There are a variety of methods used to decorate plastic products, with one of the most popular processes being dye sublimation. While most people associate dye sublimation paper with textiles and apparel, this is not solely the case, as this process also can be used to decorate a broad array of plastic or rigid substrates.
What is dye sublimation? Sublimation is defined as “a phase transition of a substance from a solid state to a gas while bypassing the intermediate liquid phase.” In the case of dye sublimation printing onto rigid substrates, the disperse dye inks are printed onto a coated medium, which is most often a “transfer paper,” but also can be a “transfer film.” Once printed, these water-insoluble dyes then dry and turn solid as the water solution evaporates. Heat (typically 400°F), pressure and time turn these solid dyes into gas which, upon release from the transfer paper or film, then penetrates the plastic or polyester coating. In addition to dyeing the plastic or rigid substrate, the sticky sublimation paper transforms the dull colors that were originally printed on the transfer paper into incredibly vibrant hues.
The end-product and volume will determine the type of heat press that should be purchased. If decorating mainly flat objects, then a flatbed press is ideal. Flatbed presses can be small (16×20″) presses or large-format presses that can accommodate 4×8′ panels.
If sublimating on 3D objects, then a 3D oven press will be needed. Once again, the oven presses can range from smaller “desktop” units to machines the size of a walk-in room. Instead of printing onto transfer paper, the images will be printed onto transfer film, which is able to conform around the edges of the object being decorated. A fixture is needed to hold both the object and printed film in place. A vacuum hose is attached so the printed film thermoforms around the object and, when the oven heats up to 400°F, the Inkjet Sublimation Paper process takes place.
With dye sublimation, the applications are seemingly endless. The important thing for users to remember is that dye-sublimation takes place at the heat press, not at the printer. However, a high-quality printer with premium RIP software is necessary to produce quality prints with accurate colors and ink drop placement. Dye sublimation ink droplets are extremely small. A colleague best described it by saying, “the largest dye-sublimation ink droplet is smaller than the smallest eco-solvent ink droplet.” What that basically means is that these ink droplets are small, and they need proper control when they jet from the piezo print head. Without proper control, it is not possible to achieve fine lines and details or smooth gradients.
Dye heat sublimation paper requires polyester or plastic for the inks to penetrate into the substrate and dye. The blanks must be able to withstand 400°F heat, pressure and time (which can range from 60 seconds to minutes, depending on size and type of object).
How does UV printing differ from other printing methods?
Ultraviolet (UV) printing is different from tacky sublimation paper or conventional printing methods – including both traditional pigment, solvent inkjet and commercial offset – in many ways. While it is still ink on “paper,” the ink cures through a completely different process and the “paper” ends up being no longer just paper. Instead of having solvents in the ink that evaporate into the air and absorb into the paper, UV inks dry through photoinitiators in the ink and are solidified by UV lamps. When the inks are exposed to ultraviolet energy, they turn from a liquid or paste into a solid. Thus, UV-curable inks are “cured” once they are exposed to the wavelengths of UV energy.
Dyne level or surface tension in UV printing is the property of a UV ink forming unbalanced molecular forces at or near the surface. If this is higher than the surface energy of a material, the liquid tends to form droplets rather than spread out. Plastic materials can have very different surface energies based on their composition and how they are formed. The surface tension is normally measured in energy units called dynes/cm.
If the ink has a dyne level lower than the material’s surface energy, then the ink will spread out over its entire surface in a uniform, wet layer. If the ink’s dyne level is equal to or higher than a material’s dyne level, the ink becomes cohesive and tends to remain in droplets, thus allowing for better adhesion to plastics.