So you have heard of sublimation and maybe your customers are even asking you for sublimated items. Or maybe you are tired of dealing with dye migration or trying to find the right additives or other headaches related to decorating polyester. So you go to the ISS Show and find a sublimation printer and think you are ready. While that is most likely a decent starting point, I’m guessing you invested in a small format printer. In my opinion, about 85% of sublimators are using a small format system and many are doing pretty well. Small format is actually defined in the sublimation industry as any printer under 42” in width. So with all of those people using small format technology, why was I was excited to be asked by Impressions to write about wide-format, roll-to-roll sublimation? Wide Format Sublimation technology is one of those fields in our industry that has some misunderstandings that I would like to expose. Also, I want to share with you some new potential markets with the addition of wide-format roll to roll sublimation equipment.
Misconceptions of Wide Format Sublimation
One of the first big misconceptions is the economics of getting into wide-format, roll-to-roll sublimation. I know for a lot of people, including myself, as soon as the words “wide format” is tossed around, visions of hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent, huge warehouses and other headache come to mind. Well, fortunately for those of us who have those overactive imaginations, it really is not that bad. Typically, you can purchase a 44” printer system for about $7,000 to $9,000. While knowing that it is a very healthy investment it is not one that is out of reach. Some other costs involved could be a large format heat press, but it needs to be noted that not all wide format printing needs a large format heat press. If you do need a large format heat press you can expect to spend between $10,000 to $20,000 depending on your needs. So now that investment could be up to $30,000 to fully get into wide format sublimation and that number could make you an uncomfortable. A different way to make this type of large investment is leasing the equipment. If your credit is pretty good on a standard 60-month term lease with a $1 buyout, you would need to come up with about $500 to $700 per month. I won’t get too deep into the ROI calculation in this article, but many companies with this equipment have proved that making $700 a month in profit with sublimation printing is well within reach.
Now what I didn’t cover was the roll-to-roll sublimation, but again in the grand scheme of the profit potential, this investment can be broken down into a monthly payment and easily covered nearly out of the gate. So for example, if you are looking to not only produce garments but also want to tackle home goods, like shower curtains, bed sheets, blankets, pillowcases and other similar items, you will need a printer that can print at least 64 to 72 inches wide. You will then also need a calendar (or sometimes called a drum or rotary) press that can accommodate the 64 to 72-inch requirement. Now that bottom line investment if you had to lay out cash jumps up into the $50,000 to $80,000 range, but the monthly payments are still going to be around $1,000 to $1,600 a month. Again, not a problem to cover.
The next misconception when it comes to wide format sublimation is the cost savings. Yes the labor is a big factor in your costs and there is plenty of margin in most products to handle the increased ink costs in a small format printer, but all it takes is a little bit breakdown and you will find that things change pretty quickly. If you are a small format sublimator, you are most likely paying about $70 for a 30ml ink cartridge. That is about $2.30 per ml. A typical sublimation transfer uses about 1.5ml of ink per square foot, you have about $3.75 per square foot of ink and paper cost (assuming the paper is about $.25 per square foot for paper cost). Compared to large format sublimation, where you are paying approximately $0.15 per ml of ink, your cost for is now less than $0.50 per square foot.
Lastly, I have heard people say “wide format software is hard to use”. While yes at first glance it can seem more difficult but the process is the same, you just have a tool called a RIP software to help you along. If you are working with the right supplier the RIP software should be set-up on the front end as part of the purchase investment. With most wide-format RIP programs, you have the ability to drop your jobs into it and let it “nest” images for you to optimize your printing and paper usage. Most of them also have a job costing calculator to more accurately quote your work and some of them even have the ability to do variable data output which makes jersey creation and other creative markets even easier without a lot of manual work.
New Markets for Wide Format Sublimation
So now with the misconceptions out of the way, it's time to figure out what you can do with this great investment. I know many people reading this magazine are likely going to be looking at sublimation for garments, but there is so much more you can do. Let’s start out with a pretty lucrative garment market and go from there..
Sports Jerseys – For years and years, the sports jersey industry was dominated by dye houses and vinyl lettering. There was a lot of cotton being used and still today that business is strong. Things have changed, though, and the polyester performance jerseys are becoming the "normal". No longer do you see the solid color jersey with the one or two color name and number on it. You are now seeing excellent designs, multiple colors and more. On top of all that, the garment can enhance the athlete performance by wicking away moisture and keeping the athlete cooler. Jerseys today are no longer just to designate a number; they are part of the athlete’s performance.
Home Textiles - This category it a vastly growing market when it comes to roll to roll sublimation. If you head over to websites, like Etsy, you will see they have tons of personalized home textile items. The most popular item is going to be pillow cases or throw pillows, but the demand for personalization doesn’t end there. You will also find extremely larger items, like Shower Curtains, Bed Sheets, Comforter Covers, Towels and more. There is also a great market for items like Door Mats, Car Mats, Comfort Mats and more. The Home Textile market is growing and doesn’t show signs of stopping anytime soon.
Boutique Fashion Products - Gone are the days of boutiques and other retailers of fashion, searching for next seasons trends a year in advance and placing large stock orders for delivery in 4 to 5 months. The consumer and the retails now demand a shorter turn around and smaller minimum order quantities to keep up with the changing pace of fashion and hot trends. Digital decoration via sublimation allows for ideal management of these demands. I spoke to Joe Werner, CEO of the Before+ Again Label who started their fashion line in 2008 during the height of the recession. He said “as a just -in- time manufacturer, our ability to turn around highly creative pieces with low minimums fit well for a market that was nervous about high inventory levels. And in the fashion business, it is key to be able to quickly react to what is on trend now and replenish product vs. waiting months for foreign goods which also require larger orders. Bottom line our equipment, design and production processes allowed us to mitigate risk to stores and give a tremendous amount of creative choice to consumers.”
Less expensive, faster production and new markets are some pretty good benefits when using wide-format sublimation, roll to roll technology. Don’t wait to dive in!
See my article as published by Impressions Magazine.