Live and Let Dye
There’s never been a better time to consider adding dye-sublimation and other fabric printing technologies to your operation.
Slowly but surely, printer OEMs, paper manufacturers, and ink producers have been busily tweaking formulas, chemistries, and mechanics in dye-sublimation, direct-to-fabric, and direct-to-garment systems. Their success in doing so has resulted in a revolution in short-run printing on fabrics and other materials.
First, however, let’s knock out a few quick definitions for those unfamiliar with the various tech and acronyms:
- Dye-sublimation: printing inks onto transfer (aka “release”) paper, then transferring and bonding the inked image onto a fabric or a “hard” coated material via a heat press or calender.
- Direct-to-fabric (DTF): uses a variety of ink types to print directly onto rolls of pre-treated fabric, eliminating the need for transfer paper (but does not eliminate the need for heat).
- Direct-to-garment (DTG): inkjet inks printed directed onto garments, the term typically used for t-shirts and the like.
The Shaman and the Heat Press
If you’re not used to working with fabrics, it’s probably only natural to be a bit wary of the technologies and tools it takes to print them — just as print providers were initially wary of digital. But keep in mind that, just as with digital, most shops eventually acclimated — and began realizing the production efficiencies and profits in doing so.
“Sublimation can be scary to print providers who are traditionally ‘sign guys’ working in, say, UV or eco-solvent, etc.,” says Lily Hunter, product manager, textiles and consumable supplies, Roland DGA. “The output is not vibrant right away, there’s another process — printing is just part one, you now have to fix the inks onto the fabric (you need heat) ... it’s dull, ugly, wait for it, you need a heat press. There’s a capital investment in the heat press, as well as a learning curve — it can be daunting.”
Similarly, if you come from the screenprinting side of the market, “You now have to understand RIP software and design aspects and elements — it can be scary,” she continues. “I liken it to digital printing versus simply printing on colored vinyl — it’s foreign. All of a sudden, you need to ensure you’re up to date with graphic design or hire someone; it’s not a manual process, there’s a learning curve.”
It doesn’t help that, for some print providers, just hearing the words “dye-sublimation” can cause some to reach for their good-luck amulets or at the very least knock on the nearest wood.
“Dye-sub was always this mystery stuff — you had to have a shaman come in to get the right colors out,” says Tim Check, senior product manager, professional imaging, Epson. “But it’s all about the technology now. Every company, Epson included, is now putting together better systems for consistent color, matching item to item and so on. It’s so much easier to do because of the systems now put in place.”
According to Ester Sala, global business director textile printing, HP, now is the time for print providers to make their move into fabric printing.
“DTG, DTF, and dye-sub digital printers have substantially evolved in terms of performance, quality, and reliability during the past five years,” Sala says. “Renewing old print engines is now a good choice to gain competitiveness both in quality, production capacity, or even costs.”
Changing the Entire Textile Market
Indeed, digital printing on fabrics is continuing to make inroads — but still has quite a bit of room for expansion, says Micol Gamba, product marketing manager, EFI Reggiani.
“Digital currently represents only about 5% of the total textile printing market, but it’s been growing rapidly in the last few years, up from about 2% to 3% in 2015. We’ll see this continue to grow. We think it will continue to grow because of various drivers,” she says, including:
- Going green: “Digital is answering the green requirement from companies, manufacturers, brands and consumers. Sportswear brands, for example, are asking suppliers to deliver greener solutions.”
- Governmental efforts: “Governments in Europe, North America, and China are asking companies to reduce their pollution/environmental footprint. Digital helps reduce waste.”
- Consumer choice: “We see consumers themselves, particularly millennials, making more and more of a conscious choice to be more sustainable when choosing clothes and garments — they prefer products that respect the environment.”
- Personalization and customization: “More and more, customers want to have something unique, and digital enables this. It’s now possible for a customer to propose a collection and have it delivered successfully in small batches. It’s not only faster, but it’s possible to make changes in designs. And warehousing and stocking costs are reduced.”
- Speed: “Dye-sub helps accelerate the ‘fast fashion’ phenomenon — the possibility to reproduce something very fast and at very competitive costs. Dye-sublimation has changed the entire textile market,” she finishes.
“With a printer and a heat press, virtually anybody can get in the dye-sub market at some level, whether it be personalization of awards or products, textile decoration, metal panels for artwork, home décor, or apparel,” says Randy Anderson, product marketing manager, Mutoh America.
Anderson quickly ticks off just a few reasons for the technology’s maturity: “Ink has stabilized, although there are still improvements being made, but it’s easy to pick an ink that will provide fantastic results with little effort. Papers have been improved by various coating technologies, and the coatings themselves [make it] so much more bulletproof to create product more effortlessly. But perhaps the greatest mover of dye-sub and its technology has been sports apparel — the advanced nature of polyester fabrics has seen the evolution from polyester suits to Under Armor and others, and the changed perception from polyester being uncomfortable to polyester being the ‘preferred’ fabric for sports and active wear.”
Textile printing in general is moving toward more and more digital printing, says Mike Syverson, textile manager – North America, Durst Image Technology US. “The graphic arts and printed t-shirt [DTG] markets have already made much of this change when you consider how much printed textile there is at any given trade show or in store retail graphics. The DTG conversion happened because of short-run, quick-turn business models for one-off printed apparel. This has branched out into larger print runs and changing the print quantities from where it makes sense to print digital versus screen.”
More Bang for the Buck
“Extremely short-run printing has been driven primarily by e-commerce and the ability for companies to turn around finished goods very quickly. All three of these print technologies — DTG, DTF, and dye-sublimation — contribute to the growth of this business. It would not be possible without digital systems designed for short-run or one-off prints,” Syverson says.
“Historically, if you wanted t-shirts for a family reunion, you had to order a minimum quantity to even get them produced,” he continues. “Today, you could order a unique t-shirt for every member of the family for the same price [with] quick turnaround. As this on-demand market continues to develop, more and more solutions will enter the market from all three technologies.”
Downsizing of inventory on hand also plays a major role in these technologies, says Check. “The ability to take a single design and apply it to men’s or women’s clothing, and in various sizes — this allows companies to now stock just five shirts, and print on-demand, replacing inventory or eliminating inventory altogether. That’s a big shift — there are no inventory costs, there’s minimal scrap costs, no clearance rack is necessary. It may cost a bit more to produce versus analog, but there’s a vast advantage in the variety of products that can be produced for local events, small sports teams and so on.”
Plus, says Check, dye-sublimation is “a technology and can be applied to all sorts of things — printing on everything from flip flops to tabletops to onesies. In the past, dye-sub was only good for doing mousepads, but not anymore — in fact, most kids today don’t even know what a mousepad is (now they’re called ‘gaming pads’). Now, dye-sub is a technology, it’s not just [about] a specific product.”
Hunter agrees on that point: “Some PSPs might say, ‘I don’t do apparel,’ but don’t forget what you can also do with sublimation — soft signage, rigid signage, promotional goods and more. You’re able to get more bang for the buck; there are so many different things you can do with sublimation and these technologies.”
Pulling out the Crystal Ball
Nor are dye-sublimation, DTF, or DTG technologies staying put when it comes to advancements — companies continue to seek improvements for the tech, all with an eye to expanding what print providers can accomplish.
“Faster — everyone wants more speed versus traditional methods of printing fabrics, [so] there’s always going to be a quest for improving that aspect,” Hunter says. It’s particularly relevant when it comes to fashion, she notes, where companies need to push out more designs more quickly with the changing seasons. “They need to generate fast, short runs, and quickly move from concept to prototype to runway.”
Sustainability is where companies will focus, Sala says: “We are sure sustainability will become a fundamental element of the future of textiles print, where digital can bring many advantages. Apparel brands are more and more active in announcing their sustainable fabric collections — and their plans to be 100% sustainable five years from now.”
In DTG, says Check, it will be the preparation of materials to print on — “some new breakthrough allowing for printing on synthetics, for example.” In addition, he says, there will continue to be improvements in transfer papers, which are tremendously important in obtaining a better color gamut and a smoother print. “There’s more to paper than meets the eye,” he says.
“Dye-sub systems are becoming faster and producing higher quality results,” Syverson says. “This can be important for print providers that need to supply the highest-quality products without having to extend lead times due to production slow-downs.”
Taking the Dive into the Ecosystem
Dye-sublimation enables the print provider to do something different — to move from signage to sportswear, and beyond, says Gamba. In making that move, however, “it’s important to consider the entire system: the hardware, the inks, the software, the media. If you’re looking to get into this market, it’s critical you consider the ‘fabric-printing ecosystem’ — from design to production, from end to end.”