- What is 3D Sublimation?
If you've never heard of 3D Sublimation before, don't be alarmed. It is a relatively unused process that is currently being adopted by specialized markets. It sounds a lot harder than it is since the sublimation process is the same as using a standard flat or mug press. Remember, a combination of heat and pressure is needed to get the ink to turn into gas and transferred onto the polyester surface. The process is actually not 3D at all, rather, the 3D came about as more of a marketing term and a Chinese to English translation derivative. The 3D is related to the depth of items you can create by using a vacuum press and decorating around edges and on curved surfaces. The real description of this process is Vacuum Press Sublimation. These vacuum presses are a little more than an oven with a vacuum table inside of it. This type of press can range in size, noting the small version for pressing up to two cell phone cases and larger versions for things like industrial parts and bowling ball / bowling pins.
3D or vacuum press sublimation is not a highly used process is due to a couple factors. At this time, most heat press companies have not fully embraced the technology yet. Many of the presses on the market today are imported products resulting in concerns of lower quality electronics, as well as the potential of a higher failure rate. The second reason that it is not frequently used is due to the fact that the defect rate can be high since the process is more of an art form that must be perfected as opposed to a repeatable process over and over. One of the biggest hold up to this process being fully embraced by the sublimation community as a whole is the fact that the paper transfers that are currently being used do not always conform to curves and edges, leaving the potential for blemishes in the finished goods. Inkjet film for the process which will conform to the curves and edges when heated has been hard to come by and the folks who do have it are holding it pretty tight to their chest to lock up the market. These things are all starting to slowly change, but the process has not reached the masses yet mainly due to the media and press quality.
- Why should you be looking at it?
3D or vacuum press sublimation is a technique that is starting to come into the light of the everyday sublimator due to the range of new products you can create. Later in the article, I’ll touch of some of the target markets, but because of the fact that metal inserts are no longer needed or clunky pucks (See side note) and decorate curved items, a whole new world opens up leaving your imagination as the only truly the limit. There is a readily available product line of injection molded items and these molds just need to be changed to white polyester based material. Think things like personalized hair brushes, kitchen utensils, gas pump handles etc. Some pretty major players in our industry are committed to working on this technique and once the transfer media hurdle is overcome, this process will become a lot more production friendly.
What is a puck? A sublimation plate puck is an aluminum disk that is the approximate circumference of the inside of a plate. It is typically about 1/2” to 3/4” tall and is pre-heated in a swing-a-way press till the puck reaches 400 degrees F. Then the transfer is placed on the plate and the puck must be immediately put over the transfer and then the plate, transfer, and puck all get pressed at 400 degrees F for another 3 to 4 minutes to complete the transfer.
Remember the sublimation market as it was about three or four years ago, the hottest thing going was cell phone and mobile device cases. Those who were early adopters could not make cell phone cases fast enough and could not charge enough for them. Today, the cell phone case market is reasonably strong, but nothing like the glory days when the joke would be “we cannot even talk about the mobile device personalization market without both of us making money.” I see this being the case with the 3D items. People will start asking for those items and the ones who have taken the chance to become the front runners will reap the benefits.
- Target Markets
As mentioned above, the floodgate of available items available to decorate will blast open once this process is more mainstream and the technology is ready for prime time. There are several niche markets that you might want to target. Now, let me give you a few good starting points:
- The ability to sublimate dinnerware, like plates, is a unique opportunity with this technology. Prior to this type of sublimation, you were really only able to decorate the center of a plate by using a cumbersome and sometimes dangerous aluminum “puck”. With a vacuum press, you can now decorate the entire face of the plate, as well as the back of it. This opens up opportunities in markets such as weddings, kids events and much more.
Again, the mobile device market has slowed a bit. People are not as excited about putting the same old case on their phones as they see in every mall kiosk, big box retailer, and airport. Even with the personalization, you can do with sublimation, the phone company have pushed hard to keep their logo as the decoration or even going so far as to include a case with their phones to raise the prices. In my opinion, the excitement will return with all over decorated cases that do not have an insert. The sleek look and feel of an all over case allow the end user to show off what they are passionate about from almost any angle. Also, a quick tip, make sure that your offer to the customer includes a digital wallpaper that matches the case so everything melds into one. Set yourself apart from the retail “same as everyone else” look that has run people off in the standard case market.
- This one might be a stretch, but the right person with the right contacts could really make a name for themselves with this niche. The ability to personalize, customize or otherwise decorate technology pieces is something I see great potential. Think of things as simple as the case of a computer mouse or the outside case for a smartphone. Or get more detailed but decorating gaming systems and controllers, as well as industrial equipment that has plastic coverings. Anything that is injection molded when created has the potential to be made with polyester based white plastic to allow it to be decorated. People sell gold plated iPhones, so why not customized iPhones or Laptops / Tablets?
Hopefully, your creative juices are flowing as those are just a few ideas for 3D sublimation. Think about the things that you use in your daily life or things you are passionate about to get your ideas started for 3D sublimation. Like frisbee golf, how about personalized frisbees? Poker Player, how about commemorative all over decorated poker chips?
- What the future holds
As this article suggests, I have high hopes and aspirations for 3D / vacuum press sublimation technique. I believe the first hurdle to overcome will be the transfer media being used. The inkjet film that is plastic or polyester based will get better, work in more printers and be color profiled for more printers. This will result in the cost per sheet dropping as more and more demand is created. I also want to challenge the US-based heat press companies to develop a vacuum press. They scream and shout about their superior electronics and lifetime warranties for their heating elements, well how about some innovation? Only one of the major US-based heat press brands make mug presses, and none of them have even talked about publicly making a vacuum press to my knowledge. If they are not interested, this market will still push forward as the Asian based products are getting better and better every year. There are some very smart people working on these presses as we speak so keep your eye out for new more production friendly equipment. At that time, this will finally open up a floodgate of products that can be decorated. Align yourself with a good injection molder and be amazed at the immense variety of products you can decorate after becoming a 3D sublimator.
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