We asked the experts from i-Sub, RA Smart and Sabur Ink Systems for advice on buying a heat press for wide format dye sub printing…

From left: A twin table flatbed heat press, with tables measuring approximately 1.5m x 1m is a popular choice for sublimating all-over prints on made-up T-shirts. The flatbed heat press SEFA PST 1510 from Sabur Ink Systems.

Investing in a wide format dye sublimation printer opens the door to new products, markets and opportunities for the garment decorator. Whether it’s printing colourful fashion or sportswear, all-over T-shirt designs on made-up garments, soft signage, household or outdoor textiles, or even aluminium photo panels, dye sub is an increasingly popular choice of embellishment technology.

Buying a printer is only half the story, however. Equally, if not more important is your choice of heat press. Once you’ve printed your design onto a piece or roll of transfer paper, you need to transfer that design to your substrate. This requires a combination of heat and pressure to cause the solid dye particles on the transfer paper to change into a gas (sublimates), so that it separates from the paper and is permanently bonded to the polyester threads or coating.

So what should you be looking for when purchasing a heat press for wide format sublimation printing? What are the options? And which option will best suit your shop’s production requirements?

We turned to the UK’s leading dye sub heat press suppliers for an introduction to current heat press technology, and advice on choosing the right equipment. Thanks to Simon Lymn, at i-Sub, Magnus Mighall at RA Smart, and Dean Sanger at Sabur Ink Systems for their sharing their knowledge.

Flatbed or rotary

There are two main types of heat press for dye sublimation printing – flatbed or rotary (calender), plus a third option; a rotary press with a flat automated feed table at the front (sometimes referred to as a ‘Sport’ press, as it is popular for printing sportswear panels/pieces).

Flatbeds comprise a table (platen/shuttle) onto which the substrate (for example, a made-up T-shirt or cut panel) is positioned. A sheet of printed transfer paper is then placed on top of the substrate. The table transports the substrate and paper under a platen that is heated to a given temperature, depending on the substrate. The heated platen is brought into contact with the transfer paper under sufficient pressure to cause the dyes on the paper to sublimate and transfer to the polyester substrate underneath. On the larger more industrial machines the beds are lifted using hydraulic rams to apply the pressure.

Flatbeds with twin tables are generally regarded as a good investment. While an item is being pressed and sublimated on the first table, the operator can be positioning the next item to be printed on the second table. This avoids delays between each cycle and ensures that the press runs continuously, maximising production. If your budget is limited or you have relatively low volume production, then a single table press is an affordable, albeit significantly less productive, alternative.

Flatbeds are available with tables in a wide range of sizes (up to several metres square). A press with a bed measuring 1.5/1.6 m x 1 m is a perfect starting point for most new wide format dye sub printing operations using a 44” wide printer, with models such as the Monti Antonio 802 (from i-Sub), SEFA PST 1510 (from Sabur Ink Systems) or Transmatic TMCR600 (from RA Smart) having the capability to easily keep pace with two Epson SC-F6000 series dye sub printers. In general, heat presses operate faster than digital dye sub printers, so a single press can service multiple printers.

Wider tables allow the printing of larger items and also enable you to print a larger number of smaller made-up garments, panels or products simultaneously, potentially increasing production. “Buy a wider flatbed if you need the extra width to print wider substrates. Otherwise, we would recommend buying multiple smaller flatbeds as production grows rather than investing all your money in one larger machine: if a single larger machine breaks down or requires maintenance your entire operation is effectively out of action,” is Simon Lymn’s advice.

So why should you choose a flatbed press? Cost, versatility, and ease of use are the primary reasons. You can print flexible substrates such as team kits, sports and fashionwear, as well as mousemats, bar runners, place mats, and soft signage, plus rigid materials up to approximately 25 mm in depth, including glass, ChromaLuxe aluminium photo panels and MDF sheets. “We say that the 802 can print, ‘anything that is flat, suitable for sublimation and fits within the dimensions, 1.5 m x 1 m’. It’s the most versatile press we sell; it’s so versatile, everyone gets on with it,” says Simon Lymn.

From left: Flatbed heat presses – The Monti Antonio 802 (from i-Sub); Transmatic TMCR600 (from RA Smart).

Flatbeds are especially well suited to printing made-up T-shirts and other garments. While you can press made-up garments using a rotary press, Magnus Mighall confirms that, “for printing all-over T-shirts, you’ll get a better result on a flatbed.”

Dean Sanger adds that flatbeds can have an advantage when printing shorter runs of mixed size panels/prints – for example, an order for 40 sports shirts in a range of sizes from S to XL. Placing the panels on a rotary press requires the operator to be “on the ball” as the press is operating continuously. On a flatbed, the operator has complete control over when the substrate and transfer paper are offered to the heated platen, allowing as much time as is needed to position the panels accurately.

On a roll

If you’re mainly printing onto made-up apparel, small areas of substrate, or you are likely to also want to print onto hard substrates, then a flatbed is the way to go. However, if your sublimation printing operation is geared more towards high volume printing of textiles, sports- and fashionwear, or you wish to print long lengths of substrate (for example, banners and flags) then you’ll want to consider a rotary press. These ‘tend’ to be more expensive than flatbeds, depending on the individual press’s size and spec, but they also offer much faster production speeds.

Rotary presses have a cylindrical felt covered drum, which is filled with oil. The oil is heated to the required temperature (200°C) creating an even and stable heat across the entire width of the drum. For roll-to-roll printing, rolls of the substrate and printed transfer paper are transported together around the heated drum, remaining in contact with the drum for a given length of time. A roller is used to apply tension to the tubular felt, which in turn applies pressure to the substrate and paper, holding it against the heated drum to facilitate the sublimation process. Separate rollers may also transport ‘protection paper’, which is used to prevent any excess gas that doesn’t sublimate into the substrate from transferring to the felt on the drum, (which could lead to unwanted transfer of the dye back onto the roll of substrate).

Standard features of a rotary press, such as the Klieverik GTC 81/1850, from Sabur Ink Systems, are likely to include a fabric unwinder, tensioning device, contact-winder for the printed substrate, an unwinder and winder for the printed paper, and an unwinder and winder for the protection paper, plus a built-in cool-down timer, which also increases productivity.

Clockwise from top left: Sport style rotary (calender) presses – the Monti Antonio 120T (from i-Sub); Transmatic 6560 (from RA Smart); and Klieverik GTC 81/1850 SP (from Sabur Ink Systems).

Two key factors when choosing a rotary press are the diameter and the width of the drum. Drums can vary in diameter from 20 cm to 2 m+; and the wider the diameter of the drum, the higher the press’s production speed. This is because the substrate needs to be in contact with the heated drum for an average of 40 seconds to achieve effective sublimation. This means that it can pass twice as quickly over a 40 cm drum compared with a 20 cm drum due to the larger contact area.

There is also a wide range of drum widths available, from 400 mm (working width) to 5000 mm+. It makes sense to match the width of the drum to the width of your printer; or you could opt for a wider drum to future-proof your investment in the event that you move up to a wider printer at a later date.

In terms of production speed, Magnus Mighall reports that a rotary press with a 35 cm drum will keep pace with two or three Mimaki JV33, TS34 or Epson 7000 printers. “Traditionally, presses run much faster than the printers; however things are beginning to change with more productive digital printers coming onto market. We have a Mona Lisa printer that can print at up 400 m square per hour; you would need a 1 m drum heat press to keep up with it,” he says.

The ‘sport’ style or rotary press, which incorporates an automated table at the front, is an especially versatile choice, as it enables the continuous printing of single panels/pieces as well as conventional roll-to-roll sublimation.

When printing cut pieces or panels, a continuous roll of printed transfer paper is fed into the press face up. As the transfer paper passes over the table, the operator lines up individual pre-cut pieces (the front or sleeves of a cycle jersey, for instance) with the printed designs on the paper. The transfer paper, panels/pieces and protection paper are then transported to the heated drum: once the sublimation process is complete and the images fixed, the printed panels or pieces are transported, via a conveyor belt, to the front (or rear) of the machine and dropped into a receptacle for collection. The continuous automated feed allows high volumes of individual panels to be produced consistently, accurately and economically by a single operator and there is no requirement for accurate cutting out after printing. Fashion and sportswear printers favour sport-style presses. You could also use these presses for the all-over printing of made-up T-shirts, but, as stated above, the quality of the result is unlikely to match that achieved on a flatbed press.

(To see both a flatbed and a rotary press in action, visit the news section of the Sabur website – www.sublimationinks.com/news – where you’ll find a video clips of the Sefar 1510 flatbed and Klieverik GTC 81/1850 SP rotary press.)

Clockwise from top left: Rotary (calender) presses for roll-to-roll sublimation – the Monti Antonio 855 (from i-Sub); Transmatic 7240 (from RA Smart); and Klieverik GTC 81/1850 (from Sabur Ink Systems).

Heat press costs

We asked the experts to give an indication of the pricing and production capability of a twin-platen flatbed press, entry-level rotary sports press and mid-level rotary press, compared with the price and output of an Epson SC-F6000 printer – an increasingly popular choice for new sublimation printing start-ups.

As a rough guide, Simon Lymn reports that a single-table flatbed which could service a single SC-F6000 would cost the same as the printer. A twin-table flatbed that could service at least two SC-F6000s is likely to be twice the price of the printer. An entry-level sports style rotary press, such as i-Sub’s Monti Antonio 120T, which could service three SC-F6000s, would be roughly three times the price of the Epson printer. A mid-range, high production rotary press, such as the Monti Antonio 855, which is capable of servicing five or more of the larger Epson SC-F7000 printers, would cost approximately three times the purchase price of this printer.

It is worth also noting that the sublimation heat press manufacturers offer build-to-order options, so presses can be tailored to customers’ individual requirements.

For further information and more specific advice on the available heat press options for wide format dye sublimation printing, or to arrange a demonstration, contact i-Sub, RA Smart, or Sabur Ink Systems.