Despite the fact that most of us simply store photos on our phone rather than getting them printed, the photo industry is booming. With digital photography paving the way for ever more innovative ways of implementing your favourite pictures.
One of the biggest growth areas in this market is in personalised products. There are many companies ranging from small eBay sellers with entry-level equipment, all the way through to multi-national corporations with seemingly unlimited budgets.
It’s believed this all started (large-scale) with greeting cards but now it’s easy to find photo gifts and personalised items for all kinds of products ranging from phone cases to photo clocks.
But just how do they get your design on all these different products?
In reality the process isn’t a simple one, but can be fairly easily explained. Almost all photo gifts are printed using varying forms of sublimation technology.
Most liquids and gels (take water as an example) have a solid, liquid, and gaseous state, each of which are achieved at different temperatures. Sublimation (in printing terms) is the process of a dye being transformed into a gas without passing through the liquid phase.
The sublimation process (in almost all cases – whether printing onto t-shirts or phone cases) involves printing an image using specialist dyes (often referred to as inks) onto a transfer paper or film which is designed for that purpose.
Unlike the cheap “iron-on” transfer packs you can buy for DIY prints on the high-street, this unique method allows a printed design to be impregnated onto a prepared surface, meaning (as long as it is high quality and made properly) it will never wash or fade and the best prints are even UV protected.
Once the design has been printed onto the paper or film, it’s then placed on or wrapped around the desired product and subjected to careful controlled heating for a set amount of time. The temperature and time required will vary depending on the product being printed, the type of dye’s used along with a number of other factors.
T-shirts and other flat items are printed using a flat-bed heat-press. These can be purchased relatively cheaply which is why you will always find more sellers of flat printed items than 3D objects.
However, those who like to offer printing of 3D objects, such as personalised phone cases or photo clocks will use a 3D Vacuum press. This equipment ranges vastly in price but essentially performs the same function. It is an oven that whilst carefully controlling heat and time, also prints the item in a vacuum so that the transfer from paper/film to object can take place without air getting in the way.
Because sublimation goes straight from solid to gas it must have direct contact with the item being printed otherwise it simply won’t work. By printing in a “gas” state, it is possible to impregnate the object rather than simply print on top of it.
As well as enabling the printing of all kinds of weird and wonderful objects, it’s also a great way to preserve treasured images on display. We’ve all seen photos and fabrics fade because of sunlight but by having your image printed using (good quality) sublimation methods you can protect it from UV rays which cause this deterioration.