Our industry is in the midst of a second “Digital Revolution.” I was around for the first one when companies like Dahlgren and H-Square followed by New Hermes (now Gravograph) introduced their computerized rotary engravers. In the ensuing years, manufacturers like Universal Laser Systems, Epilog Laser and others introduced the early computer-driven lasers. It was an exciting and challenging time. Today, we are experiencing another Digital Revolution in a host of full-color printing technologies, and once more, it is both exciting and challenging.
Is your head spinning from all the companies touting their new systems for printing full-color products? Advancements are coming so fast that even those of us who make a point to keep up can’t seem to do so. It seems like every day brings something new. Here’s a look at what we have today.
The oldest form of color printing is probably heat transfer. This technology has been around for a very long time but what we get in today’s digital printing era is very different from the early days when using heat transfers was largely a matter of purchasing the transfers from a vendor and applying the design in-house. The computer’s ability to add multiple colors, designs, logos and even photographs has made this technology very popular with both customers and providers. Heat transfers are primarily used for printing designs and images on fabric items like T-shirts and tote bags, although some can be used to print on hard surfaces as well. And the fact that everyone wears custom printed T-shirts is a huge plus.
The new digital method is to use an inkjet or laser printer and special heat transfer paper to print your own transfers in-house. The advantage of printing transfers with your own system is it allows for both multicolor and full-color transfers, no minimums and no waiting since they can be printed on the spot, as needed. This eliminates the need for inventory and allows for greater flexibility in the design since you can print virtually anything the customer wants. This also allows for individual personalization which is something you can’t do with processes like screen printing.
There are actually several methods for printing these transfers, and they differ from a sublimation transfer in that they can be transferred to most fabrics, including cotton. Like heat transfers of old, these new digital transfers print an image on the surface of the fabric and change the feel or “hand” of the fabric, making the fabric less flexible. Sublimation doesn’t do this since it dyes the fibers directly. Still, compared to older methods of applying a heat transfer, the modern transfers don’t feel as stiff. They also tend to wash and wear better.
Printing digital heat transfers requires using special heat transfer paper designed for whatever printer is being used and the substrate being printed, e.g. white vs. colored garments, fabric vs. hard surfaces, etc. Condé Systems, Inc., Mobile, AL (in addition to other vendors), offers a variety of transfer papers including one for their Reveal PrintPerfect inkjet system which works on light colored fabrics, and several transfer papers that can be used with a variety of color laser printers like the OKI C711WT and its big brother the OKI 920WT. Both of these printers offer the ability to print a true white in the transfer design and will work on all colors and most types of fabric, including black cotton. Other CMYK laser printers can be used but most won’t be able to print white.
Rowmark LLC, Findlay, OH, has also introduced a system that uses an OKI color laser printer and special papers to create a heat transfer that can print on a wide variety of substrates, including wood, metal, plastic and fabric. These are sold under their UniNet iColor brand by Rowmark distributors. TheMagicTouch, Niles, IL, is another supplier of transfer papers that can be used with most laser printers on the market to create heat transfers for printing on a variety of fabrics and hard surfaces, such as metal, acrylic and wood.
IKONICS Imaging recently introduced SubTHAT, a new sublimation film that can be used to apply images to a wider variety of substrates.
The last time I visited the Rowmark headquarters, they were still testing their UniNet iColor system. I was surprised by the quality of the wood signs they were making. Although I probably wasn’t supposed to notice their secret tests, I did and I was really impressed with all the substrates it worked on.
Sublimation is both an old and a new process. Depending on who you talk to, this process dates back to World War II when some scientists were messing around with a new plastic called acetate and discovered ink (dyes) would transfer to the plastic when left in contact for a period of time. It’s a new technology with the introduction of inkjet sublimation which has evolved into one of the most popular and versatile forms of digital transfer for full-color images, including photographs.
The process uses special inks with dyes mixed into them. When printed on a release paper, the dye can be transferred to most any polyester surface, be it hard or soft. It is typically applied in a heat press at 400° F for a specified time and pressure. The image is permanent on synthetic fabric since it actually dies the fiber. Applied correctly, the image will not fade due to washing or wear. The fabric will not shrink and can be made into highly desirable athletic garments that can wick away moisture or be highly elastic. Because the dye is absorbed by the fabric, it can stretch without cracking.
The downside of sublimation on fabric is it cannot produce a white ink and therefore must be used on white fabric if white is desired in the logo or photograph. It also cannot be used on dark fabrics because the dyes are translucent and, therefore, will allow any background color to show through the image, and in the case of dark colors, block out the image altogether. It cannot be used on cotton or other substrates that aren’t prepared specifically for sublimation. The upside is its durability on most substrates, low entry cost and high profit margins.
The sublimation process is commonly used in wide format industrial applications to print cut-n-sew clothing, draperies, bed spreads, automobile interiors, carpeting and many other things. Chances are the clothing you have on got its color from sublimation dyes.
In our industry, most people use a desktop printer under 17", although some also use a wide-format printer (up to 75"). These printers must use Piezo heads (Epson and Ricoh printers use this type of head). This is one of the least expensive processes used for personalization as a start-up system may only cost around $2,000. Supplies such as ink and paper are relatively inexpensive and profit margins are very high, especially with hard substrates.
Sawgrass is the leader in sublimation ink for desktop printers in the U.S. This has been because they owned the patent on the ink for any printer under 42". That patent has now expired so other inks have begun entering the marketplace.
Wide-format printing allows expanding into different markets. Shown here is an image sublimated on ChromaLuxe EXT metal which is designed for exterior applications. Photo courtesy of Roland DGA Corp.
SubTHAT is a new sublimation product by IKONICS Imaging, Duluth, MN, and sold by JDS Industries, Sioux Falls, SD. This borrows an old concept and brings it back to life in a way that is inexpensive and much more versatile. The concept is to sublimate directly to a clear film sheet which then can be applied to the substrate, regardless of whether or not that substrate is actually sublimatable.
Graphics One, Sunnyvale, CA, recently introduced GO SubliMate, a new sublimation ink. This ink is used in an Epson ET7750 printer which can be purchased off the open market. The ink includes CMYK plus neon yellow.
In my office, I have more than 200 samples I have sublimated to help people understand what sublimation can do. You can’t just say, “I can put a color photograph on all these products” and expect them to understand. You have to show them. And yes, there are currently about a thousand different products on the market for sublimation, ranging from travel mugs to cutting boards to socks to flip-flops. And with the new SubTHAT product, we can now sublimate tons of things that are not specially prepared for the sublimation process. This process, which started out with only a few products that could be sublimated, has grown into a monster and not only has the number of products increased but the quality of the images and the ease of production have also greatly improved.
Direct Print Technologies
Heat transfer and sublimation are similar processes in that the digital part of these technologies lies in creating and printing a transfer which is then applied to an item using a heat press. Today, our digital printing world has expanded immensely to include “direct print” technologies where a substrate is directly printed with an image thereby eliminating the transfer step. The following technologies are direct print processes which really show how far we’ve come in the realm of digital printing.
Sublimation can be used to print on hard substrates. Shown here is a luggage tag and a car coaster from Condé Systems, Inc.
Direct-to-garment printing (DTG) is a relatively new and exciting technology for on-the-spot T-shirt printers. This technology uses a specially designed inkjet printer to print fabrics and a heat press to cure the inks once the image is printed. Virtually anything you can get on a computer screen can be printed with a few exceptions. Like sublimation, it cannot print metallic gold or silver inks and many cannot print white.
There are a number of brands on the market including AnaJet (Tustin, CA), Brother International (Bridgewater, NJ), ColDesi (Tampa, FL) and Epson, just to mention a few. What separates these printers, in my mind at least, is whether or not they can print white ink. White ink is both a blessing and a curse. If you want to print dark colors, you must have white ink as a base for the colored inks. That’s the “up” side of white ink. The curse is that white ink is notorious for clogging printheads and it can add significantly to the cost of the finished garment.
DTG printers are expensive. Starting at around $16,000 and going up to $23,000, one has to sell a lot of shirts to pay for the investment. The print time also plays a major role in this technology since you can only print one shirt at a time unless you buy multiple machines. The time required to print a design is determined by its size and whether or not a white base is required. As an example, a large design might take 20 minutes to load, print, unload and seal the ink with an ordinary heat press. This means the maximum you can print per hour is three. Even a small image which requires only ten minutes to process only allows for six shirts per hour.
The finished product is similar to a heat transfer in that the ink sits on the surface of the fabric. These printers can only be used on fabric with a few possible exceptions such as mouse pads and imitation leather.
Needless to say, these can be used to print T-shirts but don’t stop there. Any fabric that will fit on the print table is printable. Small flags, neckties, kerchiefs, headbands, scarfs, ribbons and similar products can be easily printed with a DTG printer.
The hottest thing going right now are the UV-LED printers. These run from small to huge and they all have price tags to match. In the simplest of terms, a UV-LED printer starts with an over-the-counter inkjet printer like the Epson XP-400, a 13" wide, 8-color printer, and is beefed it up by removing the case and electronics and installing heavier motors and new control circuits. The special inks used work much like any other inkjet inks except these depend on UV light to cure. An important part of any such printer is the addition of an LED light source that puts out UV light and travels back and forth with the printhead. This cures the ink instantly allowing multiple ink layers and no wait time, smears, etc., on the substrate.
These printers are proving to be the next big thing in our industry since they can print on such a wide range of substrates. Unlike sublimation, special materials are not required and although they won’t print on “anything” like some of the ads boast, they will print on “almost anything” provided you are willing to use an adhesion promoter prior to printing. These promoters just have to be applied to the surface of the substrate to be printed. Plastics, metals, paper, vinyl, cork, rubber, fabric, wood and even glass can be printed, with some limitations.
For instance, glass can be printed with some inks but may not withstand a dishwasher, and metals can only handle so much abrasion before the ink begins to come off. Plastics and wood are pretty safe for a permanent mark but step one is always to test the adhesion of the UV-LED ink on whatever substrate needs to be printed.
The biggest obstacle holding UV printers back is their cost. The least expensive one I know of that is suitable for any kind of production is about $20,000 and that price can quickly jump to $40,000 or even $60,000 to $80,000 in a heartbeat.
With this kind of investment, you will want to be sure to get the most for your money and by that, I mean quality, dependable service and support, inks that print on the widest variety of substrates, flexibility and low cost of operation. Since all the more capable printers include white ink, they come with the typical white ink issues of potential clogging, requiring that you run something through the printer nearly every day and having to replace unused ink every six months or so.
What the UV-LED printers bring to the marketplace is speed, the ability to print on black backgrounds (provided it includes white ink), excellent color consistency and the ability to print on so many different products and substrates.
Although these inks are cured by UV light, they are not necessarily UV safe. Take care to ensure that whatever printer you choose to purchase offers an ink that accomplishes what you need it to accomplish. This is especially true if you plan to print on glass, fabric (fabric requires the ink to stretch) or need UV safe results.
Having a UV-LED printer in-house offers a wide variety of ways to make money. You can print signs, photographs, promotional products like key chains or pens, golf balls, sports memorabilia, phone covers, gift items, commercial or industrial items, barcodes and UID codes on anything that will fit in the machine, fabric like small flags, T-shirts and cloth-covered products, industrial products like electrical control panels, awards, water bottles, mason jars and a thousand other things.
Wide-format inkjet printers are everywhere and if you have one large enough, you can print a high-resolution image the size of a house if you want to. These printers can be loaded with a variety of inks including sublimation, neon, UV-LED, solvent or water-based. They can print directly on banner material, all kinds of paper, film and even fabric. Anything over 24" is considered wide format but the most common printer sizes are probably 48" and 60" and they can go much, much larger.
UV-LED printing is capable of printing raised and textured images. Photo courtesy of GCC America, Inc.
There are a number of manufacturers of wide-format inkjet printers, including Epson, Mutoh, PrismJet, Mimaki, HP, Roland, GCC, Canon, OKI Data and Ricoh only to mention a few.
The biggest drawback with wide-format printing is, of course, the cost. Although prices for these printers have come down dramatically over the years, they are still costly, ranging from a few thousand for a 24" printer to $19,000 for an entry level 64" printer. You can expect to pay upwards of $50,000 for a printer that is 75" or more.
What can you make with a wide-format printer? That’s where the advantages are. I have a friend in the framing business who bought one and keeps it busy restoring photographs, printing banners for the city and promotional materials for local retailers. If only I had done it first! There are, of course, many applications for these printers, such as advertising signs, POP, outdoor signage, art, backlit signs, posters, banners, billboards, floor graphics, murals, vehicle graphics and more.
The newest and least common technology in our digital printing boom is 3D printing. Although few shops have one of these, it is inevitable they will someday. I think there will come a time when we no longer order a lot of the things we use, like trophy figures or medallions, and instead we will just “print” our own in-house and on-demand.
With the newer 3D printers being capable of printing both plastic and metal objects from a file stored on a computer, the handwriting is on the wall. A lot of new “stuff” will come with this new technology, such as 3D design software and 3D scanners, but just as we learned CorelDRAW and Photoshop so many years ago, we will learn these new tools as well.
Entry level 3D printers aren’t terribly expensive. A few hundred dollars will bring home a fairly large hobby-grade printer. Where the cost comes in is when you need it to print metal or you need an exceptionally large one. Currently, as I understand it, the greatest challenge isn’t with software or the printer but with the 3D scanners. It seems the abilities of these sophisticated scanners haven’t caught up with the printers. It will, however. Just give it some time.
The downside of 3D printing is learning 3D design software. Powerful software packages are available for free but working in 3D takes some getting used to. Scanning capability is limited and complex, mostly because of the need to light the object being scanned to eliminate shadows.
The upside is that you can make a great many three-dimensional objects from free files on the Internet. You can make prototypes, control panels or most anything else that is within the size capability of your printer.
Although most printers can only print one color at a time, the technology is advancing rapidly. It is only a matter of time before these printers will print multiple strands of filament at a time allowing the computer to mix colors and types of materials. Already, there are industrial grade printers that can not only print plastic but can actually print metals including aluminum, Kevlar, stainless steel, titanium and carbon fiber. It may be a while before we see these in engraving shops, but they will come and they will revolutionize our industry when they do.
Currently, these printers are used for making one-off parts for prototypes and can save companies thousands of dollars and tons of time. For us little guys, the savings may not be as big but imagine all the neat things you could make for the awards and promotional products industries. In fact, they are being used more and more to make trophies and awards. Just try googling something like “3D printing in trophy/awards shops” and see what pops up. It’s actually pretty cool. Other 3D printed items include jewelry, badges, trophy parts, promotional products in both large and small quantities and whatever else a creative mind can conjure up.
None of these capabilities would ever be possible without today’s advanced digital printing technology. If you have been around the industry for some time, did you ever really think we would be using a computer and UV printer to print color images on golf balls and travel mugs? Or how about printing or sublimating full-color photos on pillowcases, backpacks and cell phone covers? Or printing a large billboard type sign for a retail establishment? Without a doubt, we have seen and continue to see a digital printing boom in our industry. We no longer talk about the old days of using a stylus and brass letters, today we talk about “full-color printing.” As Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher from Ephesus, once said, “The only thing that is constant is change.”