Category : Blog
Sublimation as an industrial printing process has been in use for quite a while.However, at the beginning of the time to see the introduction of sublimation grass technology, subli ink introduced the production quality sublimation transfer in the middle ages. The profit doesn’t take long to run, or sets the use of expensive desktop printers. Subsequently, small businesses began to offer personalized and customized color images imprinted on a variety of surfaces.
Inkjet sublimation has improved impressively since its introduction. Advances in ink quality have increased color vividness, sharpness and vibrancy. Simultaneously, they have decreased early problems of printer clogging and of image fading due to light exposure. Inkjet printing technology has also improved significantly. Topnotch, high-resolution desktop printers are now available at lower prices.
At present, larger shops can choose from a variety of wide-format printers providing production efficiencies. Especially when fitted with bulk-ink delivery systems. Also increasing extensively is the supply of sublimatable products, or “blanks”. And their “holders.” Due to these improvements, the public’s acceptance of sublimated products continues to strengthen, making their marketing easier.
Along with the continual downward pricing of attendant technology, such as scanners, digital cameras and printers, these developments have fueled the phenomenal growth of the sublimation industry. Hence, the industry appears to offer excellent prospects for both novice and experienced sublimators.
This is a good time to stop and ponder. What does the future hold? This article reviews developments that could disrupt the sublimation industry. If ignored and discusses how they could be used to our advantage, propelling the industry to greater heights. However, rather than providing a roadmap, the aim of the article is to provide you “food for thought”. To get your creative juices flowing so that we can embark together in this next exciting chapter of the sublimation story.
STRUCTURE OF THE INDUSTRY
As the digital revolution continues to take over the marketplace, customers’ wants, desires, and their willingness to pay for them are increasingly sophisticated. Consumers, whether businesses or individuals, seek products that are individualized, exclusive, imaged with rich color, readily available, and are, of course, low priced! This drive toward “mass” customization and “just-in-time” consumerism promotes short product cycles and runs producing one or a few items.
In the past, such market forces tended to push prices up by conflicting with the development of economies of scale. However, the emergence of worldwide markets increases competition to the point that the overall pressure is on decreasing prices—especially on consumer products. And on the consolidation of suppliers and distributors. These trends are evident in the sublimation industry. Consequently, world market competition has had a direct impact on the structure of the industry, although sublimation imprinting is supposed to cater to small, localized markets.
Because our industry is young and diffused, we have yet to establish standards, specifications, and tolerances for newcomers to abide by. This, and the modest prices of beginning-level technology, creates low barriers to entry that entice a steady influx of would-be entrepreneurs. The throng of newcomers along with the proliferation of blanks—allowing sublimators to print on just about “anything—contribute to the development of a large diversity of small, fragmented segments with low buying power and little influence in the industry.
Within each segment, the sameness of the blanks and their holders tends to commoditize the products, propelling the new entrants to compete principally on price. The resultant constant squeeze on margins leads new sublimators to leave the industry at a high rate. I believe fostering a flourishing group of persevering sublimators of finished products would better serve the industry.
It is a given that the sublimation industry needs a large and growing production base for its long-term health. Let’s look at how we could sustain such a production base while improving newcomers’ success rate. We can start by seeing the industry as composed of interrelated Competency Spheres, as the schematic in Figure 1 shows.
To grow the industry, major suppliers and distributors offer various aids to sublimators. For example, to help in the Imaging/Graphics Sphere, Hanes offers Sublimation Make providing images, product templates, and graphic designs. In the Color Management/Printing Sphere, Saw grass Technologies helps its ink users with technical support, training, and color management software through Saw grass Plus. Condé helps in the Sublimation/Product-Finishing Sphere by providing its customers with a comprehensive instructional manual for the successful sublimation of the blanks it carries. Finally, help in the Marketing/Sale.
Considering this aid, it is clear from Figure 1 that businesses such as successful digital sign shops would find it easy to enter the sublimation industry and flourish within it. Such businesses should already be well versed in three Competency Spheres: Imaging/Graphics, Color Management/Printing, and Marketing/Sales. Thus, their major investments would be the acquisition of a dedicated sublimation printer and the gaining of competency in the Sublimation/Product-Finishing Competency Sphere.
In contrast, novice entrepreneurs starting a sublimation business are at a great disadvantage. They tend to be versed in, at most, one of the Competency Spheres. Thus, their investments in the sublimation industry are quite heavy. They have initial monetary outlays for required technology, beginning inventory, and training samples. In addition, they must invest a significant amount of time and effort, while likely needing a steady revenue stream, to attain the competencies demanded by the other Spheres. Hence, the possibility of leaving the industry is highest for newcomers not well versed in the Marketing/Selling Sphere.
These growing pains are typical for a budding industry. Other industries have devised solutions for maintaining healthy rates of growth and expansion. The strategies typically integrate one or more forms of stratification. Two such stratification schemes may be particularly useful for the sublimation industry to consider—stratification by quality tiers and stratification by the degree of participation in the industry’s competency spheres.
In our local business area, we came across retail shops, embroiderers, upholsterers, and advertising/promotion companies, among others, that were not offering sublimated products to their established customer bases. Their main reason was an unwillingness to invest in additional technology or in intensive training.
However, they were happy to enter the sublimation industry once we started to provide them printed transfers, as most already owned a heat press. That is, matching our core competencies in Imaging/Graphics and Color Management/Printing with theirs in Product-Finishing and Marketing/Sales produced a win-win situation for all involved.
This anecdote is interesting because it parallels one way the screen-printing and ceramic industries promote their growth by expanding the use of their technology. For example, the screen-printing industry produces preprinted transfers of myriad images. For the most part, these are sold nationally in small quantities, or even piecemeal, to various retail shops, crafters, and other small businesses via catalogs or web sites. These businesses, in turn, use the transfers to “print on demand” while still allowing the ultimate consumers a wide choice of images at a good price.
This idea could be profitably adapted to our industry. The aim would be to increase the number of small businesses offering sublimation services, thereby differentiating themselves from competitors and increasing their margins by avoiding up-front costs. I mention two simple examples here. I’m sure you could think of many more. Figure 2 shows how an appropriate open area for personalizing after the blank is sublimated can be part of designs for preprinted transfers. This would give the item more of the “hand-made” look that consumers prefer, especially for gift items. Images can be integrated with stock decorations to increase the aesthetic value of the item. Figure 3 shows the beautiful results of combining sublimation and embroidery for decorating pillows and scarves.
It is currently possible to keep preprinted transfers for up to a year using lithographic presses with special sublimation inks. To be cost effective, however, this technology necessitates runs of thousands of same-image prints. Therefore, its use negates the desirable benefits of using inkjet printing: flexibility, wide design possibilities, small lot sizes, shorter cycles, and a degree of exclusivity. Unfortunately, a technical problem has to be resolved before inkjet sublimation preprinted transfers become viable for other than small local areas.
Ambient light and humidity affect the quality of those transfer prints. For this reason, they should be sublimated soon after printing for best results. We need improvement on the inks, the paper, or, perhaps, a way to package the preprinted transfers to reduce ink migration. In addition, it would allow sublimation printers wider latitude in scheduling runs of popular images or graphics.
FIERCE COMPETITIVE FORCES
Competition from other inkjet-printing technologies may be the biggest threat to the sublimation industry.
The inkjet-printing segment that uses aqueous-based inks is being seriously undermined by vast improvements in two types of inkjet printers. Those using solvent inks and those using UV-curing inks for several reasons.
Some of these inkjet models use flat beds. Allowing them to print highly durable, high-resolution images directly on uncoated, rigid substrates—e.g., wood, tiles, boards. That may be as thick as one inch.
Some models can print opaque white ink. This feature increases flexibility by eliminating the need to print on white or light-colored substrates. Unlike inkjets using aqueous-based inks, this advanced technology can also print on uncoated, cut-sheets or rolled paper or fabric.
On average, coated substrates are about 170% higher priced per square foot than uncoated ones. In addition, inkjet sublimation inks are about 187% higher priced per liter than solvent inks. Consequently, these printers provide high production savings.
On the surface, this comparison would appear to place inkjet sublimation at a distinct disadvantage, especially when we add the cost of the extra labor and time required by sublimation’s two-step process.
On the bright side, two important factors in this dynamic competitive environment still favor sublimation.
Until recently, there were only large-format solvent or UV-curing printers. However, wide-format printers costing around $60,000 are now available, while the introduction of smaller and less-expensive models is on the horizon.
The other factor favoring inkjet sublimation. It still provides more vibrant color and higher-quality imaging on polyester fabrics. It is than those obtained using solvent ink or UV-curing inks. This is important. Because textile printing has been “hot” this past year, and its popularity is expected to increase in the future. Nonetheless, advances in solvent or UV-curing inks should allow those technologies to better approximate the image quality of sublimated fabrics in the future.
Consequently, the sublimation industry needs to bring production costs in line with these competing technologies to maintain its preeminence in its niche markets.
In summary, the sublimation industry has experienced in a short span of years. Phenomenal growth due to technological advances, a steady influx of hardworking entrepreneurs.And the public’s acceptance of its products. On the other hand, technological advances have also stoked the competitive fires. This article has provided some ideas on how we can counter the challenge posed by other ink technologies. Maintain strong rates of growth and expansion. And diminish the growing pains of our industry. My hope is that these thoughts provoke a healthy debate that will propel the industry to greater heights.