Sublimation printing has revolutionized the world of printing and manufacturing. This innovative technique allows for vibrant, durable images to be printed on a wide variety of materials including plastics, metals, ceramics, textiles and more. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore everything you need to know about sublimation printing including its history, how it works, key facts and specs, public reception over the years, where to buy printers and supplies, and more.
A Brief History of Sublimation Printing
The origins of sublimation printing can be traced back to 1957 in France. After discovering that dyes could transition directly from a solid to a gas state, a man by the name of Nol de Plasse developed a printing method and co-founded the company Sublistatic SA. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, mass production of transfer sheets using ribbons progressed substantially.
Later on, NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory pioneered the development of dye sublimation computer printers. Engineer Wes Hoekstra has been credited as the original inventor of computer image sublimation, filing a patent in 1972. It wasn‘t until Hoekstra made further innovations using toner sublimation that transfer sheets started being produced and sold to the general public by the millions and eventually billions.
How Sublimation Printing Works
Sublimation printing utilizes special inks called sublimation inks or dyes. These inks are solid colors that turn to a gas when heated. A computer printer lays down the ink onto substrates like paper or plastic. Then, a heat press applies heat, which causes the ink to turn to a gas. This gas then permanently infuses into polyester fabrics or coatings. When cooled, it solidifies and becomes an inseparable part of the material.
Some key advantages of sublimation printing:
- Vibrant, photorealistic prints that fully saturate fabrics or coatings.
- Since the ink bonds at a molecular level, the prints don‘t crack, peel or fade over time.
- The print feels like part of the material, not an extra layer on top.
- Cost per print stays consistent regardless of volume.
- Prints on a wide array of goods like mugs, plates, metals, acrylic, tiles, etc.
Key Facts and Stats
- The technical term for sublimation printing is "dye-diffusion".
- The process was first developed in 1957 in France by Nol de Plasse.
- Sublimation printing will be 65 years old in 2022.
- Billions of transfer sheets are produced each year for consumer use.
- The global sublimation printing market size was valued at $4.9 billion in 2020.
- The market is forecast to grow at a CAGR of over 7% from 2021 to 2028.
- The textile industry accounts for over 35% of the total market.
- Polyester accounts for over 90% of sublimation printing ink transfers.
Evolution of Sublimation Printers
In the early years, sublimation printing required industrial-level equipment not feasible for everyday consumers. But over the decades, sublimation printers have evolved into more compact and affordable devices.
The first dye-sublimation printers emerged in the late 1980s. These bulky machines were the size of a large photocopier and cost over $20,000. While groundbreaking, they were only practical for commercial print shops and manufacturing plants.
In the 90s, the first desktop photo sublimation printers entered the consumer market. These delivered photographic print quality at a more reasonable price point. However, print speed, color accuracy and media options were limited.
In the early 2000s, faster print engines and new RIP software helped usher in a new generation of more advanced desktop sublimation printers accessible to businesses and consumers.
Today‘s sublimation printers allow printing directly onto a wide range of products including fabrics, mugs, mousepads, plaques, metals and acrylics. High print speeds, wireless connectivity and user-friendly interfaces make current models highly practical for personal use.
Top Sublimation Printer Models of 2022
1. Epson SureColor F170
This compact and affordable Epson model is perfect for home crafters and small businesses. It uses Epson‘s high quality Claria ET inks to produce vibrant prints at up to 13 x 19 inches. The ink tanks are refillable for thousands of prints. It‘s easy to set up and use right out of the box.
- Max Print Size: 13" x 19"
- Print Speed: Up to 17 ppm
- Print Resolution: Up to 1440 x 720 dpi
- Ink: Claria ET dye-sublimation ink
- Connectivity: Wi-Fi, USB
- Price: $649.99
2. Epson SureColor F570
A step up from the F170, the SureColor F570 handles larger format printing up to 24 inches wide. It‘s ideal for making a range of sublimated goods from apparel to hard substrates. This model includes powerful print engine, large ink cartridges, and comes with Epson print software for optimal image quality.
- Max Print Size: 24” wide
- Print Speed: Up to 23.2 ppm
- Print Resolution: Up to 1440 x 720 dpi
- Ink: Claria ET dye-sublimation Ink
- Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Ethernet, USB
- Price: $1,895.00
3. Ricoh Ri 100
Known for fast print speeds, the Ri 100 can output up to 102 prints per hour making it ideal for high volume production. It can print directly onto polyester fabrics up to 320mm wide using Ricoh‘s GelSprinter GS6000 ink. The industrial quality build offers precise print geometry for crisp, vivid prints on garments, soft signage and more.
- Max Print Size: 320mm (12.6”)
- Print Speed: Up to 102 prints/hr
- Print Resolution: Up to 1440 dpi
- Ink: Ricoh GelSprinter GS6000 dye-sub ink
- Connectivity: USB 2.0, Ethernet
- Price: $5,999.99
Public Reception Over the Years
Ever since its inception, sublimation printing has been reinventing what‘s possible in the world of manufacturing and fabrication. Here‘s an overview of how this technology has been received over the decades:
During its early days, sublimation printing remained exclusively an industrial technology. Manufacturers used it to print onto plastic parts, awards, commemorative plates and other specialty goods. It gained a reputation for enabling vibrant, photorealistic prints onto surfaces unachievable with other methods.
As desktop models emerged, sublimation printing expanded beyond manufacturing into photography labs and print shops. Consumers could print high fidelity photographic prints at an affordable price point. However, use remained somewhat limited due to lower print speeds and media options.
Throughout the 2000s, sublimation printing became more accessible to small businesses and hobbyists thanks to improving print quality and economics. Entrepreneurs adopted it for customizing apparel, awards, signs, decals, while consumers used it for one-off projects.
2010s – Now
Today, sublimation enjoys widespread popularity thanks to lower hardware costs, better software and huge material options from fabrics, hard goods and beyond. Both businesses and individuals leverage it to unleash creativity for clothing, accessories, decor, prototyping and more.
Where to Buy Sublimation Printers and Supplies
There are a few main places you can buy sublimation printers and supplies:
Online retailers: Top ecommerce sites like Amazon, eBay, Walmart and craft & print supply stores offer a wide range of sublimation printer models at competitive prices. These sites also stock compatible sublimation inks and transfer papers.
Direct from manufacturers: Brands like Epson, Ricoh, Sawgrass and Cobra offer direct purchasing options on their websites. Buying directly gives you full tech specs, warranty info, and customer service.
Local print shops: Many brick and mortar print and copy shops sell printers, consumables and provide printing services. This can be a good way for businesses to test out the technology before full investment.
Specialty distributors: Companies like Conde and Johnson Plastics focus exclusively on supplying sublimation materials and expertise. They offer robust product selection, guidance and bulk discounts.
When shopping for a sublimation printer, be sure to consider your budget, production needs, and material printing goals. And always use compatible inks, substrates and settings to achieve optimal print quality.
The Future of Sublimation Printing
Over six decades in, sublimation continues gaining traction across apparel, decor, prototyping, and manufacturing. As the technology improves and costs come down, what does the future hold for sublimation printing?
Lower startup costs: Expect even more affordable printer prices and inks to put sublimation within reach of individuals. Leasing options will also help reduce initial investments.
Material advancements: New coatings and polymer technologies will expand the range of products compatible with sublimation printing.
Software innovations: Smarter software and design tools will empower more precise prints, embedded customization and special effects.
3D printing integration: Combined with 3D printing, sublimation will allow full customization of 3D printed objects.
More applications: Growing niche uses include sublimating temporary tattoos, phone cases, wearable tech, sports gear and beyond.
Home adoption: Compact and user-friendly consumer-targeted models will find their way into more homes.
Sublimation printing has already proven to be a versatile, cost-effective and creative way to customize and produce goods. As the technology evolves, it will become accessible to an ever-wider audience seeking to make memorable, customized creations.