A Complete Guide to 3D Sublimation

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Multicolor Mobile Phone plastic cases. 3D sublimation

The 3D sublimation process is a way to transfer dye to three-dimensional materials. Here’s some information about 3D sublimation as a process.

3D Sublimation Overview: What is it?

Traditionally, sublimation used a heat press to press a flat pattern onto a two-dimensional frame. This included posters, plastic cards, and other similar items. Three-dimensional sublimation instead uses something called a vacuum heat press or an oven. It’s used especially for adding patterns to units that have a curved surface like a mouse, a cup, or a phone case, for example.

Specifically, the 3D process is used for adding a pattern to every surface of an object. It’s called sublimation because it takes a solid dyesublimates it into a gas, and uses heat to apply this to the desired object. The idea is that the dye becomes absorbed directly onto whatever it is, clothing, mugs, phone cases, or whatever else.

How It Works

A 3D sublimation heat press costs around a thousand dollars for versions that come from China. These are red and black, usually. These machines use a medium called sublimation paper in order to work. First, you wrap the special sublimation paper around the object, and then you use something called an air-forced vacuum on what’s called a silicon pad to make sure the paper is wrapped tightly around the object. This process is obviously different if you use an oven instead of a press along with the film.

Types of Sublimation-Paper

One major division within 3D sublimation is the processes that use paper versus those that use film. There can be an issue with using paper 3D sublimation in the sense that they work fine when with sharp corners, but if you’re trying to dye something with rounded corners, the paper can sometimes be rough and can cause the image or pattern you want to not go full on the object, or the thing that you’re trying to add dye onto, for example. If there’s any crease in the paper, this can also show in your final product as well.

An example of why this matters can be seen in phone cases. Some phones have straight corners which will get phone cases with straight corners that go with them. Many of the iPhone cases are like this. Other phones, such as those from Samsung, have more rounded corners, and this is where paper systems for 3D printing can be an issue. Sources online indicate that you could end up just failing when you use a vacuum along with heat to get two to match up. There’s also apparently a problem with the colors coming up gray and only one case being makeable through each cycle period.

This means that using 3D sublimation with paper processes are often much cheaper, but they can have the downside of having the occasional failure even with a straight-edged object and failures are much higher, as much as 90%, if there are rounded edges.

All of this is to say that outfits that use a 3D sublimation process with paper will probably offer you much lower prices when it comes to phone cases, cups, or other similar custom-made or uniquely patterned items, but there could be a quality issue as a result. This isn’t an absolute or anything, but the trend does appear to be in that direction.

Types of 3D Sublimation-Film

Another way to use the 3D sublimation process involves a 3D sublimation oven and using film instead of paper. The oven system is much pricier than the vacuum system and it can cost as much as $10,000 or more depending on the quality of the system. The advantage here is that using the oven and film system sublimates the film right onto the blanks instead of needing to do an extra step where you print out the paper and wrap it around the object.

Therefore, film is more efficient and systems that use it will likely be able to go much faster with the person using it than the paper system. What this means is that you can kind of tell the level of an operation based on whether they use paper or film, press or oven, to create a phone case or mug. Small operations and those working at the low-level of the economic scale will often use paper, whereas huge operations that put out a lot of product every day may instead go with film.

Obviously, there are differing opinions on this, and it’s going to largely depend on many different variables including exactly what kind of operation is being run in other areas besides the machine used, but film does appear to be regarded as a superior method for 3D sublimation by many in the West.

Pros and Cons of 3D Sublimation

Just like any other process in the manufacture of custom designs on objects or anything else, there are plenty of upsides and downsides to the process. Whether it’s the right process of the job will definitely depend on the situation. There may also be situations where a different process fits the bill much better, after all.

Some of the upsides of 3D sublimation as a process include the following:

  • All-over Designs (pro)- Obviously, the major advantage of using this approach as opposed to 2-dimensional sublimation or other types of approaches for transferring designs onto objects is that you can have broken designs that go all the way around the object. You don’t have to do one press for the front and one press for the back. Instead, it’s just one design that looks like it was designed that way because it was.
  • Good for Customization (Pro)– This approach is also good for customization because it’s easier to do with a smaller number of productions. In other words, the labor requirement is often lower, especially with a film system, so many businesses will set up customization based around it so you get quality and a decent cost.
  • Variety of Colors (Pro)– There aren’t that many limitations in terms of what kinds of colors you can use for designs in this system. You get plenty of sharpness and variety if the process used is of a high enough quality. There’s often not any additional cost involved to using more colors either, the way there can be when other means of transferring dye and patterns are used instead, for example.
  • Material Flexibility (pro)– The process will work on a number of different materials, depending on exactly how it’s being done. However, there are plenty of setups online that use the process for garments as well as phone cases, cups, and other options.

There is information online about the downsides as well, however. Some of the cons or drawbacks of sublimation include:

  • Imperfections (con)– As stated previously, there can sometimes be imperfections in the transfer, especially around the edges, and especially if you’re using a vacuum and paper system. This could include the product just not coming out very well at all or else a weak transfer or errors at the corners of the item.
  • “Ghost” effects (con)– Some 3D sublimation machines, especially the paper ones, can leave extra images that you want behind. This will depend on the quality of the process used.

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