I receive calls and emails all the time saying, “I want to get into the personalization business. What type of equipment should I buy?” That’s a very simple question that comes with a very complex answer. Here, I will try to make some sense of it all.
Whether you are just getting started or are an old hand at the personalization business, buying your first (or next) piece of equipment is a big deal. Even if it is relatively inexpensive, it can be very costly in wasted time and effort if you don’t make the right choice. This is a hard way to learn that the price of something isn’t always the best indicator of its actual value or liability.
Fiber lasers are increasing in popularity in the personalization Industry. Photo courtesy of Epilog Laser.
The second question is, “Is there a market for products made with that particular process in your community and is the demand large enough to sustain a business?” Some of this is educated guesswork but if you can seek out the advice of some people who understand business, you should be able to get a pretty good feel about whether it’s a good or bad idea. People you can use as a sounding board might include members of the Chamber of Commerce and other businesspeople in your community, such as bankers or insurance agents. Many Chambers and the Small Business Administration have volunteer boards of retired businesspeople who are there solely to help new businesses get started or older ones to grow. Take advantage of their experience and knowledge. It’s free and that’s a lot less expensive than buying the wrong piece of equipment.
Following are some of the most common systems or processes currently being used to personalize products in our industry. They are in no particular order and prices are estimates and could vary. I currently use most of these processes or have used them at one time or another. The ones I have not used are noted accordingly and, of course, reflect the information I have learned from those who are considered experts in the field.
Laser engraving machines remain a very popular option for personalizing products in this industry. A laser operates by producing extremely intense rays of light. To engrave, the beam is focused through a special lens to a pinpoint-sized spot that is intense enough to vaporize portions of the material, leaving an engraved image or, in some cases, cutting completely through the material.
The lasers commonly used for engraving and cutting applications in the personalization industry are CO2 and fiber lasers. There are also hybrid lasers available which include both a CO2 and a fiber laser in the same cabinet.
The most common and versatile type of laser for engraving is still the CO2 laser. This type of laser works by exciting the molecules of a carbon dioxide gas mixture to produce long-wave infrared light.
- PROS: CO2 lasers can engrave and cut a wide variety of non-metal substrates including wood, leather, coated metals, cork, glass, acrylic, most plastics, paper, most ceramic products and even textiles such as polyester and denim. They can also mark stainless steel, chrome and some other metals when used in combination with a laser-markable chemical coating. A wide variety of wattages (power) are available from 5 to 120+ watts.
- CONS: Lasers can be fairly expensive with prices ranging from slightly under $10,000 to well over $100,000. Most serious engravers buy lasers in the $14,000-$20,000 range. Low wattage lasers are limited in what they can do and how fast they can do it. I recommend a 50 watt for good performance for most applications. Lasers require venting through an exhaust system which is an added expense and it can sometimes be a problem setting it up to exhaust smoke and fumes to the outside.
Whereas a CO2 laser works by exciting the molecules of a carbon dioxide gas mixture, a fiber laser uses fiber optics that are stimulated with LEDs to generate the laser beam.
- PROS: A major advantage of a fiber laser is that it will engrave a variety of materials, including uncoated metal which a CO2 laser typically cannot mark without using chemicals and often can’t do it even with chemicals. I have not found a metal that the fiber laser cannot mark. They are great for industrial applications such as marking stainless steel, chrome, titanium, etc. They do an excellent job with gold engraver’s brass which the CO2 cannot touch, even with chemicals. It can also engrave and cut medical grade plastics.
- CONS: Fiber lasers are more expensive than traditional CO2 lasers and they can’t engrave or mark on nearly as many substrates, especially some very popular ones like wood, glass and acrylic. Precisely focusing the laser beam is critical on this type of laser so products that have even a slight curvature can be a challenge to engrave. Great care must be taken to never defeat safety features on this type of laser as the light beam is extremely dangerous should it be allowed to reach someone’s eyes. Therefore, all engraved products must fit inside the cabinet.
Rotary engraving is the process of using a spinning engraving cutter in a motor-powered spindle to cut or “rout” into the material. Diamond engraving, aka “diamond drag” engraving, is a variation of rotary engraving whereby you use the same machine, but you use a diamond-tipped non-
rotating cutter called a “graver” to scribe marks or characters on materials (especially metals) by cutting lines or grooves into the surface.
Computer-driven rotary engraving machines have been around for over 30 years now. They were the mainstay of most engraving shops in the early 90s and have hung on to present day. At one point around the year 2000, their popularity began to decline to the point that many thought they would disappear to make way for the less expensive lasers, but that didn’t happen. In fact, the sales of rotary machines are on the upswing as many shops have found there are things a laser can’t do as well or as fast as a rotary machine.
- PROS: Rotary tables last virtually forever. Although some repairs may be needed from time to time, such as rebuilding or replacing the spindle, motor or bearings, for the most part, a typical engraving table will outlast the business owner. There are a wide range of cutters available for engraving wood, almost all plastics, metal ranging from aluminum to stainless steel and coated metals. Rotary engraving machines also have the ability to profile materials, such as name badges out of plastic. They can also engrave on glass, acrylic and a host of other materials. Some machines are also capable of engraving cylindrical objects, like wine glasses and metal tankards.
One of the big advantages of rotary engraving is the ability to engrave a deep, permanent mark on all kinds of uncoated metals, something a CO2 laser can’t do. In addition, rotary engraving produces a “look” that differs from laser engraving and other forms of marking. Rotary machines engrave into the material through a mechanical cutting or scribing action, rather than marking or burning it, producing notable depth that you can feel, a characteristic that is often desirable both for appearance and permanence.
- CONS: Although the worktable lasts forever, controllers don’t. Expect to have the controller rebuilt or replaced as computer technology advances. This can be pretty expensive, reaching into the thousands of dollars. For many jobs, a rotary machine is much slower than a laser and my experience has been that a rotary machine demands constant attention. Rotary engraving is excellent for a lot of jobs involving text-type layouts as opposed to graphics.
Rotary systems require a variety of cutters which must be maintained, so either you will need to learn to sharpen them or you will have to job it out. There is a variety of software for rotary engraving available, but it all has a long learning curve as does the process of actually learning how to engrave. Buying a decent rotary table, controller and software will probably cost you $15,000 or more.
Inkjet sublimation is the process of using an inkjet printer equipped with sublimation dye ink cartridges to print a reverse-reading image, usually full-color, onto a piece of special sublimation transfer paper. The image, which can be anything from text to a highly detailed color photo, is then transferred onto a light-colored substrate using a heat press. During the process, the inks turn from a solid to a gas then back to a solid which essentially dyes the material.
This technology had a hard time maturing into what it is today. Too many people tried it in its early days only to find frustrating problems with ink clogging in the printer, the high cost of inks and the fact that at the time, there were a limited number of sublimatable products available. Fortunately, those days are behind us. Currently, there are over 1,000 different sublimatable products on the market, plus all the creative variations you can create on your own. Inks have not come down in cost, but the clogging problems that wasted so much ink are gone now that we use Ricoh printers in place of the Epson desktops.
- PROS: This is a multicolor process, making it ideal for personalizing products with all kinds of different full-color artwork, including photos. Products created with sublimation are also extremely durable and scratch resistant.
Of all the processes out there, sublimation is perhaps the least expensive to get into and, for the money, yields the most variety in products that you can produce. Ink cost is about 3 cents a square inch or less; the transfer paper is 15 to 20 cents per sheet and most products are priced low enough so that you can enjoy a 300-600 percent markup. There is a ton of educational material on the web for free, so learning the process is relatively painless. The cost of equipment is relatively low with an entry price of under $2,000 for a heat press, printer and ink. As your demand grows, you can add printers and heat presses that are much larger. Any good heat press should last a lifetime, so it is important to buy the biggest and best you can afford the first time.
- CONS: Although heat presses last forever, printers don’t. Expect three to five years of life before you have to upgrade your printer. Printer costs range from about $525 to $1,625, including ink. By the way, the more you use your printer, the longer it will generally last. One other drawback is that sublimated products are susceptible to fading when exposed to UV light for prolonged periods. Even in the best of circumstances, a life of about two years is maximum, although some products are far superior to others in this regard.
It should be noted that sublimation will only work on products with a sublimation-receptive surface. So while you can place a full-color image onto many items, such as T-shirts, ceramic coffee mugs and metal plates, your choices may be somewhat limited compared to processes that work for most over-the-counter goods because only specially-coated goods are printable.
Laser sublimation is similar to inkjet sublimation except that you use a laser printer with laser dye sublimation cartridges which are loaded with special toner powder. This is an old technology that dates back to the 1990s and has become more or less obsolete although those who sell it will beg to differ. The reason I say it is obsolete is that the printers (HP4500 series) are long discontinued and those buying into the technology must buy refurbished printers. That being said, there are other reasons why inkjet sublimation is more desirable for most applications.
- PROS: The sublimation toners used for laser sublimation are much more color intense than liquid inks so colors are more vivid when used to print on gold or silver metal. At one time, this was a significant issue, but newer inkjet sublimation inks have greatly improved in this respect so the differences in the finished products are minimal in my opinion. Color laser sublimation is fairly inexpensive to buy into and it works well for printing on metals.
- CONS: Only refurbished printers are available for this technology. It works best for sublimating on gold and silver metal because printing on a white sheet of metal without the protective film will leave tiny black specs in the non-image areas that are conspicuous. These are masked when sublimating on brushed gold or silver metal. You can minimize this problem by printing through the protective film on the metal. Unfortunately, the added thickness of the protective film causes some migration of the toner which I find unacceptable as it creates “fuzzy edges” around text.
DIGITAL INKJET PRINTERS (DIRECT PRINT)
This process allows you to use a digital inkjet printer to print directly on many different materials. There is an extensive selection of digital printing equipment available, including flatbed printers, roll-fed printers and hybrid flatbed/roll-fed printers. Digital inkjet printers are designed to use a specific type of ink of which there are several available. Three of the most common are solvent, eco-solvent and UV-curing inks. Digital inkjet printers are generically named for the type of ink they use, i.e. they are referred to as a solvent printer, eco-solvent printer or UV printer.
- PROS: A big advantage is that digital inkjet printers can print full-color images directly on just about any substrate—glass, ceramic, plastic, metal, wood, vinyl, foils, films, etc. These printers can also print on many different surfaces, such as golf balls, phone covers and promotional products of all kinds. Unlike sublimation, there is no heat transfer process involved and the substrate doesn’t require a special coating (although sometimes adding a prep chemical may be required). There are minimal setup costs so you can print small quantity orders very cost effectively. It’s also possible to print millions of colors in one pass and you can achieve fantastic detail with pinpoint registration accuracy.
Another interesting quality is that UV inkjet printers allow you to “stack” 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. The result is a raised image suitable for making ADA signage with raised lettering and Braille.
- CONS: These printers are extremely complex machines and they demand a great deal of preventive maintenance including oiling, lubrication and cleaning of both the mechanical parts and the print mechanisms. Perhaps the biggest drawback to this technology is the price of the equipment. There are many different options and variables involved when it comes to choosing a digital printer, including the style of the printer, the size, the ink technology, options available and more, so prices will vary widely. Still, a small unit can start at about $20,000 and quickly reach into the $40,000 and even the $60,000+ bracket for a larger format.
The embroidery process involves using a computer-controlled embroidery machine with sewing needles to stitch colored thread to form an image in fabrics and some other materials. This is one technology I have admired for years but have never tried. It is an ideal method for shops that have a strong emphasis on personalized garments (which I do not). The finished product is, in my opinion, the most beautiful of any fabric decorating method possible. I like it so well, my company shirts are all embroidered although I don’t sell embroidered items and do sell sublimation.
- PROS: Embroidery is a class act! I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like the high-quality look it creates. It has the highest perceived price value of any personalization method. Cost of producing a product is low so far as materials are concerned. It can be used on virtually any fabric, garment or cloth-type product, including some leather or leather-like substrates.
- CONS: Equipment is expensive, starting at around $10,000, and the process can be very slow and labor intensive. Personally, I don’t see any way for someone with only a single-head machine (which means the machine has one sewing field and can sew one item at a time) to make money. Adding additional machines or, better yet, buying multi-headed machines is much smarter but is very expensive. Multi-head machines require a very large footprint and an operator’s constant attention. Although machine operators have a fairly short learning curve, the computer operator and the person who maintains the machines have a long learning curve with special software that must convert images into digitized patterns for embroidery. In addition, competition for the commercial dollar can be tough with large Internet providers such as LogoUp.com that provide fast service, low prices, a wide product range and free logo conversion.
The digital inkjet printers mentioned earlier in this article are typically not designed to print directly on fabrics, but direct-to-garment printers are. 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.
This technology is probably ten years old by now and is well defined. Even Brother has gotten into the mix with a machine of its own. Some direct-to-garment printers offer white ink, although it may have to be applied in several passes to create a good image or an opaque underlayment, while others are strictly CMYK. The numbers I have seen demonstrate a much more user-friendly and much less expensive investment and finished product when white is not in the mix. White ink, especially when it has to be applied in multiple passes, can raise the cost of the decoration into the stratosphere.
- PROS: Shirts look really good with bright, crisp, colorful images, including photographs. The process produces a soft “hand” unlike some heat transfers which have a rubbery feel, and garments wash and dry well without fading. It is a more economical method for small quantity orders compared to screen printing and, unlike sublimation, it can be used on any fabric. In addition, although you still need a heat press to finish the product, the ability to print directly to the fabric eliminates the middle step of printing a transfer, trimming it and positioning it on the garment.
- CONS: Printers are expensive, starting at around $14,000. Shirts printed with multiple passes are expensive to produce. Unless you buy multiple machines, the process is time-consuming and is intended for single shirt projects or small orders rather than large quantities, although some people do them. This process does require a heat press to “set” the inks and is limited pretty much to shirts.
There are currently two companies offering competing systems in this arena. One I use myself, the other I have not tested so comments are based on my own system. This system uses a Ricoh laser printer to produce a full-color transfer that is then applied to a variety of ceramic or porcelain products and fired in a kiln for up to eight hours. When removed, the image is permanently embedded in the product surface. This process is intended for imprinting dishes, ceramic-coated metal sign blanks and portraits to mount on gravestones.
- PROS: This is a market few people are going after, so the field is wide open. The finished product is UV-stable. Depending on the type of toner used, it can be safe for use on dishes (FDA approved), in the dishwasher and in the microwave. Colors are fairly vivid and photographs are excellent. Transfers can be easily applied to any shape so long as it doesn’t curve significantly in two directions at once.
- CONS: Ceramic imprinting requires a laser printer and special toners, a small laminating machine and a kiln which, when added together, will cost around $10,000. A kiln requires a 220-240 volt outlet of usually 50 amps (about the same as an oven). The imprinting process is time-consuming (up to eight hours) but you can print as many products as can fit comfortably into a kiln at one time. One manufacturer recommends that the humidity in the work environment be about 35 percent which is difficult to maintain in some areas. Air conditioning in hot weather is required. Not all ceramic products work well with the process, so a testing period is required for any new brand of ceramic you use.
This printing method, also known as “silkscreening,” uses a special mesh-like screen (stencil) with open pores that form the design. Ink is pushed through the open pores on the screen using a squeegee and onto the substrate. This is another area I have only limited experience with. Obviously, there are a great many who are experienced with screen printing and can provide helpful specifics, but here are some general facts to consider.
- PROS: This is a very inexpensive process per item provided the quantity is large (some say 50 units, others 144, and others even more). Decorating products with screen printing is fast. It only takes seconds to print each color (after the initial setup). It is possible to print multiple colors on the same item and a variety of substrates can be printed, including fabric, metal, plastic and a host of other products (provided the proper ink is used). The basic equipment is inexpensive and used equipment is usually available.
- CONS: This process is very expensive when the quantities are low and is only cost effective when the imprintable image is totally repetitive. Multicolor designs require multiple prints with registered screens, and you have to clean the equipment and let each color dry before you move on to the next one. Although you can create multi-color images with this process, it can’t do full-color, which limits the use of color photographs. There are hidden costs in the required screens and frames which must be made, cleaned and stored. Cleaning screens is time-consuming and requires special facilities (deep sink, high pressure hose, local car wash, etc.). Screen printers must understand inks and what substrates they will and will not adhere to. Multi-station systems require a very large footprint. For production applications, a dryer is also pretty much required which can be both expensive and require even more space. Prices for the basic equipment start at about $1,700 and go up quickly. The cost for a dryer can be as low as $250 but again, can go up quickly. The cost of the screens and the production method for making the screens can vary considerably.
Sandblasting has been around for probably a hundred years or more. We often call the type of blasting we do in the personalization industry “sandcarving” to make it sound better and to differentiate it from the same basic process that’s used for cleaning car parts or concrete. Sandcarving involves using compressed air to force a stream of abrasive (sand) through a nozzle and a stencil onto the item to etch or carve a design.
- PROS: If you really want to start small, you can get up and running for under $500 but that’s really on the cheap and won’t sustain a full-scale operation very long. Blasting cabinets range from a $100 metal box to $5,000 cabinets. Other accessories are also available that can kick up the price considerably but are generally not required to get started, except for a high-capacity air compressor. This is an exceptional method for personalizing glass and crystal. Products produced with sandcarving can be stunning, carrying a very high perceived value, and are easy and fast to create. A professional blasting cabinet and associated equipment will last for many years although compressors generally are limited by how much you pay for them, what kinds of bearings they have, etc. Still, a robust compressor can be purchased for under $1,000, so not the end of the world. Additional equipment such as automated stencil making systems and washout systems can be a significant cost but for production environments, they are a must. Both basic and advanced training for sandcarving is available with lots of classes online and at tradeshows.
- CONS: Sandcarving is dirty at best and filthy at worst. Expect to have a constant layer of abrasive on the floor and work surfaces, so you won’t want to install the system in a carpeted area, around other equipment (lasers, etc.) or near your showroom, and plan to place the compressor in a sound insulated place. This process requires multiple steps with stencil-making being the most time-consuming. Creating the sandcarving stencil involves several phases, including creating the graphic, printing the image, exposing it with a sheet of stencil film to UV light and washing out the stencil. The cost of a professional sandcarving system can easily top $10,000 with a $5,000 blast cabinet, a good compressor and a photo stencil system.
A vinyl cutter is basically a computerized plotter that uses a swiveling blade to cut designs into self-adhesive vinyl. A basic vinyl cutter can be used to create all kinds of banners, magnetic car signs and interior and exterior signs.
- PROS: Vinyl cutters are far less expensive than they used to be, starting at around $500 for a light-duty desktop model to about $1,200 for a full-size unit and up to $2,000-$4,000 for a really nice production model. They work with most graphics software and come with their own as well which is relatively easy to learn. Vinyl can be applied to almost any surface including metal, plastic, glass and wood. Life expectancy of vinyl is three to eight years depending on the grade of the material, although life expectancy is much less for outdoor applications.
- CONS: There is a shop offering vinyl cutting capabilities on every corner so the market in your area might be flooded with vinyl sign makers. Machines only cut one color at a time and each must be weeded and applied by hand which is somewhat time-consuming. These can be frustrating devices to operate. In most circles, vinyl cutters have become a bit antiquated as a business core since printer/cutters are now very common and offer many times more creative and graphic freedom.
WIDE FORMAT PRINTER/CUTTERS
Wide format printers that were once restricted to paper can now print directly onto vinyl and a number of other weather-resistant materials. Some can even print onto sheet stock, such as PVC or plywood and large sheets of metal, although they can’t cut them. This is clearly the wave of the future. Banners, magnetic material, car wraps, wall hangings, murals, flags and many other products in widths up to 64" and even larger can be printed and then cut out in a single process.
- PROS: This equipment is very versatile. Depending on the ink used, products can be highly UV-resistant, flexible and durable.
- CONS: Printer/cutters can be expensive with 30" models starting at around $16,000 and going up to $25,000 or more for larger models. Extra-large designs require special knowledge in graphic production on the operator’s part. Likewise, lots of computer memory and speed are required to process the extra-large images. You also need a relatively large work area for the equipment and post-production area.
Embroidery is a premier method for personalizing T-shirts and other garments. Photo courtesy of ColDesi.
HOT STAMPING (FOIL STAMPING)
Hot stamping is a process where a metal die containing a raised image is pressed against a colored film to leave an imprint on a product. The process is commonly used to imprint names on the fronts and spines of books. For our purposes, it is commonly used to imprint leather items and products such as award ribbons, badges, napkins, matchbooks and promotional products.
- PROS: Hot stamping is a clean, dry process that requires no inks or solvents. The process is fast, even for large orders, and the resulting imprint is surprisingly durable. Custom and stock dies are available, and the photographic-based process used to make the dies means any design your customer desires can be hot stamped. Simple manual presses can be purchased for as little as a couple hundred dollars. Good hot stamping machines start at about $2,000. Professional level semi-automatic machines start at around $2,500 while fully automatic machines start at around $6,000.
- CONS: Hot stamping is not suitable for marking glass, metal and thermoset plastics. There are also size limitations as most machines offer only a few square inches of imprint area (although larger automatic machines have larger imprint areas, e.g. 8" x 8"). Only one color per impression can be applied to a product. If multiple colors are required, a product must be run through the process multiple times with a separate die and foil for each color. For variable text, you will need to use hand-set type which can be time-consuming. Although hot stamping dies can be made in-house with a laser using a special material, metal dies are often used which must be ordered and typically require a week or more turnaround. Because of the upfront cost of custom dies, hot stamping is not an economical process for small orders.
Pad printing is a process that is comparable to offset printing.You flood a plate containing the design with ink and squeegee it clean. You then press a silicone pad onto the plate where it picks up the paint in the etched grooves, and then press the pad onto the substrate to deposit the ink to form the imprint.
- PROS: This is a fast, inexpensive way to print a repetitive image on a quantity of small items such as badges and tags. Because the process uses a flexible pad to print items, it can be used to print on items of a variety of different shapes, including inside crevices such as the dimples on golf balls. Pad printing is commonly used in the promotional products industry to print many different items. Multicolor designs are achieved by making separate ink impressions for each color, either by feeding the parts through the press multiple times or making multiple impressions (with a multi-head machine). A unique aspect of this process is wet-on-wet printing, meaning you don’t have to wait for the ink to dry between prints. Both manual and automatic machines are available. Entry level equipment is relatively inexpensive, starting at about $1,600.
- CONS: Pad printing is limited to producing small graphics, usually less than 4" x 4". This is not an economical process for small orders especially with variable copy. Ink colors are somewhat limited unless you opt to mix your own. You must buy different ink sets to print on different substrates. Jigs are required for some products. Some jigs can be purchased for standard products, others must be custom made.
Buying equipment isn’t as simple as it used to be because there is so much more available than there was 20 or 30 years ago and while that’s all good, it can be very confusing for those of us looking to add to our businesses. The secret to making the right choices goes back to where we began:
- Decide WHAT you want to sell. Is the product line something people want? Can you afford the equipment? Are you qualified or can you learn to use it? Do you have adequate space to operate it efficiently? Is there enough markup to make your efforts successful?
- To WHOM are you going to sell it? Is there a market for it? Will the market sustain a full-fledge business? Who is your market? How do you reach them? What happens if your “hoped-for market” never fully materializes?
- Figure out HOW you are going to sell it? Are you going to sell it on the Internet, as a home-based business or a storefront? Are you going to sell it wholesale, retail or both? Are you going to have a sales force or just hope for the best? Do you have adequate resources to advertise and market your product? Can you make the product fast enough to keep up with demand?
When you can answer these three questions, you are ready to begin talking turkey with salespeople. Until then, keep your checkbook at home and don’t let those “pie in the sky” aspirations lead you down the path of destruction.
Making wise buying decisions is hard work. It requires research, research and more research. Even then, it is a gamble. Go slow, ask a thousand questions, sleep on it, don’t be enticed by “super sales” or “it won’t be available after today” kinds of promotions. Consider all the hidden costs associated with each potential purchase. Determine how much time it will require for training, setup and production. Consider how long it will take to pay for itself and still afford you a profit while it does. There are a thousand considerations. Write it all down. Keep a journal so you can keep the information straight.
I was once teaching a sublimation seminar when an energetic young couple came in all excited about the purchase they had just made. It was a wide-format sublimation printer and all the supplies and accessories that went with it. I knew they were new to sublimation because they had been in my class so I asked them what they were going to do with the $8,000 printer and they responded, “We don’t know yet but we have to do something!” They were right, they have to do something and fast. It was the wrong equipment at the wrong time at the wrong price. They let their enthusiasm get the best of them and I’m sure they suffered for it. Do your homework and don’t make their mistake.