Kevin Lumberg

A&E Asks: 5 Minutes with Kevin Lumberg of Johnson Plastics Plus

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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 this interview, we discuss sublimation trends, innovations and technologies in both the small- and large-format markets with expert and industry veteran Kevin Lumberg of Johnson Plastics Plus.

Q: How has the sublimation market changed in recent years?

A: In the past year, as well as the past five years, there has been an explosion in the different substrates available, and how quickly new products are entering the market. It has almost gotten to the point that if you want it for sublimation, it can be done. The apparel side of the market has also exploded in the last five years due to cut and sew—the ability to fully sublimate all parts of a shirt and then have the pieces sewn together.

Q: What are some of the specific influences on the growth of sublimation?

A: Performance apparel has been huge for the sublimation industry. It has a high customer demand, and no other decoration technology works as well on performance apparel as sublimation.

Large corporations like Under Armor and Nike have really successful marketing campaigns for apparel. In the past, cotton was common because of its absorbability; however, it doesn’t dry very fast and once it’s saturated, the material doesn’t breathe. And naturally, athletes don’t like that.

Q: What makes sublimation the ideal technology for decorating performance apparel over other applications?

A: It’s simply a better decorating process. For example, if that same athlete is wearing a performance apparel shirt that has been screen printed with a logo on the front, the entire front of that shirt is sealed and won’t breathe. With sublimation, however, you’re not changing the characteristics of the breathability, the workability, or any other features of apparel and the graphics won’t fade.

Q: How does it compare to other digital decorating technology in general?

A: No technology is perfect for everything, and that includes sublimation; however, consider the low cost of entry and the different types of products you can personalize—the end-product is both high-quality and durable. Name badges, for example, are not going to scratch or wear off—these sublimated products are very durable compared to other methods of decoration.

Also, from a business perspective, it’s an inexpensive market to tap into. The equipment costs a couple grand with the printer, press, accessories and all. Compared to laser systems or UV-LED technology, which can both be extraordinarily expensive, you can get into sublimation for a mere pittance and start offering more of those types of popular personalized products.

Q: What are some influences that are driving this demand for personalization and the popularity of sublimation?

A: Decorators want more control over production. I think some retailers have found with outsourcing overseas that the lead times are getting longer, the deliverability is getting worse and there’s an issue with consistency. Decorators want to be able to control all of those things.

The other side of that is at the heart of this business. The more you can personalize each piece, the higher the perceived value, putting more money in your pocket. By doing it yourself, you’re no longer offering customers cookie-cutter items that are manufactured in vast quantities in China. Customers want something unique, whether it’s awards or any other products. Retailers are always trying to bring in new and innovative products that are different from what’s been out there and done before. With sublimation, you can offer that to your customers pretty easily all by yourself.

Q: When did sublimation break out as the go-to decorating technology? What influenced that shift?

A: The big shift was when Under Armor perfected the process to make polyester wicking material. That was the birth of engineered performance apparel I mentioned earlier. But consider the fact that apparel customers are also looking for other products such as awards and vice versa. The same customers that come in looking for awards also need uniforms, jerseys, etc. Sublimation allows retailers to cross-sell and up-sell those individual orders and become a one-stop shop for clients.

With the introduction of new products designed for sublimation, it has become a staple technology for retailers. Awards and engraving shops have customers come in and ask for other personalized products that haven’t, historically, been sublimatable.

Q: What are some popular hard substrates for retailers to capitalize on?

A: Slate is probably the most popular product. It has so many uses for awards—a completely unique product from what has ever been out there. I’ve seen retailers adding full color to slate with sublimation more than anything.

Q: What is the appeal to customers?

A: When you put that slate in someone’s hand, you can just see the look in their eyes as their hands drop. Slate is heavy and because of the weight of the material—that feel—people say, “Wow!” It feels substantial.

Q: Without mentioning specific products, what are some innovations in small- and wide-format sublimation technology that have emerged over the years?

A: Fluorescent colors are very popular in the market currently, and fluorescent sublimation inks have allowed forward-thinking sublimators to capture that business.

If you look around, you’ll see many, many people wearing fluorescent colors or highlights on apparel or garments. As those market-drivers like Nike and others further promote the fluorescent trend, you’ll see it more and more often. I think it’s one of those cool trends that’s going to influence how we decorate any other products in the market.

However, this growing trend is not on most sublimators’ radars.

During a training session at a recent trade show, I asked for a show of hands of attendees who offer sublimation. Around 30 or so of the 60 students in the class raised their hands. Then I asked, “How many of you are doing fluorescent sublimation?” Not a single hand went up.

And I think that’s because a lot of people don’t know about it yet; they don’t know you can do it with sublimation. And while the production cost is a little more expensive due to the larger equipment requirements, you can really stand out from the competition if you’re the only one out there taking advantage of this popular trend.

Q: What are some other products you can sublimation with fluorescent inks?

A: Mugs and apparel are great for fluorescents, as well as awards. For example, if you hang a bunch of awards on a wall with one featuring fluorescent colors, which will catch your eye first? Similarly, if you were walking by a huge crowd of people and one was wearing a fluorescent T-shirt, who stands out the most? Fluorescent ink makes designs pops and adds flair to really any product to set it apart.

Q: What are some innovations that have emerged in the market prior to fluorescent colors? What were some game-changers?

A: Ricoh introduced small-format printing technology about eight years ago that became a total game-changer. Because these printers don’t clog all the time like some of the older desktop models on the market, sublimation became easier and stress-free. Because other desktop models were (and some still are) finicky and require constant head-cleanings, many sublimators abandoned the market after wasting ink and brewing frustration over their high-maintenance. When the Ricoh debuted, those same people who loved sublimation but became weary of the other models have now jumped back into the market.

Q: Let’s talk about wide format. What are the benefits of adding this technology?

A: Large-format sublimation gives the benefit of being able to do larger products such as all-over shirts and large photo panels that, currently, only a small percentage of sublimators have the capability to do. Photo panels from ChromaLuxe are very easy to sublimate and command a high price. You can only sublimate those with a large-format system. The products themselves have the benefit of a higher perceived value, so there is the prospect to make more money per item.

Q: What are some of the most popular or profitable substrates in the large-format market?

A: Again, ChromaLuxe products, especially the photo panels, are huge. You don’t have to frame them and they’re easy to both sublimate and mount on a wall. They command a high price, so that product has exploded in popularity as many photo labs and sign shops have add them to their product offering because of their cross-market appeal.

Sublimated blankets and beach towels are also popular in the large-format market.

Q: What considerations should digital decorators make before adding wide-format sublimation?

They should first make sure they have room available for the equipment, and, for the heat press, the available power. Additionally, they will need to make sure they have a door big enough to move the equipment through.

Q: How has wide-format sublimation affected the awards industry?

A: I think the awards industry has really only scratched the surface of wide-format sublimation. Not a lot of people know of the benefits yet, which are lower costs, faster bulk production, and higher profit potential with these products.

Q: In your opinion, why is wide-format sublimation still relatively unknown?

A: The size of the equipment may prevent some from adding to their space. They may also think that it is harder to operate. Some people get intimidated by the larger equipment, thinking that because it’s bigger, it’s more complicated.

That’s simply untrue. While wide-format systems require additional RIP color management software for large-format printing, it’s a simple process of exporting the designs from your current graphics software into the RIP program. You could sit down for five minutes and easily learn how to use it. Compared to the software required for other technologies such as engraving, wide-format printing does not have a steep learning curve.

Q: What trends are you seeing in terms of substrates and materials within the signage and sublimation markets emerging in 2017?

A: We are seeing emerging popularity in soft signage and LED backlit soft signage. A big leap has also been made in the area of outdoor UV stability. There’s always been the demand in the market for outdoor sublimation sign materials. People have been asking for this type of outdoor-durable signage since I started in the sublimation industry over 15 years ago. It simply didn’t exist until now after a company happened upon this newer coating process and applied it to sublimation to be UV-durable. It wasn’t until recently that we’ve been able to leverage this new technology into the market, opening up a plethora of profit opportunities to sublimators.

Q: Are you seeing more awards retailers naturally diversifying into other markets such as signage because of the large-format capability?

A: I see a lot of people using name badges to tap into other markets and then offer their awards or signage and vice versa. Name badges are staple products for both awards and engraving retailers and sign shops because almost every company or organization has a demand for them. Think about it this way: name badges are essentially a small sign, so being able to offer larger items that have cross-market appeal with the same layouts can really benefit your business.

Q: Let’s switch gears a bit. What are some small-format sublimation trends awards retailers can capitalize on?

A: I suggest looking into investing in the VJ628 from Sawgrass. This printer is unique in that it is sized between a large and small-format system at 25 inches. If you are sublimating apparel, this “medium-format” technology allows you to use a thermal tack paper so you don’t have to tape the transfer down, eliminating the pesky issue of ghosting and making the process more productive in general. This technology also has the capability to print fluorescent colors, which can typically only be produced with 54-to 64-inch large-format printers. With the VJ628, you can access those capabilities at a lower price point.

Q: What are some untapped markets for both small- and large-format sublimation?

A: I think there’s still a huge untapped market for sublimating photos both in small and large-format, especially in the large-format market with ChromaLuxe photo panels.

Consider this: how many pictures do you have on your cell phone right now that you would love to put on a unique item? How often do you take a picture and say, “Wow, that would look great hanging on a wall?” The opportunity is there—it’s simply a matter of reaching out to customers and show them how sublimation is a unique option for displaying vivid, full-color photos.

Q: What would you say to encourage or convince retailers to recognize the value of expanding into this untapped market?

A: I would simply ask them the same question, “How many pictures do you have on your phone right now?” Everyone has hundreds and hundreds of images collected in their devices and don’t realize that there’s this high-quality and unique way to display them in a way social media can’t.

Honestly, this all comes down to the importance of diversification. You’re either moving forward or you’re declining. You’re either growing or you’re dying. If you’re reluctant to pick up new technologies and diversify, your business probably isn’t going to be around for very long. Take that first step and just go for it.

Q: What are some resources awards retailers can access for training and keeping up with evolving sublimation trends and technologies?

A:Take advantage of training resources offered by good vendors and publications like A&E that stay on top of new products and innovations in the market.

Q: What do you predict for the future of sublimation?

A: I think the industry is just going to keep growing. There are more and more sublimatable products hitting the market every day. Take the trendy fidget-spinner, for example. This popular product has already hit the market for sublimation. That ability to turn around and bring new sublimatable products to the market is a huge driver in the growth of the industry.

One of the reasons why the process of coating products for sublimation has vastly improved is because the world has gotten smaller, so to speak. Overseas manufacturers are more accessible and vendors have become more flexible in working with different companies to outsource products, allowing the industry to stay on top of these hot trends to offer customers new and unique personalized products.