Dye-sublimation printing (or dye-sub printing) is a computer printing technique which uses heat to transfer dye onto materials such as a plastic, card, paper, or fabric. The sublimation name was first applied because the dye was considered to make the transition between the solid and gas states without going through a liquid stage. This understanding of the process was later shown to be incorrect, as there is some liquefying of the dye. Since then, the proper name for the process has become known as dye-diffusion, though this technically-correct term has not supplanted the original name. Many consumer and professional dye-sublimation printers are designed and used for producing photographic prints, ID cards, clothing, and more.
These are not to be confused with 'dye sublimation heat transfer imprinting printers', which use special inks to create transfers designed to be imprinted on textiles, and in which the dyes do indeed sublimate. These are done at lower temperatures but higher pressures, particularly in all-over print processes.
For ID card printing, text and bar codes are necessary, and they are printed by means of an additional black panel on the (YMCKO) ribbon. This extra panel works by thermal transfer printing instead of dye diffusion: a whole layer, instead of just some of the dye in the layer, transfers from the ribbon to the substrate at the pixels defined by the thermal head. This overall process is then sometimes called dye diffusion thermal transfer (D2T2).
Dye-sub printing is a digital printing technology using full color artwork that works with polyester and polymer-coated substrates. Also referred to as digital sublimation, the process is commonly used for decorating apparel, signs and banners, as well as novelty items such as cell phone covers, plaques, coffee mugs, and other items with sublimation-friendly surfaces. The process uses the science of sublimation, in which heat and pressure are applied to a solid, turning it into a gas through an endothermic reaction without passing through the liquid phase.
In sublimation printing, unique sublimation dyes are transferred to sheets of "transfer" paper via liquid gel ink through a piezoelectric print head. The ink is deposited on these high-release inkjet papers, which are used for the next step of the sublimation printing process. After the digital design is printed onto sublimation transfer sheets, it is placed on a heat press along with the substrate to be sublimated.
In order to transfer the image from the paper to the substrate, it requires a heat press process that is a combination of time, temperature and pressure. The heat press applies this special combination, which can change depending on the substrate, to "transfer" the sublimation dyes at the molecular level into the substrate. The most common dyes used for sublimation activate at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. However, a range of 380 to 420 degrees Fahrenheit is normally recommended for optimal color.
The end result of the sublimation process is a nearly permanent, high resolution, full color print. Because the dyes are infused into the substrate at the molecular level, rather than applied at a topical level (such as with screen printing and direct to garment printing), the prints will not crack, fade or peel from the substrate under normal conditions.
The most common process lays one color at a time, the dye being stored on a polyester ribbon that has each colour on a separate panel. Each coloured panel is the size of the medium that is being printed on; for example, a 6" by 4" dye sub printer would have four 6" by 4" panels.
During the printing cycle, the printer rollers will move the medium and one of the coloured panels together under a thermal printing head, which is usually the same width as the shorter dimension of the print medium. Tiny heating elements on the head change temperature rapidly, laying different amounts of dye depending on the amount of heat applied. Some of the dye diffuses into the printing medium.
After the printer finishes printing the medium in one colour, it winds the ribbon on to the next colour panel and partially ejects the medium from the printer to prepare for the next cycle. The entire process is repeated four or five times in total: the first three lay the colours onto the medium to form a complete image; there may or may not then be a black thermal transfer process; while the last one lays the laminate over top. This layer protects the dyes from UV light and moisture.
Traditionally, the advantage of dye-sublimation printing has been the fact that it is a continuous-tone technology, where each dot can be any color. In contrast, inkjet printers can vary the location and size of ink droplets, a process called dithering, but each drop of ink is limited to the colors of the inks installed. Consequently, a dye-sublimation printer produces true continuous tones appearing much like a chemical photograph. An inkjet print is composed of droplets of ink layered and scattered to simulate continuous tones, but under magnification the individual droplets can be seen. In the early days of inkjet printing, the large droplets and low resolution made inkjet prints significantly inferior to dye-sublimation, but some of today's inkjets produce extremely high quality prints using microscopic droplets and supplementary ink colors, producing superior color fidelity to dye-sublimation.
Dye sublimation offers some advantages over inkjet printing. For one, the prints are dry and ready to handle as soon as they exit the printer. Since the thermal head doesn't have to sweep back and forth over the print media, there are fewer moving parts that can break down. The whole printing cycle is extremely clean as there are no liquid inks to clean up. These factors make dye-sublimation generally a more reliable technology over inkjet printing.
Dye-sublimation printers have some drawbacks compared to inkjet printers. Each of the colored panels of the ribbons, and the thermal head itself, must match the size of the media that is being printed on. Furthermore, only specially coated paper or specific plastics can accept the sublimated ink. This means that dye-sublimation printers cannot match the flexibility of inkjet printers in printing on a wide range of media.
The dyes diffuse a small amount before being absorbed by the paper. Consequently, prints are not razor-sharp. For photographs, this produces very natural prints, but for other uses (such as graphic design) this slight blurriness is a disadvantage.
The amount of wasted dye per page is also very high; most of the dye in the four panels may be wasted for a typical print. Once a panel has been used, even to just print a single dot, the remaining dye on that panel cannot be reused for another print without leaving a blank spot where the dye was used previously. Due to the single-roll design of most printers, four panels of colored dye must be used for every print, whether or not a panel is needed for the print. Printing in monochrome saves nothing, and the three unused color panels for that page cannot be recycled for a different single-color print. Inkjet printers can also suffer from 'dye wastage' as the ink cartridges are prone to drying up with low usage (without 'heavy use', the cartridge nozzles can become clogged with dried ink). Dye-sublimation media packs, (which contain both ribbon and paper), are rated for an exact number of prints which yields a fixed cost per print. This is in opposition to inkjet printers where inks are purchased by volume.
For environments that print confidential or secret documents, a dye-sublimation printer is a potential security risk that must be handled carefully. Due to the mechanism of printing, a perfect color-separated negative image of the printed page is created on the supply roll color panels, and the "waste roll" of dye panels can be unrolled to see everything that has been printed with the printer. For such environments, the waste roll should be shredded or incinerated onsite rather than simply being discarded in the trash. Also, for home users, the waste roll from a photo printer can be similarly recovered from the garbage and used to see everything that has been printed. Since the supply roll is plastic, the lifespan of a used roll can be years or decades long, permitting image recovery long after disposal.
Also, dye-sublimation papers and ribbons are sensitive to skin oils, which interfere with the dye's ability to sublimate from the ribbon to the paper. They must also be free of dust particles, which can lead to small colored blobs appearing on the prints. Most dye-sublimation printers have filters and/or cleaning rollers to reduce the likelihood of this happening, and a speck of dust can only affect one print as it becomes attached to the print during the printing process. Finally, dye-sublimation printers fall short when producing neutral and toned black-and-white prints with higher density levels and virtually no metamerism or bronzing.
Previously, the use of dye-sub printing was limited to industrial or high-end commercial printing. Dye-sub photo printing has been used in medical imaging, graphic arts proofing, security, and broadcast related applications. But nowadays, it is extremely popular in event photography and photo booths or kiosks that requires high speed, on-demand printing.
Alps Electric produced the first quality dye-sub printers for home consumers in the $500-$1,000 price range, bringing dye-sublimation technology within the reach of a wider audience. Now there are many dye-sublimation printers on the market starting from as low as $100, especially postcard-sized mobile photo printers.
The ability to produce instant photo prints inexpensively from a small printer has led to dye sublimation solutions supplanting traditional instant photos in some applications, such as with ID photography with a card printer.
Several corporations market desktop size units as stand-alone printers and for print kiosk and photo booth applications. Some of these units are based on generic printers. Some manufacturers, offer software development kits with their printers, suggesting that these companies hope to attract system integrators as a potential market.
Desktop size stand-alone dye-sub photo printers are also being applied by social photographers in event photography. The units' instant print ability allows photographers to produce and sell lab quality prints immediately during the event they are attending, with a minimal amount of hardware.
Dye-sublimation can also be used as an indirect printing process. Standard black and white laser printers are capable of printing on plain paper using a special "transfer toner" containing sublimation dyes which can then be permanently heat transferred to T-shirts, hats, mugs, metals, puzzles and other surfaces.
The dye-sublimation printing process is used to print on polyester or other synthetic fabrics. It is used for applications such as T-shirts, banners, table covers, id cards, sportswear and flags. The original printers were an electrostatic technology using toners but now are generally large format inkjet printers using specially formulated inks. The dye sublimation inks are a disperse dye suspended in a liquid solvent, like water. The images are initially printed on coated heat-resistant transfer paper as a reverse image of the final design, which is then transferred onto polyester fabric in a heat press operating at a temperature around 180 to 210 C (375 F). Under high temperature and pressure, the dye turns into a gas and permeates the fabric and then solidifies into its fibers. The fabric is permanently dyed so it can be washed without damaging the quality of the image.
Advantages of dye-sublimation over other methods of textile printing: images are permanent and do not peel or fade, dye does not build up on the fabric.
As dye-sublimation thermal printers utilize heat to transfer the dye onto the print media, the printing speed is limited by the speed at which the elements on the thermal head can change temperature. Heating the elements is easy, as a strong electric current can raise the temperature of an element very quickly. However, cooling the elements down, when changing from a darker to a lighter color, is harder and usually involves having a fan/heatsink assembly attached to the print head. The use of multiple heads can also speed up this process, since one head can cool down while another is printing. Although print times vary among different dye-sublimation printers, a typical cheap home-use dye-sub printer can print a 6" x 4" photo in 45 - 90 seconds. More heavy-duty printers can print much faster; for example, a Sinfonia Colorstream S2 dye-sublimation printer can print a 6" x 4" photo in as little as 6.8 seconds, and a Mitsubishi CP-D707DW is known to have a faster print of under 6 seconds for similar size. In all cases, the finished print is completely dry once it emerges from the printer.
There are two types of dye sublimation inks for piezo dye sublimation printers available in the market. The most popular one is aqueous dye sublimation ink for use in both desktop and large format printers. The other is solvent dye sublimation ink that can be used in XAAR, Spectra and some Konica printhead wide format printers.
Print speeds for large-format piezo printers using aqueous dye sublimation ink continue to increase. Speeds range from 18 square meters per hour in a smaller 44" wide printer to over 3,000 square meters per hour in a high-speed industrial textile printer.