Printing Tips


When it comes to mass printing of apparel, screen printing tends to win out in terms of cost and efficiency.  But what happens when a client wants an order of 12 t-shirts with an 8 color image?  Or suppose that same person needs some promotional items – are you able to handle that too or do you wave bye-bye to those RANDS/DOLLARS as they walk out the door?

Diversification is fast becoming the “power word” of the industry.  It used to be that you were identified by your specialty – screen printing, embroidery, transfers, sublimation etc.  But the new reality is that specialists are losing revenue opportunities because they can’t handle all of the needs of their clients due to changing mindsets and buying habits.

Diversifying your business doesn’t mean running out and buying the latest and greatest equipment in hopes that you can put it to use.  Instead, you should take a close look at your strengths and weaknesses, followed by an in-depth assessment of buying trends.  What products are your customers wanting that you can’t deliver?  How often do they order? What are the expected turn-around times?  What are the preferred quantities?

Without a doubt the weak economy has altered the spending habits of consumers and businesses alike.  When money is tight people hold on to it for as long as they can.  For example, many screen printing shops have seen client’s break a single large job down into several small ones spread over several months.  Whereas a twelve dozen shirt order is fine in terms of screen printing production, twelve orders of one dozen shirts is another situation entirely.

Add to this another nasty trend of waiting until the absolute last minute and it gets even worse.  More and more, people are looking for one day service as well as smaller quantities in order to conserve money and control their cash flow.  Thus, decoration diversification might help you to respond to those trends, depending on what type of capabilities are added.

If you are going to go down this path, and it certainly warrants some exploration, then think beyond just modifying your current production limitations, also think about expanding the types of products you can produce and the markets you can pursue.  Whatever additional technologies you choose to put in place, they should not only justify the cost, but also generate new profits as well through cross-selling and up-selling.

For example, let’s say that you do work for a Special Events Promoter.  If so, there is a good chance that you produce a lot of t-shirts and maybe some polos and sweats as well.  But if you look deeper, you will see that an event has a lot more in terms of decorated products than just apparel (cross-seeling).  Things like awards, promotional products, gifts, etc, none of which lend themselves to screen printing.

So the question is what process would give you the most capabilities in terms of diversification, and still be able to handle small runs and quick turn-arounds when needed?  The answer is pretty simple – sublimation.

Sublimation is a digital printing process that allows you to quickly and easily apply high resolution, full color graphics to a wide variety of hard and soft goods such as plaques, awards, iPhone covers, flip flops, flags, signs, photo panels, clocks, tiles, coasters, mouse pads, mugs, poly performance apparel and a whole lot more.  Small orders are as easy as large ones.

Production is a quick three step process that works something like this: create – print – press.

The first step is to setup the design using a standard graphics program like Photoshop or CorelDraw.  No color separations are needed!  You then print it on sublimation transfer paper using sublimation inks and a standard desktop printer (that supports sublimation ink).  Finally, you apply the transfer paper to the item being decorated and place both together under a heat press.

The combination of pressure and heat will cause the sublimation ink to turn into a gas and transfer over to the substrate, with the result being a high quality, permanent image.  To complete the process, simply remove and discard the transfer paper and you are done.  Total production time runs about three minutes per print/press cycle (not including artwork).

It should also be noted that depending on the size of the item (and equipment), you can produce multiple items in each cycle.  For example iPhone covers are approximately 2” x 5”.  That means you can setup six of them on an 8.5” x 11” sheet of transfer paper (2 rows of 3 across).  Thus during one print/press cycle (three minutes) you can produce six units.  With marging, plus labor and overhead and cost to the client.  Not bad, especially when you consider that you can get six units produced in three minutes…

On the surface, sublimation looks a lot like some of the other digital heat transfer processes, but it’s what goes on below the surface that separates it from all other decoration technologies. With sublimation you are actually dyeing the material through molecular bonding rather than printing on the surface.  The result is an image that is permanently embedded into the surface of the item being sublimated, which in turn means no scratching, peeling or cracking.  And in the case of apparel, that means no fading either, despite repeated launderings.

A key aspect of the sublimation process is that it only works with polymer based materials.  Thus, you can’t just sublimate just anything that comes in the door.  The item must be composed of polymer or polyester materials or have a polymerized surface in order for the sublimation dye to bond properly.  Though it might sound like a limiting factor, there are literally hundreds of blank products that have been created for sublimation, so you have a tremendous amount of diverse and unique items to work with.

To get a better perspective on what is involved with adding sublimation to a screen printing shop, let’s look a bit deeper at how the two technologies compare.

Screen printing is categorized as an analog printing process.  Analog printing involves a delivery system that is dependent on individual colors being transmitted to a substrate through some type of manually prepared plate, stencil, template, screen, etc.

Sublimation on the other hand is a digital printing process.  Digital printing reproduces computerized images directly to a surface via the use of inkjet and/or laser printers, such that the colors are created on demand and no templates, screens or plates are required to define the image.  Instead the images are produced using tiny droplets of ink, placed via an electronic coding of the image.

Digital printing is ideal for short runs and on demand orders because of the quick setup.  Plus it has a much broader spectrum of color production and in the case of sublimation can deliver photo-quality imaging.

Analog printing has very long setup times as well as breakdown time at the end of a job, thus it becomes cost-prohibitive in terms of smaller runs.  But for large volume production, it will be cheaper than digital.  However, there is always the color limitation with analog, something that also has to be taken into account when comparing to digital.

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