on black. Many of these printers are actually built around an Epson 13" print body from an Epson 1900, 2200 or 2880 printer and include a beefed-up motor and other parts to withstand the abuse of being used in a production application.
UV printers can print directly on most substrates, including glass, ceramic, plastic, metal, wood, vinyl, foils, films, etc. They can also be used to print on flexible substrates such as leather, ribbons and fabric provided the flexible inks and a printer that can handle them are used. As mentioned, many substrates, such as glass, require an application of adhesion enhancer prior to printing.
These printers are fast, images are excellent and the printing cost per piece is very low, even if there is an undercoat of white ink. Unlike sublimation, there is no heat transfer process involved and the substrate doesn’t require a special coating (although an adhesion enhancer might be required on some materials). It’s also possible to print millions of colors in one pass and you can achieve fantastic detail with pinpoint registration accuracy. Inks dry instantly under the UV-LED light attached to the print head so no external drying unit is needed. Fixtures are available for printing items like golf balls and T-shirts.
Another interesting quality is that UV inkjet printers allow you to “stack” layers of ink to print 3D images. This is accomplished by laying down multiple passes of ink while drying each with UV light, creating a raised texture on the surface that you can actually see and feel.
Condé Systems, Inc. offers the OKI proColor 920WT laser printer for printing colors and white on transfers.
For the most part, substrates need to be flat although a slight curvature can be printed. A cylindrical fixture is available for a few printers that offers the ability to print on cylindrical objects such as water bottles and cups.
Many of these printers use ink cartridges which can be expensive and are a nuisance to keep working. White ink (which is useful as an undercoat beneath color images) tends to clog and settle to the bottom of the cartridges, and you need to manually shake the cartridges regularly to keep them from clogging. Some printers have a built-in agitator which helps with this, but some of those aren’t adequate to shake the entire ink delivery system.
Unless you spend a lot of money, most printers are limited in the width of the item that can be printed. This is due to the Epson’s 13" print rail which results in a print area of only 10" wide by almost any length you want.
The biggest complaint with UV printers is that they require a lot of attention for cleanings and are complex to run, especially when something goes wrong. Failure to properly maintain a UV printer can result in some expensive repairs, such as replacing print heads ($600). New ink cartridges cost $50+ and a complete set of ink might cost $900 or more. The shelf life (after opening) of some inks is short (about 6 months).
Operating a UV printer has a long learning curve. Expect to spend considerable time learning how to use and maintain a new printer.
Entry level printers start at about $10,000 with a more robust model costing around $40,000 and topping out around $80,000. Of course, there are much larger printers, capable of printing murals, reaching into the hundreds of thousands but they would probably fall outside the personalization industry.
GCC America, Inc. recently introduced the JF-240UV UV-LED printer which features a 24" x 20" printing area.
The Compress iUV-600s UV-LED flatbed inkjet printer from ColDesi, Inc. features a 24" x 18" print area.
Direct-to-Garment (DTG) printers have been around for a decade or more now and continue to grow both in popularity and diversity. With a DTG printer, you load a garment into the printer, print the design directly on the garment and then use a separate heat press to heat-cure the ink. Some of these are capable of printing white ink which is a plus since it allows printing on dark or black garments.
- ADVANTAGES: These printers are not prone to clogging (except for white ink) and stand ready to print “one-off” shirts. Virtually any design you can create on a computer, you can print onto a shirt. Although print time can be a bit long, it is just a matter of pushing print and the printer does the rest unassisted. The inks are specially formulated for fabric but are not particularly expensive.
When people are weighing the purchase of DTG printers, they often compare them to a screen printing setup. The big advantage to DTG is you can cost effectively print onesies and twosies and larger jobs requiring variable text, unlike screen printing.
The printers are expensive. When printing white ink on a black substrate, several passes may be required to provide an opaque base for an overprinted image. When this happens, both print time and ink cost accelerate dramatically. These printers print one shirt at a time. For any kind of production, you will need to purchase multiple printers.
These printers range in price depending on features and whether or not it has white ink, but expect to pay in the neighborhood of $18,000 per printer.
The DyeTrans RJ-900X Printer from Condé Systems, Inc. is a wide format sublimation system for printing media up to 44” wide..
The Mimaki USA, Inc. MkII Series UV-LED printers are available in two sizes with a variety of ink options, including clear and white..
WIDE FORMAT PRINTERS
Other direct print systems include wide format printers that can print banners, tablecloths, posters, unsewn fabric, etc. These printers range from 24" to 104" wide and far beyond. Most people in our industry who do large format work use either a 48" or 60" printer. These printers can use a variety of inks including fluorescent, solvent, latex and sublimation inks.
Obviously, the ability to print 24" or more is a great plus. It allows you to print everything from banners to magnetic signs. They can use a variety of inks, including specialty inks, and inks are inexpensive. Note, however, that printers must be dedicated to a single type of ink and cannot be easily changed from one to the other.
The larger printers take up a lot of space. A 24" printer is going to be roughly 48" wide while a 48" printer will be about 6' wide. A 60" printer will take up at least 7' if not more. You will also need lots of space for the media that comes off one of these printers. Because the ink needs some time to dry, most people allow the material to drape onto the floor in front of the printer to dry. This is no problem, other than it takes a lot of space.
Prices vary considerably, but generally speaking a 24" printer starts at about $5,000. The 44"-48" printers start at around $8,000. The 60" printers start around the $14,000 mark and can soar to the stratosphere.
Feel a little overwhelmed? Not sure what is right for you? Look at it this way: One, what kinds of products do you want to imprint and two, what kind of money can you invest? Chances are, those criteria will make your decision for you.
For example: If you don’t have a lot to invest and want to offer lots of products, sublimation is probably the ticket for you. For $2,000, you can be in business and can offer almost all of the 1,000+ products available.
If you have more to invest and want to imprint products not available in the sublimation lineup, consider UV printers. They carry a $12,000+ sticker but they can print a wider variety of products, including promotional products. Most people I know end up with a printer that calls for a $40,000 investment.
If you want to print garments, you might look at a lower end UV printer ($12,000), a DTG printer ($40,000) or laser transfer setup ($7,000-$12,000 including two heat presses if you need them).
We all like to have the biggest and the best but truth is, most of us don’t need such sophistication, especially when getting started. Those who didn’t get started in this industry on a shoestring are the exception. Most of us started out with a piecemeal operation with entry level equipment and paid for the Cadillac equipment we acquired years later.
The concept of start small and test the market is a valid one. Too often, we have jumped into a new technology only to find it too expensive, too time-consuming or too complicated. A little research can help prevent that but even then, starting small is a sure way to allow your business to evolve into a true cash machine.