State of the Transfer Industry

From turmoil grows new opportunity. The economic recession of the past few years left no one unscathed. We saw many businesses go under and the country’s unemployment rate skyrocket. However, during these tough times we’ve seen the digital heat transfer industry flourish.

Wow shirt

Some transfer papers can print on any color textile. Here, free-form graphics were used and no cutting or weeding was involved. (Image courtesy TheMagicTouch)

Copiers and inkjet transfers

The tumultuous economy created an immediate need for development in the digital heat transfer arena—mainly in the progression of the digital color copy systems (color laser copy/printer and inkjet printers and papers).

As more and more people lost their jobs and bills still needed to be paid, people began looking for new sources of income. Many decided to take their futures into their own hands and go into business for themselves. The digital heat transfer market proved to be extremely appealing because of its low cost of entry and its accessibility in terms of experience. Thanks to new digital color copy systems that are easy to use, experience is no longer a pre-requisite. The simplicity and low cost of these systems are drawing many people who are brand new to printing and are helping expand the heat transfer industry outside of the small/highly specialized niche that it has been in up until now.

With today’s digital desktop systems, a complete setup can cost less than $2,000, including all the essentials—a printer, heat press and transfer papers. People investing in digital color copy systems see new opportunity in personalized goods. Consumers today don’t have the discretionary income they once did to shop and buy gifts. Now, people are looking for value. Personalization creates value and does so inexpensively. More so than ever, consumers are looking to purchase items that are creative and have meaning without the expensive price tag. The ability to print digital heat transfers and customize anything from garments, awards, mugs, bags, etc. allows businesses that have the capability to service those customers in a big way. People are seeing this opportunity and wanting to tap into it by purchasing digital color copy printing systems.

Digital CAD/cut and plotting systems

Digital CAD/cut and plotting systems have made incredible advancements to become an extremely viable printing method for larger businesses and manufacturers. Systems like the Roland, Mimaki and Graphtec, have allowed larger manufacturers to provide added value to their existing customer base, while also attracting a new customers during these trying economic times.

Flip FlopsTiki Time

Both of these items are decorated transfer paper that can be used to print decorate a variety of substrates from light colored T-shirts, mouse pads and aprons to unfinished wood. (Image courtesy TheMagicTouch)

These cutting systems additionally allow decorators to service short runs they historically had to turn away because they weren’t profitable using traditional screen-printing methods. These thriving digital methods allow even the smallest of orders to turn a profit. New types of compatible media such as reflectives, glitters, foils, embossed and printed materials, stretchable substrates, flock and many more have been introduced and the quality and durability is continuously getting better. These new materials have proven to be great complementary products to businesses’ existing line of offerings.

Sublimation versus color laser copy and inkjet

Sublimation once demanded distinction from other digital printing methods, largely because it used to be the primary method of printing onto non-porous substrates. Today, sublimation is one of many printing techniques for hard surfaces, thanks to the progression of CLC (color laser copier) and inkjet transfer papers.

CLC and inkjet transfer papers have picked up where sublimation left off in its abilities. For example, sublimation requires non-porous substrates to have a special coating on them which can add cost. For garment printing, sublimation can only be used on whites and light colored polyester blend garments. CLC and inkjet transfers differ from sublimation in that they don’t require substrates to have any special coatings. The papers are manufactured with their coatings already on them, which proves to be more economical. This also means there’s no limit to types of substrates. These processes have created tremendous opportunity by allowing people to print on an incredible range of substrates like metal, wood, leather, glass, acrylic, nylon, polypropylene and many more.

Sublimation still does have a place in the digital printing world. The durability that comes with sublimation printing is impeccable because when heated, the inks essentially dye the fibers of the fabric, so images can’t be scratched off. In many cases, intensity of color is better than other processes. Also, weeding and cutting is not required in the transferring process.


The recession has forever changed the way we do business. The tumultuous economy has made today’s business climate extremely hard to predict from month to month, which has forced manufacturers to subscribe to a new way of thinking. The new mentality is less is more. Excess inventory equals money lost. Retailers are struggling to meet consumer demand without having excess inventory on the shelves. With the ability to forecast being hazy at best, how does one maintain such a balancing act? The answer for retailers is keeping little to no inventory, ordering at the very last minute and ordering only what is guaranteed to sell. (Editor’s note: For more on inventory management, see “The Story With Inventory.")

For manufacturers this translates into producing only when orders come in and producing product extremely fast. Production speeds are continuously getting faster as the need for quick turn times proves to be a permanent fixture in manufacturing.


Certain types of CAD/cut film offer full-color image capabilities and are versatile enough to be applied to virtually any fabric. (Image courtesy Insta)

Historically, digital heat transfers were thought to be a slow, tedious process to produce, making it an unlikely candidate for any type of volume production. However, according to Juergen Hagadorn of TheMagicTouch, “This is a total misconception. The color laser printing devices print with spends up to seventy pages per minute and some papers can decorate a white T-shirt in as little as five seconds, a colored or black shirt in about twenty seconds and odd shaped/free formed designs in about one minute, once you run production and therefore have no waiting time to let the shirt cool for the next step.”

Inventories will continue to remain lean, increasing the need for companies to be able to provide their customers with short run options and quick delivery times. The “just in time delivery” mentality is here to stay. Whoever can service customers by providing them with the most options with the smallest minimums and quickest lead times will succeed. Now it’s all about the most flexibility with the least commitment.

Most technologically-driven items enter the market with high price tags and over time, prices tend to drop as quality improves. Entry level prices of A4/letter size color laser printers have already reached a level where there’s not much more room to go down. We will most likely see more features for the same price. The A3/11" X 17" devices are a different situation. Those printers have typically been priced four to five times higher than A4/letter devices, but we’re starting to see prices dropping and anticipate more decreases to come.

Progress and development in this industry is truly driven by the users. This is a customer-driven industry… more so than ever before. It’s all about what customers are asking for. Their creativity and experimentation with all different kinds of applications and substrates is driving paper manufacturers to develop papers to better suit those applications. Because so much technology is now in the hands of the people and not just large manufacturers, more information is being shared via blogs, forums and websites about new and exciting uses for these new technologies.

There are no limitations—this industry is continually evolving because of its users. We are seeing more and more diversification toward an unlimited number of applications and substrates to decorate.