How to select the right sublimation printer

Jimmy Lamb, Sawgrass’ education manager, outlines the questions you should when considering what sublimation printer is right for you.

The number one question we get asked about printers is ‘which one should I buy?’ And to this I throw back my own question: ‘what do you want to make?’.

The buyer-to-be then comes up with an answer – ‘sublimation’.

Great! But sublimation is a broad answer, and we need to narrow this down to find the ideal solution.

What to consider

When selecting a sublimation printer, the key is to understand what products you want to make, as the capabilities of the printer must match the parameters of the substrates (also known as blanks).

Sublimation printers are typically defined by:

  • Media size.
  • Ink colours.
  • Ink quality.

How large should your sublimation printer be?

Media size is the most important considerations when researching your printer as it defines the largest paper size that the unit can handle. Keep in mind that printers cannot print to the edge of the paper, so media size is always slightly larger than print area. For example, if the media size is 21x35cm (8.5x14in) the print area is probably closer to 20x32cm (8×13.5in).

It is also important to note that desktop style printers print on individual sheets of paper (A4, A3 or even specific mug paper for example), whereas industrial style printers print on rolls of paper.

Before you start shopping for printers, start thinking about the items you want to produce so that you can select a printer that will handle the size of those products. Be sure to think broadly (and also, if possible, a little longer term), because you will probably expand your product line as your business grows.

What are sublimation ink colours?

Ink colours refers to the number of base inks (cartridges) a printer has, not the total number of colours it can print. The majority of sublimation printers have four base colours: cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK). By combining different percentages of these four base colours, thousands of print colours can be created.

However, there are some printers that have eight base colours, which creates some interesting possibilities in terms of colour creation. Typically, these ink sets are designed for specific uses like high-end photography, where there is a need to produce enhanced skin tones, deeper blacks, or fluorescent colours. Most sublimators are fine with a CMYK system, but the eight-colour option is available on a limited number of printers, if needed.

How to choose ink: sealed vs refillable cartridges

Ink quality is (and should be) of top concern. Sublimation ink should be designed for the printer itself and the printer should be designed for the ink. This ensures the best quality print. In addition, sealed cartridges tend to deliver more consistent quality than refillable units as they were filled using a controlled system.

With refillable cartridges it’s very easy to introduce contaminants and air bubbles into the ink, which will lead to poor quality printing and possible damage to the heads. Be sure to enquire the source of the ink for the printer that you are most interested in.

Desktop vs. industrial sublimation printers

Throughput refers to the speed and efficiency of the printing production. Most of today’s desktop units have adequate speeds, but they use sheets of paper, which means someone has to be available to reload the paper periodically. If you need to produce in high volume, then an industrial printer might be more of what you need. These mid- and wide-format printers use rolls of paper, meaning they can print for hours without having to reload.

Most people start with a desktop A4 or A3 printer. These offer a great entrée into the world of sublimation and allow a fast return on investment.

For the next step, there’s the mid-range 25in (61cm), which use rolls of paper for increases in productivty. Some companies stick with these smaller units, which offer both quality and cost competitiveness, but others might move on, or supplement their production capabilities, with a wide-format industrial printer. There a range of offerings from many manufacturers including Roland, Epson, Mimaki, Mutoh and HP with print widths ranging from 44in (111.76cm) up to 76.4in (194 cm). These of course come with an ever-increasing price tag and sit outside of many a budget, especially to begin with.

So, the next time you think, ‘which printer should I buy?’ you will at least have an idea of what to consider, what each printer can do and how it will affect production. Of course, your budget will be a limiting factor, but try and focus on the unit that will produce the best quality and widest range of products for you so that you can make the most money possible on each and every order.

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