The Digital Workstation: Sublimation Start-Up Requirements

Jim Woodhouse is executive vice president of Ky.-based Unisub Color Product Solutions, a manufacturer of flat-surface products for sublimation, of design software and of business-planning systems. Unisub also manages the Sublimation Network, an organization dedicated to the advancement of the sublimation industry.

Sublimation printing offers garment-decorating businesses the opportunity to generate add-on profits by producing a wide range of personalized color products quickly and cost-effectively—products that complement their core business.

You’ve already been sold on the fact that sublimation allows you to produce full-color, high-impact custom items in short runs. Now you’re faced with selecting a sublimation system that meets the unique requirements of your business and positions you to address the needs of your current and prospective customers.

Following are several considerations that may influence your choice of a sublimation system. Careful thought and attention to these factors will help you in making an informed purchasing decision.

Sublimation can be the perfect add-on to your business . . . or an expansion that brings with it with considerable frustration. The following suggestions will help guide you toward the former, ensuring growth for your business through sublimation.

Target customers: current and new

I frequently hear those looking to add sublimation to their core business say, “I want to be able to sell everything to everybody.” Having the ability to sell any product to any customer can seem desirable and certainly sounds attractive. However, in the beginning, this is usually not the best thing to do. The typical result is that, because a huge variety of products are offered, sales suffer due to lack of focus.

First, identify logical products for sublimation that can be leveraged against your current customer base. These synergistic opportunities exist first with your current customers with whom you have working relationships. The customer who may have been buying embroidered uniforms may also need signs, recognition products or name badges for the employees, and may also have a desire to spruce up the conference room with décor items that display the company logo. Look around such a business for opportunities, and don’t be afraid to ask what else they maybe looking for.

A large real-estate firm will frequently require 10 to 200 products of a common design, rich in color and appearance—with each piece personalized with an individuals’ name or office number—and, hence, become one of the largest opportunities for personalized products. Consider the real-estate firm for which you provided embroidered tote bags for new-home-purchase gifts. With sublimation you can now offer this same firm:

  • Desk signs
  • Office signs
  • Brief-case tags
  • Sales plaques and awards
  • Clocks
  • License-plate frames
  • Customer décor gifts
  • Serving trays, mugs and coasters for conference rooms
  • Full color T-shirts . . . and more.

Second, identify new potential markets. The industry supports several business plans that range from free to nominal cost-planning tools. Free plans can be found at by clicking on “marketing tools.” At the site you’ll also find three target-marketing modules to help identify groups likely to buy sublimated products. These modules focus on groups such as team sports, religious groups and schools; each includes brochures, sales letters, links to target customers, price lists and much more. They are also available through all sublimation distributors.

Another way to find new customers is to choose something in which you are interested—better yet passionate about—which could include car clubs, church groups and civic organizations, just to name a few. With a little planning, you can leverage your leisure or volunteer time into dollars, while providing something your peers will enjoy.

Your distributor partner

One of the more important decisions you will need to make is selecting the distributor you will use as your primary sublimation supply source. The process is important as your sublimation distributor should be thought of as a partner that will help ensure the promises you make to you customer will be met.

Look for a company that offers both equipment as well as the imprintable supplies, because a company that wants to sell you the products that you will sublimate has a far greater interest in your long-term success that those that do not. Depth and breadth of product line, having product in stock, order turnaround time and fill rate are also important things to consider.

Finally, the biggest factor to consider when making decisions about a distributors is technical support. Does it offer technical support in-house, or does it only recommend you call various manufactures to get questions answered? Does the distributor offer training? Does it participate in industry support and educational programs?

Investment capital

Full-service distributors always sell systems that will put you into the business. They will generally include a printer, heat press, ink system, transfer paper, design software, a starter business plan and some start-up inventory of blank product. Depending on the equipment selected, such a package can range from $1,700 to $5,000, the entire range being low by traditional business start-up standards—particularly if amortized over three years—as the P&L hit can be as low as $50 per month!


After examining your core and target markets, hopefully you have an idea of what items you are going to start to produce, and who you are going to sell them to. Based upon those items, your distributor partner can make some recommendations as to which equipment will best serve your needs.

Printers: Printers seem to provide the most selection and options. While we exclusively use Epson printers for sublimation (due to the print head not using heat to fire the ink out), there are several printers available today that were not available in the past. What makes one better that the other? Does it make sense to start with a small and inexpensive printer versus the larger professional printing systems? While the answer may be different for each business, there are a few fundamentals that can be considered.

Size of print area, print speed, cost per print, and reliability are the primary differences between the different printer models available today. The important questions concerning printer performance can usually be answered by simply asking yourself and your supplier what was the machine built to do.

Professional versus consumer line printers: Consumer printers (ones you can find at your local office-supply store) were generally intended for light-duty use, typically to print out items at home. Though this kind of printer was never designed for making money for people, they can be appropriate in some applications. The primary advantage of entry-level printers is their price. You should find the consumer line printers ranging from $79 to $550 depending on the model. These can offer some very beautiful prints, but typically have a fairly slow print speed (four-plus minutes to print an 8½ X 11 sheet). They also have very high imaging costs when using cartridges; however, bulk-feed ink systems are frequently available to help reduce costs. Further, as we are using a printer outside the scope of what it was designed to do, these will often require more maintenance to ensure correct operation. Finally, consumer printers typically do not last very long in daily production. The extra stress that is put on the print head due to the thicker inks tends to wear these printers out. You should expect to get anywhere between six months to no more that two years with these models, given light to medium use.

Professional model printers are quite different as the manufacture intended the printer to be used in a commercial setting. As such, we typically get increased print area size, considerably greater speed, reduced imaging costs, greater reliability, and longer operating life.

Heat presses: There is quite a bit more latitude when it comes to purchasing a press than a printer. A press must do three things in sublimation. First, it has to be able to reach 400°F. Second, it needs to be able to close flat, with equal pressure front-to-back when pressing thicker items (Swing-away styles work best for pressing materials more than a quarter inch thick). Third, it needs to be fairly consistent in the heat it delivers across the platen (no more that 35° variance). If you already have a transfer press that can accomplish these three goals, then it will likely work for sublimation, and you are already well underway to having a viable system. If you feel it best to purchase a press, discuss your needs with your distributor partner.


Dedicating space for sublimation in your facility can be fairly easy. Only about 100 square feet of space is needed, which should provide plenty of room for production, heat presses, printers and some inventory. Having this “business-within-a-business” feel can help to keep you focused on the new technology and not be in conflict with your core business.

Costing, pricing, business fundamentals

  • Understanding cost of sales begins with identifying total material costs, which include three factors:
  • the cost of the product you sublimate plus freight to get it to your facility;
  • the ink and paper used in the sublimation process;
  • an allowance for scrap or waste during the manufacturing process.

It is important that you be recognized and rewarded for not only the investment you make in materials, but also your design and production skills. Therefore, you will generally want to work on 60-80 percent gross margin, based on total material cost, or a 2.5 to 5 time mark-up, depending on the price point of the item, volume and competitive elements.

To assist you with better understanding costing, and making better pricing decisions, you can find a Sublimation Target Marketing Base Module at STM is a comprehensive overview of how to better manage your sublimation business and is particularly helpful in the areas of costing and pricing. Your distributor will likely either include this with an equipment package or with a starter kit of products.

A complement and a compliment

So whether you have just added sublimation to your decorated-apparel business or are only thinking about it, sublimation provides added profit opportunities at a very low investment level. Sublimation lets you offer existing customers, or new customers, a value-added service with full-color personalized products. It’s a great way to provide added value to your customers and growth for your business. And your customers will thank you for it.