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♦Dye Sublimation Printing Vs Digital Printing who will win the battle ?

With estimates of annual growth reaching 25%, the digital textile market is becoming a tremendous opportunity. The textile market has been evolving and printing has been gaining a foothold in this sizable field. While screen-printing was the initial choice for printing fabric, the market for digital printing is now emerging rapidly, moving out of the preliminary laps and gaining momentum in India.

It is estimated that in every financial year, around 100 machines are installed/month in every state of India for digital textile printing. More and more shows dedicated to digital textile printing like Federation of European Screen Printers Associations (FESPA) are showcasing the strengths of digital print with textiles. The reason is obvious: size plus growth. Digital printing machines are used for various applications. Many such machines are being brought to India by garment exporters who use these for sampling purposes.

It has dual application in printing, acting both as a sampling and production tool. In sampling, digital printing offers immediate results, provides tremendous flexibility in design and coloration while saving time and money. As a production tool, it helps in minimising inventory waste as there is no discharge of dyes and chemicals, reducing downtimes, cutting costs and providing the option of mass customisation.

In the past, this part of the job was done through process houses, but again, the possibility of the work getting delayed or being expensive would have made the process inconvenient for the exporters. Then came the need to install a digital printing machine in-house, getting the pre-treated fabric from the process house and get it printed and make the garment to get the approval of the client. This kind of sampling is very convenient for them. It is but natural that most digital printers are bought by this segment.

Some rotary printing houses in India typically use digital printers as sampling machines. Earlier, the bulk production rotary printing machine was used for sampling, due to which productivity was lower. Now, it has been arranged in such a way that sampling will be done on the digital printer, while the bulk production will be done on the rotary printing machine. More digital printers are being bought for this purpose. Then, there are niche segments like silk or high value added products, where runs are very short; digital printers are used for such purposes. There are also high speed production machines which are used for furnishing fabrics, home textiles and bed sheets.

There are a lot of changes in terms of technology also and while initially inkjet was used for prototyping and was oneoff, in due course of time the cost involved in setting up screens paved the way for inkjet based printing. Traditional wide format original equipment manufacturers are continuing to introduce new technology that will print on fabrics which includes signage and displays (i.e. soft signage) such as banners and posters, tradeshow graphics, POP/POS displays, flags, etc. Then there’s interior décor that includes wall, chair and sofa coverings, drapes and curtains, bed sheets, table and furniture coverings and even carpeting. Finally, the very popular garment/ apparel category includes wearables such as T-shirts, caps, sportswear and more. All these applications are experiencing tremendous growth.

♦Prominent Printing Houses and their Technology:

Rajdhani Creations located in Gurugram, Delhi NCR is one of the biggest job workers in the digital printing business. Equipped with the latest Durst machine, the company is printing for the largest wholesaler in the north Indian market; some prominent designers too are getting their best services.

Gee Dee Printex is a highly famous organisation of the industry involved in providing a broad assortment of best quality Printing Services, T-Shirt Printing Services, Fabric Printing Services, Legging Printing Ser-vices, Standard T Shirts Printing Services and many more.

Printtech is another job worker that has been catering to fabric and garment manufacturers for a long time. With facilities like state of art Mimaki JV-5 machines, with La-mechanical (Italian) belt system, Konica Minolta Nassenger 5 plotters, Monti (Italian) Roll to Roll & Flat Bed transfer printing machines, Thermax Boilers, GE-power solutions’ online UPS, SAP: ERP system for complete tracking, the company is in an upbeat frame of mind.

♦Growth of Dye Sublimation Market Globally:

Dye sublimation printing on the other hand has become the talk of the business town. The increase in dye sublimation printing is part of the broader rise of digital inkjet systems in the textile trade. In a recent study ‘The Future of Dye-Sublimation Printing to 2021', it was revealed that an estimated 384 million sq m of fabric were printed digitally using dye sublimation in the first quarter of 2016. This is set to rise to 892 million sq m in 2021. The garment segment is the largest end user sector, contributing 75% of the market share by value in 2016. The other segments each take 5 to 10% of the market. Globally, digital textile printing output grew at more than 45% annually between 2004 and 2009. From 2009 growth slowed somewhat, in keeping with the global economic slowdown. But the slowdown definitely can’t dampen the hopeful future figures.

One of the pioneers in the market survey business, Smithers Pira forecasts that in 2021, nearly 900,000 sq m of textiles will be printed with the process, creating a global market worth nearly €3 billion ($3.57 billion). As the dye sublimation market booms, it will create numerous opportunities for ink and textile suppliers, press builders, and partners across the value chain.

♦The Process:

Using sublimation of dyes is a different process to printing with inks in either other digital or analogue processes. The process sublimates the dye at temperature into a gas that penetrates and permanently bonds inside the fibres of the textile. This gives a high-resolution, permanent coloration that will not peel or crack. For this reason, haute couture, and the top end of high street fashion were among the first to exploit this technology. Data shows that garments – swimwear, sportswear, haute couture, fashion, ties and scarves, and other clothing – represent a clear majority of the market value and volume in 2016. Greater use of the technology will be aided by the fashion industry itself transforming with the arrival of internet shopping and fast-fashion. Retailers and brands are increasingly running a greater number of collections in each calendar year; and both digital and sublimation printing allows quicker turnaround and response to orders, allowing a shift to repeated short runs that minimise stock holdings and unsold leftovers.

♦Takeovers – The market consolidates

The maturing of the dye sublimation market is seen as a number of moves by mainstream print companies into this segment. In October 2015, Konica Minolta opened a €5 million textile innovation centre at Bregnano, near Milan, in the heart of Europe’s textile printing operations. This site houses three Konica Minolta high-performance Nassenger line machines. In June 2015, Epson completed the acquisition of Italian ink supplier Fortex and is continuing its partnership with dye sublimation equipment builder Robustelli. Elsewhere in the consumables area, Sensient bought UK firm Xennia in May 2015.

♦New machines – Productivity demands

The increased demand for dye sublimation print is driving the development of larger presses; these will help transform the value proposition of dye sublimation prints from samples and short runs to let it challenge analogue processes like screen and gravure, in longer bulk production runs of multiple thousands of linear metres. For visual communications, the number of requested applications of dye sublimation products is growing, but the technology today is not developing fast enough to accommodate all client requirements.

♦Pigment inks – a threat

Despite the overall positive outlook for dye sublimation, as a process it is limited to use with synthetic or synthetic- coated materials, overwhelmingly polyester. In the future, dye sublimation systems may face competition from pigment inks if their suppliers can resolve quality, reliability and other issues. Pigments have greater substrate flexibility; significantly this includes natural substrates, like cotton.

♦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.
● Colours can be extraordinarily brilliant due to the bonding of the dye to the transparent fibres of the synthetic fabric.
● Truly continuous tones can be achieved that are equivalent to photographs, without the use special techniques such as half-screen printing.
● The image can be printed all over the entire item, with no difficulty in printing all the way to the edges

♦Comparison with inkjet printers:

Traditionally, the advantage of dye-sublimation printing has been the fact that it is a continuous-tone technology, where each dot can be of any colour. In contrast, inkjet printers can vary with the location and size of ink droplets, a process called dithering, but each drop of ink is limited to the colours 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 colours, producing superior colour fidelity to dye-sublimation.

Dye sublimation offers some advantages over inkjet printing. For example, 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 also as compared to inkjet printers. Each of the coloured 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 blurring 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 colour panels for that page cannot be recycled for a different single-colour 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.

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 coloured 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.

♦Dye Sublimation market growth:

At a compound annual growth rate of 18.4%, the dye sublimation market is recording a fast growth and is expected to more than double in terms of volume printed and value in the near future.



• Coated fabric is not needed
• Base fabric should be 100% synthetic or polyester
• Disperse dye used
• Sublimation will not fade after multiple washes
• Sublimation does not penetrate the surface of the fabric so the backside of the fabric is always white
• Feasible for bulk printing


• Ink is printed directly on coated fabric
• Prints on all fabric except synthetics
• Reactive dye is used
• Print can fade after multiple washes
• Ink penetrates the fabric
• Great for sampling, Not very feasible for bulk production

Sudhir Nair, Cheran Machines

"Both have different markets to cater, both are in fashion, but cotton printing that is digital printing will always be on a front foot because sublimation printing is limited to only polyester printing and cotton is a forever fabric"

Gurjeet Nayyar, Wenli International Trading Pvt Ltd

"For sportswear, home décor, customised printing sublimation has a good growing market but if you see from every day wearable garment prospects, direct on garment printing or digital print will remain in market, forever because sublimation has its limitation. It prints only on polyester and in India keeping the climate in mind people always prefer wearing cotton"

"Dye sublimation has a better and bigger market right now but digital print is a better option for retailers, wholesalers as they won’t see much profit if they go for digital printing because for bulk printing Dye Sublimation is the best option available"

Gurjeet Nayyar, Wenli International Trading Pvt Ltd

"One should not try to draw a comparison between the two, Dye sublimation is polyester based printing, however, digital printing is done on fabric. Both have different markets to cater and both have a great scope in future, though the costing is slightly on a higher notch for digital print, it’s a great option for sample printing"

Rohit Sachdeva, Ambe international.

"Dye sublimation gives you one benefit which is you don’t have to wash the fabric after printing and one flaw is it does not print the back side of the fabric. Demand for digital printing is more as it gives vivid printing on both sides though Dye Sublimation printing is more profitable. I believe digital print will have a better market in future"

Rohit Sachdeva, Ambe international.

"Though the costing for a sublimation machine is cheaper than the digital one, but digital print is more in demand for direct on fabric printing and growth for reactive printing is also high but right now. Truly sublimation has good growth prospects for sportswear market and home decor."

Sanjay Mishra, Colorjet

"A digital printer can print cotton which a dye sublimation machine cannot that’s the only drawback of this technology otherwise it is much better in terms of costing, its ecofriendly, consumes less water during printing so I believe it has a great future"

Kumaresh Budhiya, Jaisal Industries LTD.

"Sublimation has a good scope in the future, but digital printing already enjoys 90% of the printing market. It is difficult to say which has a better future as both have different utility and both are needed right now."

Amit Singh, Green Tech