Adding sublimation to a screen printing business

When it comes to mass printing of T shirts, screen printing tends to win out in terms of cost and efficiency.  But what happens when a client wants an order of 12 T shirts with an eight-colour image? Or suppose that same person needs some promotional items – are you able to handle that too? Here, Andrea Evans, Sawgrass’ international marketing manager, explains how you can do just that.

Diversification is fast becoming the ‘power word’ of the industry.  It used to be that you were identified by your specialty – screen printing, embroidery, transfers, sublimation etc. But the new reality is that specialists are losing revenue opportunities because they can’t handle all of the needs of their clients due to changing mindsets and buying habits.

Without a doubt the weak economy has altered the spending habits of consumers and businesses alike.  When money is tight people hold on to it for as long as they can. For example, many screen printing shops have seen client’s break a single large job down into several small ones spread over several months. And, more people are looking for one day service in order to conserve money and control their cash flow. Thus, decoration diversification might help you to respond to those trends.

Heading down the path

If you are going to go down this path think about expanding the types of products you can produce and the markets you can pursue. So, the question is what process would give you the most capabilities in terms of diversification, and be able to handle small runs and quick turnarounds when needed? The answer is pretty simple – sublimation.

Sublimation is a digital printing process that allows you to quickly and easily apply high resolution, full colour graphics to a wide variety of hard and soft goods such as mugs, flip flops, signs, photo panels, coasters, mouse pads, poly performance T shirts and a whole lot more. Small orders are as easy as large ones.

Production is a quick three step process that works something like this: create – print – press.

The steps

The first step is to setup the design using a standard graphics software. No colour separations are needed! You print it on sublimation transfer paper using sublimation inks and a sublimation printer. Finally, you apply the transfer paper to the item being decorated and place both together under a heat press.

The combination of pressure and heat will cause the sublimation ink to turn into a gas and transfer over to the substrate, with the result being a high quality, permanent image. To complete the process, simply remove and discard the transfer paper and you are done. Total production time runs about three minutes per print/ press cycle.

On the surface, sublimation looks a lot like some of the other digital heat transfer processes, but it’s what goes on below the surface that separates it from all other decoration technologies. With sublimation you are actually dyeing the material through molecular bonding rather than printing on the surface. The result is an image that is permanently embedded into the surface of the item being sublimated, which in turn means no scratching, peeling or cracking. And in the case of clothing, that means no fading either, despite repeated washing.

Looking deeper

To get a better perspective on what is involved with adding sublimation to a screen printing shop, let’s look a bit deeper at how the two technologies compare.

Screen printing is categorised as an analogue printing process. Analogue printing involves a delivery system that is dependent on individual colours being transmitted to a substrate through some type of manually prepared plate, stencil, template, screen, etc.

Sublimation on the other hand is a digital printing process. Digital printing reproduces computerised images directly to a surface via the use of inkjet and/or laser printers, such that the colours are created on demand and no templates, screens or plates are required to define the image. Instead the images are produced using tiny droplets of ink, placed via an electronic coding of the image.

Digital printing is ideal for short runs and on demand orders because of the quick setup. Plus, it has a much broader spectrum of colour production and in the case of sublimation can deliver photo-quality imaging.

Analogue printing has very long setup times as well as breakdown time at the end of a job, thus it becomes cost-prohibitive in terms of smaller runs. But for large volume production, it will be cheaper than digital.

Sublimation printers are available in four-, and eight-colour models. It’s important to note that four-colour digital is not the same as four-colour analogue. With digital printers the number of colours refers to the base colours that are combined to create the final colours, with the number of combinations being in the thousands. White ink is not available for sublimation, so the process works best on white surfaces, which is not a limiting factor for anything other than apparel, as sublimation blanks are normally produced with a white surface.

The two systems should be viewed as complementary in terms of production capabilities. Sublimation provides a much broader spectrum of colour reproduction and can deliver photographic imaging and can be applied to hundreds of substrates, whereas screen printing is primarily applied to clothing.

Take some time, read some articles and visit some trade shows to explore the possibilities!

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