Digital Decorating:

Short-Run Sublimation

By Jimmy Lamb, Contributing Writer

Sublimation opens the doors to a wider range of merchandise, including personalized gifts like this wedding collection. Image courtesy of Unisub, Louisville, Kentucky.

March 13, 2015

How many times have you had a customer come in at closing time to place an order that needs to be ready by the next day? Well, consider those the good old days because today, more and more clients want same-day delivery. Or what about the client who could be depended on to order 144 pieces every January suddenly announcing that he wants to spread it out to 12 pieces per month for the next 12 months?

While some customers always wait until the last minute, others carefully manage their cash flow by guarding as much of their money as possible. This is a result of the lessons learned from the economic conditions of the past few years. Though everyone still talks about prices and discounts, the determining factor for many people is keeping as much cash in the bank as possible. Thus, smaller orders spread out over longer periods of time — even with a higher price per piece — is the realistic solution. Plus, waiting until the absolute last minute to place an order ensures that customers keep money in their hands longer.

Do you shake your head and decline the order? Better think again. If you say “No,” your client will search for someone else to fulfill it. If you increase your rush fees, customers may balk. It’s the same thing with quantity discounts: If you put higher surcharges on smaller quantities, you may be encouraging customers to search for alternatives.

So what are your options?

Your first step is to review the logistics in terms of production output with your current equipment. For example, if you are a screen printer, small runs of multicolor images will not be profitable because of the setup time. And that same setup time makes it difficult to deliver same-day or even 24-hour service. The same concept also can apply to embroidery when you consider digitizing, job setup and run times.

The limiting key factor for efficient production is downtime, as it costs money but doesn’t generate any. However, you still must account for it in your pricing. For example, if it took an average of one hour to set up a job (downtime), but only 15 minutes to produce it and your operational costs were $20 per hour (probably more), you would have $20 in downtime and $5 in production time. But you would have to charge $25 to recover your total costs, which may be way out of line, depending on the item.

In comparison, you easily can recoup the setup time on a large run because your equipment will stay busy producing revenue for an extended period of time, before the next period of extended downtime (setup).

The reality is that short-run or on-demand jobs may not be ideal with your current equipment setup. Thus, you may need to evaluate some new production processes that help you manage the jobs that don’t fit into your current production mix. Remember that some of those crazy small jobs may come from your best customers, so it will pay to take them on — even if you lose money.

But why lose money if you don’t have to? There are several low-cost decoration options that can easily, and profitably, give you the ability to handle on-demand and short-run jobs.

At the top of the list is sublimation, which has an average production time of two to three minutes per cycle. Keep in mind that, depending on the size of the product, one production cycle could generate multiple pieces. And with systems starting at $500 (not including a heat press), the start-up cost is far lower than screen printing, embroidery, direct-to-garment printing, laser-powered decorating, etc.

In addition to being low-cost and efficient, sublimation also opens doors to a wider range of merchandise, including promotional products, signage, awards, souvenirs, personalized gifts and more.

On the surface, sublimation looks a lot like some of the other digital heat-transfer processes, but it’s what occurs below the surface that separates it from all other decoration technologies. With this decorating process, you actually are dyeing the material through molecular bonding rather than printing on the surface.

The process begins with printing an image onto sublimation transfer paper, then using a heat press to apply the image to the substrate. During this phase, the sublimation dye on the paper turns into a gas and penetrates into the polymer components of the substrate. When the heat is removed, the paper is discarded, leaving behind an image that is permanently embedded into the item’s surface. This, in turn, means no scratching, peeling or cracking. And in the case of apparel, it means no fading, despite repeated launderings.

A key aspect of the sublimation process is that it only works with polymer-based materials; you can’t sublimate on just anything that comes through the door. The item must be composed of polymer or polyester materials, or have a polymerized surface, in order for the sublimation dye to bond properly. Though it may sound like a limiting factor, there literally are hundreds of diverse and unique blank products that have been created for sublimation.

Though its versatile nature makes sublimation an ideal on-demand/short-run solution, maximizing efficiency begins with your equipment choices. If you are considering adding the process to your shop, base your decisions on production efficiency, not just the initial price tag.

For example, the smallest sublimation printers have a maximum paper size of 8.5″ x 14″, which is ideal for most applications, but may be a bit small for apparel. Thus, it may make more sense to look at the next level of printers, which feature up to 13″ x 19″ maximum paper sizes. The equipment costs more, but it also expands the range of products you can decorate. Just keep in mind that your heat press also must be large enough to support the printer’s maximum print field.

A general rule of thumb for selecting a sublimation printer and heat press is to buy the smallest unit that will produce the largest image that you need on a routine basis. But remember that with a larger printer, you can produce multiple small items in one print cycle. For example, if you had two 8″ x 10″ award plaques to produce, you would have to print the image twice if using an 8.5″ x 14″ printer. But if you had a larger printer with a maximum paper size of 13″ x 19″, you could print two images at the same time. If decorating cell phone cases, you could print about six per sheet with a smaller printer and 12 per sheet with a larger unit.

Another alternative is to use two smaller printers with a single, large-area heat press. The pressing time typically is longer than the printing time, so two printers feeding one heat press is very efficient, depending upon the size of the products. Apparel only can be done one at a time unless you invest in wide-format equipment. But for most other popular products, you can print and press multiple pieces at the same time with the right configuration.

For desktop sublimation, the start-up price range is $500-$2,800, depending on the equipment size and whether you need a heat press. But even at the top end of the equipment scale, sublimation costs are less than those of many of today’s popular decoration systems. In addition, with its ability to decorate so many unique substrates, sublimation has potentially the best return on investment of any production system in the marketplace. For small or large orders, it is a viable resource to keep the orders flowing.

Successfully delivering on-demand or short-run orders is really all about efficiency — something that sublimation is ideal for achieving. If you can reduce downtime and increase production effectiveness, you can meet the needs of those who are shifting to this purchasing paradigm. If not, you may see a stream of people heading down to the street to someone else who can deliver.

Award-winning author and international speaker Jimmy Lamb has more than 20 years of apparel decorating experience. He currently is 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 — J.B.