Welcome to A&E Asks: Five Minutes with… where one-on-one interviews with industry professionals are featured in a Q&A format. These interviews share the experiences, opinions and ideas of some of the industry’s best-known individuals.
In these interviews, we’ll discuss the industry’s current events, as well as what the future holds for each company. We are very pleased to interview sublimation expert Jimmy Lamb of Sawgrass.
Q: How has the sublimation and digital ink market changed in the past year? In the past five years?
The past few years have really been exciting for the sublimation industry. Our technology has advanced to focus on the needs of customers, which has resulted in new inks and systems that have raised the bar for color, definition, efficiency and quality. Today’s sublimation inks have a much wider gamut, delivering a broader range of colors with a higher yield. We also now have ink sets for specific applications, such as fluorescent spot colors and professional photographic reproduction. Sublimation systems are easier to use, more reliable, and deliver greater clarity and precision for higher definition prints than ever.
Q: What are some specific influences on the growth of sublimation?
We have seen significant growth year after year in the sublimation industry for two main reasons. The first is the advances in our systems, which make them more affordable, reliable and easy to use. Printers are faster and easier to maintain, while the inks are brighter and offer greater diversity and quality. The second is the increased availability and popularity of substrates. Poly-performance wear has become popular among consumers. New substrates are introduced all the time, and the number of products you can decorate with sublimation has dramatically increased over the years.
Q: Any particular industry trends that seem to be emerging in 2016?
Arm sleeves have become popular, along with sublimated socks. We’re also seeing more people pushing the boundaries of sublimation and experimenting with substrates to find creative uses for products. Newer, different types of fabrics are being manufactured for sublimation, which is shaking things up a bit. And more apparel manufacturers are making more than just shirts for sublimation, so we’re seeing significant diversity there, too.
Q: Any specific sublimation applications within the awards industry that are growing or declining?
Photo awards are leading the pack when it comes to sublimation in this industry. The impact of these products and how they stand out from more traditional awards in the eyes of customers makes them a game-changer. Awards businesses win with these products. They are less expensive to produce, yet have increased value in the eyes of their customers. This means greater margins with less work. And customers absolutely love the full-color imaging, which has them coming back for more. It’s a win-win all around.
Q: What are some new digital decorating applications to capitalize on?
Cotton fabric decoration is a great digital decorating application that is going through a kind of renaissance right now. For example, our Virtuoso HD Garment Decorating System with ChromaBlast-HD makes it possible to decorate white and light-colored cotton fabrics with even brighter colors and higher definition images. There are also a lot of new transfer papers coming out for different types of applications, which can mix things up for a decorating business.
Q: What are the benefits of offering sublimation?
Diversification is the biggest benefit of sublimation. Sublimation is a complementary technology that enhances awards and engraving businesses by expanding the types of products they can offer, increasing the value they can deliver to existing customers, and opening up new markets to which they can provide services. In terms of adding value to an awards or engraving business, sublimation is one of the least expensive technologies to invest in, yet it delivers more than adding any other type of decorating system.
For example, local baseball league that usually orders trophies each season from an awards shop can also order photo plaques, mugs, pennants, shirts, socks and other team-focused products from that same shop if it has a sublimation system.
Q: What trends are you seeing in terms of machines?
We are seeing demand for a wider variety of printer sizes. A lot of product decorators want to graduate from a desktop system, but are not looking to get into a true wide-format system.
Q: What are the benefits of using new ink cartridges versus refillable?
People tend to think that they are saving money with refillable ink cartridges. What they don’t realize is that refilling an ink cartridge isn’t like changing oil in a car. Pre-filled cartridges are manufactured in an environment to prevent air, dust particles and other contaminants from getting into the cartridge. Each of these elements can cause severe damage to print heads, which results in costly repair or having to replace the printer. Decorators who refill cartridges risk running ink that has contaminants in it and air bubbles through their printer, which can cost more money in the long run. Decorators also lose money if they purchase off-brand ink in large quantities and do not use it by the use-by date. The cost-per-liter may be less than that of a cartridge, but if the ink sits on a shelf and doesn’t get used, that money is essentially wasted.
Q: What do you think drives this trend?
Everyone looks to save money in business. However, the old adage, “You get what you pay for,” is especially true with sublimation printing, where quality is highly important. There is a pervasive misconception that refillable means saving money. People don’t realize just what goes into filling a cartridge properly to minimize air and contaminants. Wide-format decorators use professional filling equipment to refill their cartridges to achieve this. For the smaller-format decorator, it makes more financial sense to purchase new cartridges, as they deliver a high yield of ink that is of the highest quality. They don’t have to worry about breaking print heads or adding production time by refilling cartridges that can potentially harm their equipment. It’s one and done.
Q: What are customers requesting or wanting out of their sublimation equipment? Why?
Customers want reliability. They want their prints to come out right every time so that their production process is quick and economical. If they set up their system correctly at the beginning and continue to perform the recommended maintenance, most sublimation systems will deliver this reliability.
Q: What do their buying habits look like?
Of course, price is a top consideration for digital decorators. However, we see a lot of people choosing systems based on price, rather than need. A common story we hear at shows is that someone purchased an SG400—the smallest system we offer—only to realize a few months later that they have a need for larger prints and that the SG800—which can print up to 13” X 19”—was the better choice for their business. We always recommend that customers consider all the products they are looking to make today and in the future when thinking about which system to purchase. Doing so will help them save money in the long-term.
Q: What trends are you seeing in terms of substrates?
Substrates are being developed to meet market needs. The choices have grown exponentially over the years, and now there are hundreds of types of products available for sublimation decoration. Sublimators are also experimenting with new ways to use substrates, which is also driving the creation of new products.
Q: Without mentioning specific products, what innovations in sublimation technology have emerged over the years?
The two innovations that stand out for me are increases in gamut and definition. Today, you can create sublimated images up to 1200 X 1200 dpi for a desktop system and 1440 X 1440 dpi on a 25-inch system. These created new standards for high definition imaging with sublimation technology. Also, you can now print more colors than ever with inks that deliver wider gamut than in the past. This opens doors for attaining precise color matches and more vibrant colors for greater effect.
Q: How does diversification using digital decorating affect the industry?
It keeps competition going and really expands the range of what an awards or engraving business can deliver to its customers. Diversification is a really powerful business-building move, and we’re seeing lots of shops in the industry boosting revenue by diversifying their product offerings.
Q: What are some untapped markets in sublimation?
Every market out there is a potential market for sublimation. The key is finding a creative way to gain a foothold in that market. Most sublimators find that the product itself isn’t what makes the sale; it’s what you put on the product. We encourage people to look at a substrate and come up with as many creative ways to decorate and use that substrate in order to appeal to a wide variety of markets.
Q: How has technology affected small business awards retailers who offer sublimation?
Technology has made it easier and more economical for small business awards retailers to offer beautiful sublimated products to their current customers and expand into new markets. The efficiency of the newest printers and the higher definition of the newest ink sets are driving diversity.
Q: Let’s switch gears a bit. Are you seeing more companies getting into promotional products?
Yes, though many businesses don’t realize it. Whenever you put someone’s logo on a product, it becomes a promotional product. Customers request products with their logos on them all of the time, whether it’s a plaque, a mug or a keychain. These kinds of orders add to the grand scheme of products they offer, and are an opportunity for many businesses to harness this kind of demand to grow revenue through promotional products.
Q: Since the launch of Sawgrass Virtuoso and Creative Studio, what has changed in sublimation?
Virtuoso was designed to be a turnkey system for those new to sublimation, as well as those who are looking to upgrade their current system. Everything you need to start and grow a sublimation business is all in one package: printer, inks, software, support and education.
CreativeStudio takes the guess-work out of graphic design for customers who don’t have the time to learn more complex programs, while still allowing them to build their own libraries of designs.
Q: What has been the specific response from customers?
Customer response has been overwhelmingly positive. We have polled CreativeStudio users several times and have taken their feedback into consideration when making updates to the software.
Q: Sawgrass reformulated its products to achieve a three-times-longer life compared to traditional silver halide photos. How does this benefit your customers and the industry as a whole?
Our SubliJet-HD Pro Photo XF eight-color ink set delivers prints on 2016 ChromaLuxe panels that last three-times longer than those printed on archival silver halide photo paper. This ink set is the first we introduced for the Virtuoso 25-inch 8-Color HD Product Decorating System with the VJ 628 printer that has been specifically for extending the longevity of sublimated prints. The XF black ink has been included in additional eight-color ink sets, such as SubliJet-HD Expanded Gamut and SubliJet-HD Fluorescent, to extend the longevity of prints made with these inks.
Q: Are there any big plans for 2016?
We have some new products in the works that we can’t talk about yet, but will be exciting for sublimators in various markets.
Q: What does the future of digital customization look like?
This industry is going to continue to grow in size and popularity. We expect technology to continue its rapid advance, sharper detail in prints, wider gamut in inks, more specialty ink sets, and definitely more kinds of substrates.
Q: What does the future look like for Sawgrass?
We are passionate about making personalization possible and empowering creative entrepreneurs to get customized products to market in record time. To that end, we are growing and expanding, and are now a global company with a wider reach than ever. We are helping product decorators in new countries and regions get started and grow with sublimation, while continuing to support businesses who have been with us for years. The future looks great for Sawgrass.