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A Look at Two Different Print Technologies: Dye Sublimation and UV
A Look at Two Different Print Technologies: Dye Sublimation and UV
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A Look at Two Different Print Technologies: Dye Sublimation and UV

    A Look at Two Different Print Technologies: Dye Sublimation and UV

    Since the introduction of the first personal computer, we have been ushered into the “digital age.” Technology has

transformed virtually every aspect of our daily lives, and this phenomenon has been no different in the digital printing

arena. Digital printing technology is pushing the envelope when it comes to what we can print on and how to do so more

efficiently. “Can I print on that?” is the new mantra, as customization increasingly replaces mass production as the new



    Let’s take, for instance, a plain cellphone cover. There’s nothing spectacular about this generic piece of plastic.

However, once it’s decorated, the perceived value of the product exponentially increases. The performance of the case hasn’

t increased, yet people are willing to pay more, simply because it has been personalized.

    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



    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

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.

    This curing process is advantageous for many reasons. One of the biggest benefits of UV printing is that it lowers

emissions of volatile organic compounds into the environment, as the solvents don’t evaporate like conventional inks.

Another advantage of UV printing is that the inks can cure on plastic and other nonporous substrates. Because the inks dry

through this photomechanical process, it’s not necessary for the ink solvent to absorb into the stock. The UV process allows

for printing on just about anything. Essentially, if the media or product can get through or under the printer, it can be



    But – and this is what I call my “but factor” – adhesion can still be an issue in UV printing. It is important to

understand that, while UV printers can print to virtually anything, there may still be adhesion or durablity issues that need

to be overcome.


    Challenges in decorating with UV inks

    UV printers can print on a variety of unusual substrates, ranging from wood and wooden veneer, glass and sheets of metal

to fabrics and plastics of all shapes and sizes. Since UV inks dry or cure so quickly when exposed to UV energy, there’s no

time for them to soak into the media. The ink dot sits on top of the uncoated sheet as a cleaner, less contaminated dot,

ultimately allowing for a more vibrant and “crisp” color appearance.


    Printing successfully with UV inks depends upon being able to expose the inks to enough ultraviolet energy for curing to

take place without making the substrate too brittle, and at the same time ensuring an acceptable level of adhesion to the

substrate. This can be extremely difficult, as each type of substrate has different surface tensions or dyne levels.


    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.


    So, how do we control the dyne levels of raw plastics or pre-formed plastic products? The development of adhesion

promoters has dramatically increased the adhesion of UV ink to plastic products. Adhesion promoters, sometimes referred to as

coupling agents, are bi-functional materials that increase adhesive strength between the coating and the substrate. Unlike

priming systems, adhesion promoters are generally applied at thinner film thicknesses. An adhesion promoter?s effectiveness

depends on both the substrate and the adhesive being used. Surface pretreatments, such as solvent cleaning or mechanical

etching and corona treatment, can be used with adhesion promoters as part of a pretreatment method. Within a class of

materials, the functionality on the backbone of the molecule surface will vary based on the resin system employed as well as

the substrate to which it is attached.


    Many ink manufacturers have developed adhesion promoters to aid in the printing process. Polypropylene (PP promoters) and

polyethylene (PE promoters) are two adhesion promoters that are widely used in UV printing. Both of these promoters can help

create a chemical bond to different types of plastics. While they are widely used within the UV printing industry, these

promoters do have varying success factors that must be tested.


    With the UV printing process, there are two useful tests that can be employed to evaluate adhesion – a traditional

“scratch” test and a “cross-hatch” test. Each of these tests provides a different evaluation of the bond between the

plastics product and the adhesion promoter and UV-cured ink printed to the object or raw material.


    The scratch test is similar to a traditional abrasion test. A metal object, such as a penny, is vigorously rubbed on top

of the UV print. Depending on the number of passes and vigor, it can be analyzed and given a “score” or rating. The better

it performs against the abrasion, the higher the durable score.

    The “cross-hatch” test is performed again after the adhesion promoter and UV-cured print have been output. Using a

razor blade, knife or other sharp cutting tool such as a special crosshatch cutter, two cuts are made all the way through the

UV print down to the substrate, forming an “X” mark with a 30- to 45-degree angle between the angles of the cuts.


    An aggressive tape is placed at the center of the “X” and then quickly removed. The area is then examined to see if any

UV ink has been removed. Again, it can be analyzed and given a “score” or rating. The better it performs against the

“cross-hatch,” the higher the durable score.


    While adhesion is a common issue with UV printing because of the vast amounts of printable objects or substrates, the

acceptable level must be identified and tested on the final products the user is printing. Because UV printers can print onto

just about anything, although they still may have adhesion or durability issues, it is important for the print provider to

show the end user test prints to gauge the acceptable durability on the product based on two questions: 1) How long will the

product be used, and 2) Will the product be handled for extended periods of time? The answers to these questions will provide

the acceptance levels, which helps to ensure customer satisfaction.


    UV print technology makes it simple to print on a vast array of rigid materials, including plastics. Being able to print

directly to plastic objects – whether raw or pre-manufactured ? reduces both operation and delivery time. It also allows the

user to incorporate white and gloss inks in glossy or matte finishes to create unique textures – enhancements that add value

and sophistication to the end product. In addition, UV technology helps print providers expand their applications and product

offerings by enabling them to print on wider variety of substrates.

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