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Business Management

Dye Trying

Like a dogless bone?



“So, I tried to erase it, but the ink bled right through Almost drove myself crazy when these words led to you. And all these useless dreams of living alone…Like a dogless bone …”

–Lyrics, “Colour Me In”, Damien George Rice, songwriter, © Warner/Chappell Music

A dogless bone is something my dog doesn’t tolerate. Nor does she, Georgia, believe in missing mealtime – or the opportunity to terrify anyone approaching the front door. Still, if she knows you, she loves you. (Is that another song lyric?) Nonetheless, the dogless bone metaphor is easily carried over to any business that ignores obvious revenue opportunities, especially those that easily fit into its business model. Like, dye sublimation or promotional/personalized imaging for signshops.

That said, know that the field is complex and choosing a dye sublimation or promotional market and the accompanying production components is akin to choosing lunch from a Koreatown buffet – it’s fascinating and richly flavored, but not always easy pickings. Nonetheless, once implemented, you may gain profits from printing any combination of iPhone covers, T-shirts, swimmers’ attire, surfboards or wall murals. And signs, of course – rigid or fabric (banners, flags) or, get this, dye-sublimation on coated ceramics, tiles and metals.

Did you notice that I said “choosing a dye sublimation or promotional market?” Because, obviously, good business savvy says you must either have, plan to develop, or at least explore your marketplace (and its dollar sales potential) before investing in any product-making machines and equipment. Let’s also acknowledge that different dye-sublimation printing methods exist – skateboards aren’t close cousins to wall graphics – which confuses this most critical question: Should your shop invest in production equipment and processes in order to profitably fabricate and sell dye sublimation or promotional/personalized imaged products?

An addition to the above question adds the words “extra” and “more.” It applies to shops that already produce dye-sublimation products and reads: Should your shop invest in extra production equipment in order to fabricate and profitably sell more dye-sublimation or promotional/personal products?


Not easy questions, these, because some shop owners stir their coffee with a screwdriver; others drink Evian bottled water. Therefore, first ask if you can see a separate element of your shop selling and then printing and packaging iPhone covers or personalized golf balls? Or fabric printing and patterning and then sewing and fitting tradeshow graphics? Can you deal with such minutiae? Success in this field hinges on many things, but most heavily on the nature of the shop. A screwdriver personality may not have the patience for small details or the finesse to handle customers who want their dog’s portrait on a dozen T-shirts by tomorrow.



I called Craig Miller, CEO and owner of Pictographics (Las Vegas) and columnist (“Inside Output”) for ST’s sister magazine, Big Picture. I enjoy conversations with Craig. He’s a clear thinking and astute businessperson who, enjoyably, always tells it straight. In his September 2016, Big Picture column (“Dye Sublimation on Rigid Materials”), Craig wrote, “In all of wide- and grand-format printing, if you select the right printer, ink, paper, and substrate, there is no combination of print technology and media that can produce large images that rival dye sublimation to rigid media. It’s simply the best.”

Craig knows his stuff. His company produces large-format, dye-sublimation images, lots of them, so the above isn’t hype – it’s his personal, experienced-backed observation. In that Big Picture column, Craig said the (dye-sublimation) image superiority is consistent across all qualitative measures, with bright, vibrant and saturated colors. It’s because the image penetrates the media surface with dye gasses, he said, and not layered ink drops, which provide a continuous-tone look that doesn’t alter the media surface sheen. This type of image integration into the substrate is beautiful. It could be the winning point on certain bids.

I asked Craig what he sees in the dye-sublimation field today and learned that he senses a renaissance in large-format dye-sublimation production. He explained that this once exclusive field has caught fire, so to speak, because most large-format print machine manufacturers are offering more sophisticated and larger machines which easily produce dye-sublimation images that transfer to rigid media or fabric. He spoke of small shops that have historically produced lesser dye-sublimation products that are currently buying larger printers and calendar elements, with plans for fabricating tradeshow graphics and signage.

A confirming view comes from industry consultants Vince Cahill and Claire Hunter who, in a May 2016 ST article (“The Road to Printing and Producing Soft Signage,” page 72) told of their observations a few months earlier, at SGIA 2015. They said, “A few years back, the printed cloth display graphics would have been imaged on rigid stock, but today, tradeshow exhibitors have high interest in fabric signage because it offers numerous advantages.” They said fabric is lighter, flexible and easier to transport, and added, “You should envision the entire fabric-signage process as one workflow package, i.e., the design concept to mounted signage. This process comprises design, design approval, prepress and print processing, post-print processes, component acquisitions, framework assembly (prior to fabric finishing, to allow real measurements), fabric finishing, final test fitting and adjustments, disassembly, packing and shipping.”



Dye sublimation processing isn’t rocket science, but each type of processing involves machines, components and materials that require precise methodological practices, ones that expand with increased image size or specialty commitment. UV-cure, promotional/personalized imaging achieved with benchtop-sized printers follows a similar track. Whichever systems and methods you might choose, you have three primary deliberations: the market demand, the machine(s) required to produce products that will satisfy that market, and the cash needed to equip and operate the new shop division.

In his book Inkjet!, Frank J. Romano – technology editor, writer and professor emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology – discusses dye sublimation and direct-to-fabric printing, both of which, he said, continue to add expanding market opportunities. Romano advises that dye-sublimation transfer paper carries specialty ink that is heat transferred (at temperatures up to 400° F) to the substrate, to create an embedded image that will not peel, crack, fade or discolor over time. The latter two – fade or discolor – should be noted as “within reason.” Still, he asserts that dye-sublimated prints provide high-level color, a soft “hand,” and permanence. Note, however, that dye-sublimation on fabric requires 100% polyester fabric or a custom sublimation fabric.

Romano adds that direct inkjet fabric printers image directly onto fabric without a transfer process, which eliminates possible heat damage, skewing or paper buckling risks that are sometimes associated with dye-sublimation processes. He also notes that direct-to-fabric printing eliminates transfer paper costs, ink losses through the transfer process and, generally, it’s a faster process.



My morning coffee phone call with Chris and Kathi Morrison produced some interesting concepts, mainly, an exploration of the level at which signmakers would bring either dye sublimation printing or promotional/personalized printing into their shops. Chris noted that a heat press and access to a printer that images transfer paper with dye-sublimation ink can establish a small business enterprise, one that could stand alone or prosper in the corner of an existing signshop.

Kathi exampled that she had recently completed a minor rush job by creating a software graphic and then driving to Staples to use its paper and print machine to create a dozen transfer sheets (her shop printer was engaged). She then returned home to use her shop heat press to sublimate the images on T-shirts. Chris, adding that white T-shirts are easiest to print, defined four levels of dye-sublimation or promotional/personalized printing: home/kiosk, commercial shop, big tin building and large-format, such as Miller’s Pictographics. Chris added that the small shop drawbacks are slow processes and the resulting labor costs.



Should your shop invest in production equipment in order to profitably fabricate and sell dye-sublimation or promotional/personalized products? Think in terms of cash first because it’s foremost in all business-expansion efforts. Cash flow, misjudged, becomes destructive because flailing projects steal money for supplies, training, time and attention. No matter the investment, it’s all a cash drain until that new miracle machine reverses its cash outflow and begins to generate profit. See this turnaround as a critical hinge point, one that needs planning, accurate costing and stopwatch timing.

Still, it could be a “son-in-law project.” It requires a computer and basic design software to match Kathi’s “Staples shortcut” or you can search the web for heat-transfer images, the kind with beach scenes or skulls with snakes, like those you find in Key West’s Mallory Square shops. To this, add that Amazon offers a small, dye-sublimation system heat press for just a few hundred bucks but, no surprise, an import-ant component is missing: images. A dye-sublimation heat press without transfer images is a big-ticket tortilla maker.

Consider an opposite track. Several known-brand manufacturing companies offer solidly built, variously sized and production-ready (benchtop to grand format) dye-sublimation printers and UV-cure personal/promotional item printers.

Dye-sublimation print machine manufacturers include Roland, Mimaki, Sawgrass, Brother, Epson, Ricoh and Stahls. Professional UV-cure promotional/personalized printers are offered by Roland and Mimaki. All these manufacturer and supplier websites are loaded with information, advice – and teaching. Go there or dye trying.



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