History of digital heat transfers

Digital Workstation: Transfer Technology Timeline

Wayne Potter is vice president of marketing development for Air Waves Inc., Lewis Center, Ohio. He has 30-plus years’ experience in the heat transfer and digital imaging market.

Flashback to the late 1950s, when, in a make-shift laboratory in Queens, New York, Chester Carlson, a patent attorney and part time inventor, labored over an easier, less costly way to make copies. Although not the first dry copier technology, Carlson’s invention, Electro photography, is widely credited for starting the copier revolution. He would later turn to a Rochester, New York-based photographic paper manufacturer, the Haloid Company, to commercialize his invention. In 1959 the Haloid Company would later change its name and become Xerox Corporation. Their first commercial product was the Haloid/Xerox 914.

As the population exploded in the United States with what we now know as the Baby Boomer generation, photocopy technology moved forward at a good pace. In the U.S., inventors Gregory L. Zwadio and Kevin M. Kidnie at Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (now known as 3M) patented and commercialized a single-beam, full-color electro photography machine. In addition, a number of Japanese companies were working hard to commercialize their own patents and bring a color copier to market. This technology would spark a revolution in the decorated apparel industry by making digital heat transfer technology a possibility.

Early transfer technology

Contrary to mainstream belief, the first digital heat transfers were not produced by an electrostatic copier, but a dot matrix printer using special ribbon. Companies like QLT and RPL Supplies sprang up to meet the needs of what was to become the computer portrait business. It was not uncommon to find the process at state fairs and resort spots internationally.

Printers with names like Epson MX 80, Tektronix and Seiko 4104 were the workhorses of the early digital transfer business. In the early ’90s, Sawgrass Technologies developed and introduced a hybrid sublimation ribbon, adopted under a licensing arrangement by Seiko, which would revolutionize the digital heat transfer business. This was the first digital sublimation heat transfer.

Next, an Eden Prairie, Minnesota printer manufacturer came to market with a competitively-priced full-color wax thermal printer, the Fargo Primera. The printer was an overnight success. In response, both Fotoware and Chemical Design/Air Waves marketed a coated digital heat transfer receiver paper for the printer.

This early technology required users to print mirror image onto the paper and then apply the completed transfer image to substrates. Wax thermal heat transfer paper remained in use until it was replaced with more modern transfer technology.

During its popularity, wax thermal images decorated millions of T-shirts at major amusement parks and fairs around the world. Today, the only traces of the process are in the archives of a few of the major players.

Color laser copier (CLC) technology was growing rapidly as well. A Japanese company, Inter-Technical Industry Inc., developed and marketed one of the earliest heat transfer papers. Their paper employed an A/B process that would reverse the transferred image (the early CLC machines did not digitally mirror an image). The product was marketed under the Paropy name and distributed in North America by Joto Paper Company.

Mirror imaging would become possible with the introduction of the Canon CLC 200, a dry toner, plain paper digital color copier. This gave rise to the digital heat transfer paper business as we know it.

Around the time of this revolution, Juergen Hagedorn was actively developing a ceramic decal proofing process using color laser copiers, for which a German patent was issued. That patent, together with the introduction of the Canon CLC 200, was the spark that ignited a fire that still burns today. The Magic Touch was the first to commercially exploit CLC paper business with its TTC 300.

As the number of color laser copiers multiplied, so did the competition. In rapid fire, a number of other major players appeared on the horizon to capitalize on digital heat transfer personalization. The number of machines that could possibly image digital transfer paper has grown markedly from the outset.


Laser technology has become more accessible on the desktop level, but newer technology is more complicated because it uses a coated digital heat transfer paper that eliminates the fuser oil used in CLC imaging.

Early machines used a silicon-based oil to lubricate the fuser or fixer rollers. The oil prevented the toner from adhering while the paper passed between them. These earlier toners are replaced with polymerized (chemically grown) toner and fuser oil is replaced with new lubricants such as waxes that are part of the toner. In the process, fuser section temperatures are higher.

What this means for production is…

• Earlier papers can only be used with “legacy” equipment that uses fuser oil.

• Selecting paper for current printers and copiers is somewhat hit-and-miss.

• Since programs drive new machines, what works today may not work after the next software or firmware update.

• The cost of the research and development has grown considerably. Coupled with the shorter printer/copier lifetime, it can be difficult to recover cost on each piece of paper incrementally.

Note that most digital heat transfer paper suppliers can provide some direction here. But these factors stress the importance of research prior to buying or leasing a printer or copier. Ask for paper samples to run in electro photographic machines. The results can and should be photorealistic and wash fast.

New generation: inkjet, sublimation and print/cut

The market for wax thermal and CLC heat transfer paper had already moved beyond early adopters by the time inkjet printing technology was in the sights of serious manufacturers. As the technology matured in the laboratories of Canon, Epson and Hewlet Packard, a Pennsylvania inventor, Donald S. Hare, worked feverishly to perfect the first inkjet heat transfer paper. These initial inkjet heat transfer paper were limited to use for white and light fabrics.

Driven by the low cost of entry, the market for white fabric transfer paper grew rapidly. It was obvious the market demanded a solution for darks. Manufacturers would aim dark fabric application products at inkjet rather than digital color copier products.

In 1998, manufacturers introduced desktop inkjet sublimation heat transfer products for personalization; transfer printing took on a whole new dimension. Gone was the need for coated papers to receive the ink or toner. A whole new market emerged for decorating hard substrates such as plaques, mugs and more. This also sparked a progression toward wider-format capabilities, and improved color management and printable blanks.

Many new imaging papers have come to market to satisfy a growing sublimation heat transfer business, even in a down market. I have seen digital textile production growth rates in excess of 10 percent. It is safe to say the sublimation heat transfer business continues to grow, perhaps at the expense of normal ink and laser.

Reasonably, the stable market sparked the expansion of the technology, namely in print/cut technology that integrates piezo print head technology with plotter/cutter devices. Coupled with printable heat transfer media, this newest generation of technology makes possible the profitable production of small run, high quality custom graphics for both light and dark fabric. One printer and a single media can produce everything from letters and numbers to small-run digital heat transfers. Stroll through an industry trade show and you will get a perspective on the viability of this process. Given the proliferation of new films it is safe to assume that, although we are beyond early adopters, we are still on the left-hand side of the growth curve.

It’s been said over and over: “change is the only constant in our lives today.” I believe it is true in business as well. As printer technology changes, so must the supplies that are used for them. Digital heat transfer papers are no exception. Do not perceive these changes to be a threat, but do stay current on new technology. It is better to be proactive than reactive.