Expand with Sublimation

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.

Those reading this article are likely to have businesses that survived 2009. Congratulations! But now what? The economy went in the tank and business took a hit. Sure there’s news of a slow economic recovery, but for some it may be very slow. If business was off in 2009, 2010 and 2011 need to be big to set operations back on a path to growth. Many know their business well and have a good and loyal customer base; but those customers are not making the kind of orders that result in growth at the top line and drive profits where they count. 

Expansion, investment, focus on growth are all terms that cause sufficient enough concern that, in the end, many of us do nothing for fear we will take away from our existing business. Of course, one must grow in order not to decline (and relive 2009). If only existing customers would make bigger orders or buy new products. How can you make that happen without a huge investment and without risking service to current customers? One word: Sublimation.

Adjunctive opportunity

Sublimation is highly complementary to a decorated-apparel business. It is a synergistic technology that creates full-color personalized products. There is a low barrier of entry and it leverages some existing equipment, hardware, software and space. And the best part is that it provides the opportunity to sell hundreds and hundreds of new products to current customers at high margins.

As a garment-decorating technology, sublimation produces full-color graphics for single runs, something that is difficult to do with screen printing. But more importantly, the technology allows users to sell hundreds of new products to existing customers, making sales more efficient for you, and you more important to customers. Consider putting that same great design a customer orders for a T-shirt on other complementary products to sell to the same customer—bag tags, license plates, key chains, coaster sets, mugs, etc.

An embroidery or screen-print business’ typical customer base includes small businesses and service firms. Perhaps you have provided shirts for a law firm’s softball team. With sublimation, you could also sell them desk name plates, briefcase bag tags, and even office signage. These same products are great add ons for real estate firms, sports teams/leagues, or restaurants. No matter what core customer channels, sublimation provides the opportunity to simply sell more products that they need.

Start it up

One of the more important decisions in adding sublimation is selecting a distributor to use as a primary sublimation supply source. Your sublimation distributor should be thought of as a partner that will help ensure the promises made to customers will be met. 

Look for a company that offers equipment as well as imprintable supplies, one that will have a greater interest in your long-term success. Depth and breadth of product line, having product in stock, and order turnaround time and fill rate are also important.

The biggest factor to consider when making a decision about distributors is technical support. Find out if they offer technical support in-house, or if you will need to call various manufactures to get questions answered. Ask if the distributor offers training and whether they participate in industry-support programs. 

Full-service distributors sell turn-key systems that generally include a printer, heat press, ink system, transfer paper and some startup inventory of blank product. Depending on the equipment selected, it will generally range from around $2,000 to $5,000.

Get the goods

Examining core and target markets will provide an idea of what items you are going to start to produce and to whom those will be sold. Based upon those items, a distributor partner can make some recommendations as to which equipment will best serve those needs. 

Printers seem to provide the most selection and options. Epson or Ricoh printers are common for sublimation as the print heads do not use heat to fire out the ink, but there are several printers available today that were not available in the past. Size of print area, print speed, cost per print and reliability are the primary differences between the printer models available today. Consumer printers (those found at local office supply stores) are generally intended for light-duty use, typically to print out items at home. The primary advantage of entry-level printers is the price, ranging from $100 to $500 depending on the model. 

Professional-model printers are quite different as the manufacturers intend these printers to be used in a commercial setting. As such, they will typically have increased print area size, considerably greater speed, reduced imaging costs, greater reliability and a longer operating life. 

With heat presses there is quite a bit more latitude. A press must do three things in sublimation. First, it has to be able to reach 400º. 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 1/4" thick). Third, it needs to be fairly consistent in the heat it delivers across the platen—no more than a 35º variance. If you already have a press that can accomplish these three goals, it will likely work and you are already well underway to having a sublimation system. 

Dedicating space in the shop for sublimation 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 employees focused on the new technology without conflicting with the core business. 

Complementary compliments

The best part of an adjunctive product line: In addition to the revenue it generates, the incremental profit earned on these sales comes from the ability to leverage most of the fixed costs of your core business. When you expand your business’ horizons in ways that utilize existing overhead, the profits can be excellent. 

Whether adding sublimation to a decorated-apparel operation or just considering it, sublimation provides added profit opportunities at a very low investment level. Sublimation provides a value-added service with full-color personalized products to customers. And your customers will thank you for it.