Digital Decorating:

Getting More For Less

By Jimmy Lamb, Contributing Writer

With sublimation, different substrates may have different heat-press settings and setup requirements, all of which take time. Grouping your jobs by substrate enables long stretches of true production broken up by short periods of downtime.

August 14, 2015

Time is money. I know that’s an overused cliché, but it’s still true. If you spent two hours making a product that you sold for $15, then you would have a gross revenue of $7.50 per hour. (Notice that I didn’t say profit.)

On the other hand, if you produced four in one hour and sold them for $15 each, then you would have gross revenue of $60 per hour (at least for that one-hour period).

Sadly, most shops offering digital processes are more focused on cost of materials than on cost of time. For one reason, they may just be starting as a single-person operation and don’t have enough jobs to keep the heat press busy. Thus, they have plenty of time on their hands and don’t really worry about how long it takes to do something.

But as a business grows, time demands become greater; therefore, it makes sense to be focused on efficient production time management early on. Plus, less time spent producing means more time can be allocated to sales — or other business functions.
Another key reason many shops don’t focus on time is that they are too consumed with material costs, especially those of ink and paper. Of course, business owners need to be aware of how dollars are spent. But don’t get dragged down by the checkbook without really understanding true production costs.

In the sublimation world, a lot of emphasis is placed on ink costs, yet it accounts for a tiny percentage of the overall production costs. I often get into discussions with business owners who are focused on trying to figure out a cost per milliliter of ink and then translating that to area coverage to use as cost basis for pricing on different print items.

From an engineering perspective that sounds logical, but it is not an efficient way to recoup real costs on any given job. But if you insist, you can use a penny per square inch as a reference for sublimation imaging costs. In actuality, it can be half that amount with some of the new printers on the market and is not an efficient way to establish pricing for any given job.

Let’s say you were using a printer that has an average image cost of 80 cents for an 8″ x 10″ area — potentially a full-front design on a T-shirt. If you could cut ink costs by 50%, it would save 40 cents in production costs — hardly a make-or-break scenario.
Realistically, the ink cost typically is less than 10% of the entire job’s costs, so this is not the place to save money. So let’s revisit the “time-is-money” concept.

Assume yours is a full-time sublimation shop and you have calculated your hourly operation cost to be $30, which equals 50 cents per minute. Your operational costs should be based on all business expenses — administrative, marketing, insurance, office supplies, etc. Ink and paper are treated as consumables that routinely have to be restocked since you will be using those items for samples and product testing, among other things.

If you had a T-shirt with an 8″ x 10″ design that took three minutes to print, align and press, that works out to $1.50 in production costs (based on your hourly operation cost of 50 cents per minute). But if there also was a setup time of five minutes associated with the job, it would add another $2.50 to those costs. If you have five minutes of post-production time (removing the transfer paper, folding the shirt, paperwork), that adds yet another $2.50 in cost. That brings the total shirt production cost to about $6.50. So where is the best place to save some money: Reduce ink costs or shave off some time?

The key with sublimation is to understand that you make money when the heat press is closed and operational, not when it’s open. Thus, you have to keep things moving. First, stage your work. On any given order, you may have multiple types of substrates and it may be logical to focus on one order at a time. But it’s usually more efficient to break up your orders into sub-jobs based on substrate pressing parameters.

With sublimation, different substrates may have different heat press settings and setup requirements, all of which take time. For example, an award plaque usually requires heat press settings of 400°F for one minute and medium pressure. But a T-shirt requires about 370°F-390°F for 30-35 seconds and extremely light pressure. A lot of time would be spent switching between these two items.

On the other hand, if you broke up your jobs so that you pressed all of your plaques together, then all of your shirts together, then maybe all of your metals together, you would have long stretches of true production broken up by shorter periods of downtime.

Figure 1 shows a summary of three work orders from three customers. If you ran each order completely, then you would encounter quite a bit of downtime during the entire process. By comparison, Figure 2 shows a production schedule that was constructed using the concept of arranging work by heat press settings. Of course, breaking up multiple orders into lots of sub-jobs can be confusing, as you have to keep up with the order each respective substrate is assigned. A simple, low-tech solution is laundry baskets and printed work orders.

Take each master work order and print a copy for each sub-job within the order. Place the substrates for each sub-job in a laundry basket and tape the work order copy to the side. Customer 1 would have two baskets, Customer 2 would have four baskets and Customer 3 would have three baskets, with each clearly identified by the work order taped to it. Then, it’s just a matter of grabbing baskets by substrate type.

By the way, why laundry baskets? Because they are lightweight and uniform in size, plus you can easily see what’s inside of them.

Print all of your images and distribute them into the baskets. Keep in mind that you can put multiple images on a single sheet of paper, but don’t get too carried away with trying to maximize the paper. An 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of sublimation paper costs an average of about
20 cents, which may seem like a lot. But if you spent two minutes trying to figure out how to squeeze the most images into the space, you would have used $1 worth of time to save a few pennies.

There are lots of angles you can take here, but the cost to produce something is based on how many units you can produce in a given time period against the operational costs assigned to that same time period. The material cost (not the cost of the blank) is just a percentage of all of your operational costs, which have to be accounted for in your production numbers. In reality, material costs may be immaterial when you look at the big picture because in the grand scheme of things — time is money.

Award-winning author and international speaker Jimmy Lamb has more than 20 years of apparel decoration experience. He currently is the manager of communications for Sawgrass Technologies, Charleston. S.C. For more information or to comment on this article, email Jimmy at Hear Jimmy speak on sublimation topics at the 2015 Imprinted Sportswear Shows (ISS). Individual seminars are just $25 if you pre-register at

Suggested Reading:

Like this article? Read these and other digital decorating articles at
• “Simple Sublimation Solutions
• “Sublimation Color Management
• “Short-Run Sublimation