Small or Wide Sublimation?

A constant contributor to both industry events and trade publications, Jimmy Lamb is also the manager of communication at Sawgrass Technologies. Learn more about Sawgrass Technologies at http://www.sawgrassink.com.

Bigger is better, right? It all depends on the circumstance, especially when it comes to sublimation printing considering that there are plenty of production equipment options available to the digital decorator. The trick is figuring out what really makes the best production sense, as bigger may or may not be the right choice.

Initial considerations

In the wonderful world of sublimation, the technical dividing line between wide and narrow format printing is 42" in width. Keep in mind it takes both printer and heat press to get the job done, so both pieces of equipment will need to be compatible in regards to production field size.

Most sublimation practitioners start out using narrow format (desktop) equipment simply because the investment is quite low. With printers starting at less than $300, narrow format is quite affordable, especially for those who already have a heat press.  Of course, narrow format desktop printers come in a variety of sizes and price tags as do heat presses, but one can get into narrow format sublimation quickly, easily and with a very reasonable investment.

Typical products decorated with a desktop setup include apparel, awards, plaques, promotional products, signage, photo panels, drinkware, etc. Jobs typical in this setup are low-volume runs of smaller items; 8.5" X 11" paper sizes will generally be sufficient to serve this market. Some larger jobs, such as large prints on Ts or sweats, may require a printer with a larger field, more along the lines of 13" X 19", of course, with a heat press that can handle an image of that size as well. Especially considering high-margins can be made in producing customized/personalized products in small-volume orders, narrow format equipment can be kept very busy.But how does wide format compare? Is it a logical next step for a growing decoration business?

Moving up to wide format means spending more money. Available in a wide range of sizes and options, wide-format printers typically start in the $5,500 range and rapidly go up from there. Additionally, there is the heat press aspect, requiring a unit that corresponds in size to the printer’s capabilities. This could mean another $10,000 (or more), but bigger bucks do provide bigger options.

Traditionally, wide-format sublimation was predominantly used for signage, both hard and soft, and was a necessity for anyone seriously involved with the sign industry. But recently, as the popularity of poly-performance apparel has skyrocketed, wide-format printing has been tasked to an exciting new purpose—full-bleed, all over printing.

A word on white 

One of the limitations of sublimation is that it’s a dye process rather than a true printing process, requiring that image colors must always be darker than the background color. This makes printing on dark backgrounds and reproducing white on any background other than white impossible. 

In reality, many commercial printing systems don’t offer a white solution. Thus, the common solution is to leave the white areas of a design open within the graphic and stick with printing on white backgrounds. The downfall is, when switching to a colored background (yellow, for example), the white areas of the design will then register as yellow.

With small-format sublimation on anything other than apparel, this really isn’t a problem, as pretty much all of the hard substrates are manufactured with a white surface. Or, to make an item black, the surface can be recolored as part of the graphic image and all the white areas left open in the design to where the background shows through. This works great on smaller items, as the printing field of the printer and press is typically larger than the substrate, making complete ink coverage of the surface possible.

In this same case on larger items such as apparel, it would be necessary to print and press a transfer the size of the entire front (and/or back) of the garment. This is where wide-format sublimation really overshadows narrow format, as it provides a white solution for apparel via all-over printing.

With wide-format sublimation, it’s possible to create one transfer for the front and one for the back for all-over coverage on garments with few structural components such as split fronts, plackets or buttons. Start with a blank white shirt and create the desired body color as part of the graphics being applied. 

With more complex garments such as polo shirts, it’s necessary to sublimate in conjunction with the manufacturing, as it is necessary to decorate the individual components of the shirt prior to them being sewn together, but the basic concept still works. Start with a white garment and re-color it as part of the sublimation process. This concept goes beyond apparel and can be applied to virtually any large-scale product that needs to be created, eliminating the need for white ink altogether.

Mass production

In addition to a large field printing, wide format production also affords the ability to mass-produce smaller items. For example, using the copy and paste functions of a graphics software program would maximize production of an order for one hundred photo panels by producing multiple images ready to press in each print run. From there, simply upload the multi-design transfer and multiple substrates to the heat press and knock out a large number of products with a single pressing. 

However, when it comes to the speed of printing, many of the desktop units are actually faster than wide-format units. Depending on the situation, it might make sense to put together a hybrid wide-format system, where a fast, small-format printer is used in combination with a wide-format heat press. 

For example, if you had a heat press large enough to handle two T-shirts side-by-side at the same time, you could press two shirts with 8" X 10" graphics every minute (standard pressing time is just less than 60 seconds). During that same one-minute pressing cycle, you could also print out two transfers (at 30 seconds each), meaning you would have an ideal production balance between printing and pressing. 

Ink delivery

Another noticeable difference between narrow and wide is the ink delivery systems. Most of the wide-format printers are eight-color systems, whereas many of the narrow format printers are four-color units. In years past, there was a noticeable difference in color clarity between the two, but not so anymore as technology is now able to deliver virtually the same quality with the smaller, four-color printers. This can make a lot of difference in how much ink is kept on hand for each printer. In addition, most of the larger printers use a reservoir or refillable large capacity ink cartridge system as opposed to disposable cartridges for the smaller units.

When it comes to ink, one misconception with sublimation is on how the cost of the ink impacts the cost of production. With a wide-format system, where ink is purchased in bulk, for sure the unit cost of the ink is lower than with small format systems. However, with ink costs only accounting for a small percentage of the overall production costs (typically 2-4 percent), it doesn’t have nearly the impact on the cost of delivering a finished product as most assume.

In fact, the number one production-cost factor is time. You only generate revenue when you are physically sublimating. When equipment is idle, so is cash flow. Inefficient production and excessive setup times can really eat a hole in profits, so matching equipment to production needs and then maximizing the production processes to take full benefit of those capabilities is the key to maintaining decent profit margins. 

Summing it all up, production needs should dictate which system best fits any business model. The idea of being able to print any color T-shirt using wide format technology is pretty cool, but if the volume is not there on a daily basis, it may be better to contract it out. On the other hand, if small substrate orders are growing into larger substrates, wide format might be the ideal solution. The key is analyzing production needs, plugging in the output capabilities and comparing the equipment costs to see which generates the highest margins and the best ROI.