Sublimation printing is a popular technique for transferring full-color images onto plastic substrate items and apparel.
We have already explored what sublimation means and what the sublimation printing process looks like. In this guide, we break down the pros and cons of sublimation printing compared with other printing techniques.
What is sublimation printing great for? And what are some of the downsides of sublimation printing? How does sublimation printing differ from other digital printing techniques, like screen printing, inkjet, and heat transfer?
Sublimation Printing: Pros, Cons & Comparisons – Quick Navigation
The advantages of dye sublimation printing
Compared with other common printing techniques, dye sublimation printing has a number of advantages:
- Continuous tone – Each and every dot of ink in sublimation printing can be a different color. For this reason, sublimated graphics appear high-resolution and have amazing color fidelity, even under a microscope.
- No dry time – Sublimation printing on fabric means you can be fold or wear the garment immediately after it leaves the press without having to worry about smearing the ink.
- Fewer moving parts – Presses are simple machines, and the thermal print head doesn’t need to move back and forth over the print media. This means sublimation printers are less likely to break down.
- No mess – No liquid ink means no spills and no clean up.
- Fade-free – Sublimated dye impregnates and becomes part of the plastic. It will not fade or degrade the plastic, and the colors will not run if exposed to water.
- Seam-to-seam printing – Sublimation printing can work for even the most intricate shapes, allowing you to print the entire fabric of a garment.
- Uses no water and minimal energy – Dye sublimation requires no water and very little energy resources compared to other commercial printing methods.
- Small-batch friendly – Sublimation printing is great for one-off or small batch orders, making it easy to quickly customize apparel or gifts for special occasions.
What are the disadvantages of dye sublimation printing?
While sublimation printing has its advantages, it comes up short against other common printing techniques in these regards:
- Limited to light-colored plastics – Sublimated printing does not work with natural fibers like cotton or paper, unless the materials have been treated with a polymer coating beforehand. Furthermore, because sublimation printing is more like high-precision dyeing than imprinting, it works best on white or light-colored materials.
- Requires specialty inks and printers – Because sublimation ink is specially formulated to resist becoming a liquid, it is prone to clogging printers. For this reason, printing a graphic onto heat transfer paper for sublimation generally requires a dedicated dye-sublimation printer that can handle these specialized ink cartridges. In turn, sublimation printing requires more upfront costs for the businesses that do it, which can often result in a pricier product.
- Slow – Where inkjet and screen prints can be fired off in rapid succession, sublimation printing requires that each item is pressed individually. And because it also involves the extra step of printing the transfer paper, the sublimation printing process requires more labor.
- Cheap materials result in toxic fumes – Before you order a sublimated print, do your due diligence to ensure that both the sublimation inks and the materials used are of high quality. With cheap sublimation inks, toxic vapors can contaminate the air and may be breathed in by employees. Furthermore, exposing low-quality plastics to the high temperatures necessary for sublimation printing can also produce toxic fumes.
- Recycling issues – Sublimation printing produces a lot of non-recyclable waste, in part because the process involves an extra step and more materials that other printing processes don’t. The ink first needs to be printed onto transfer paper, which then becomes contaminated and can no longer be recycled. Furthermore, plastics impregnated with many different colors of dye are difficult to recycle.
Sublimation printing vs. heat transfer
Sublimation printing and heat transfer are both transfer printing methods that involve similar steps, but the end effects are very different.
Both printing techniques involve printing an image onto transfer paper, and then applying heat and pressure. However, in sublimation printing, the inks permeate and become part of the print media. In heat transfer, on the other hand, the image simply becomes an additional layer on top of the print media.
Compared with heat transfer, sublimation printing is much longer lasting and can produce intricate, high-resolution prints in any shape.
But an advantage of heat transfer over sublimation printing is that some methods are easy enough for laypeople to perform at home with an iron. Another advantage of heat transfer vs. sublimation printing is that heat transfer works with virtually all fabrics, regardless of material or color. With sublimation printing, you are limited to white polyester fabrics.
Sublimation printing vs inkjet
Inkjet printers print liquid ink on top of paper, while sublimation printers permeate the material with ink vapors.
Sublimation printing is best suited for printing graphics onto plastic substrates. Inkjet printing is best for document printing.
Unless laminated or coated, inkjet printed photos or documents will run if exposed to moisture. Sublimation printed graphics are immune to water damage.
Sublimation printing vs screen printing
As its name would suggest, screen printing involves printing a graphic onto fabric through a screen. In screen printing, the graphic is transferred as a layer on top of the fabric, whereas in sublimation printing, the graphic becomes part of the fabric.
Screen printing is more limited in the colors and shapes it can produce, and the graphics may crack or peel off with wear. However, screen printing is very quick, and many shops can produce as many as 900 pieces per hour. Sublimation printing, on the other hand, averages at about 60 pieces per hour. For this reason, screen printing lends itself better to bulk production than sublimation printing, making it the most common method of garment printing.