Road to Sublimation Success: Full Throttle
Without a doubt, the face of sublimation has changed dramatically over the last few years. We now have hundreds of new and exciting products including iPhone and iPad covers, SubliSLATE™, and ChromaLuxe® photo panels that have helped with the industry’s incredible surge in popularity. One great resource to see lots of examples of these new substrates and what other digital decorators are doing with them is our client image gallery at; www.conde.com/gallery.php
Second only to substrates in changes are the printers we use for generating our sublimation transfers. Up until late 2008, desktop dye-sub transfer had relied on Epson inkjet printers because of their unique Piezo printhead technology. A Piezo printhead vibrates the ink onto the paper whereas printheads from printers such as HP, Canon, and Lexmark boil the ink onto the paper using heat. Since sublimation inks are heat activated, boiling the ink is obviously not a good idea. The Piezo printheads, combined with an array of printer models at attractive prices, made Epson the uncontested brand of choice.
In November of 2008, the Ricoh GelJet printers entered our world and shook everything up for the better! Why? Here is my quote from my first Ricoh article for the 2009 Sublimation Almanac (now called The Sublimation Report):
For some eight years, using the Law of Attraction, I’ve thought about what the perfect sublimation printer would be: Inexpensive (under $300 for letter/legal and under $1,000 for tabloid), highly reliable (high-duty cycle of 10K prints per month), built-in ink system with large cartridges, wickedly fast (like a laser printer), and expandable paper handling (more paper trays). Finally, after all this time, we now have printers like this, and from a surprising source… Ricoh!
Interestingly, I was told that the chairman of Ricoh had read my article and was intrigued by this new market for his printers, as he was the personal driving force behind the development of GelJet technology.
Well, after about four years in the sublimation market, these printers have lived up to my expectations and then some! Since 2009, Ricoh has continued to introduce new GelJet printers, and in June of this year brought out a completely new family of printers. This article focuses on the Ricoh GX e7700N and SG 3110DN.
Introducing The Ricoh GX e7700N And SG 3110DN
The key difference between these two printers is the maximum paper size. The GX e7700N will support an 11"x17" paper size right out of the box and the all-important 13"x19" paper size by adding an inexpensive bypass tray. This larger 13"x19" size allows for transfer onto larger substrates such as glass cutting boards and laptop sleeves. It’s also the right size for ganging up smaller transfers onto one page to get the most from 16"x20" heat presses such as the Geo Knight DK20S. The SG 3110DN supports a maximum paper size of 8.5"x14". This makes the SG 3110DN a perfect fit for a good portion of substrates such as iPhone covers, license plates, coasters, and so forth (See Picture 1).
Under The Hood
The GelJet family of printers features head-turning speeds—as they were designed right out of Ricoh’s color laser playbook. To move the paper through the printer faster, Ricoh uses a permanent electrostatic belt that is statically charged to hold the paper in place as it moves through the printer. Couple this with a large printhead, and you have a sublimation system that can outrun a fleet of heat presses. To beat the Ricoh’s speed, you would need to move up to a 230-pound Epson 7700 with 24" print width!
Ricoh’s Fuel System
Both Ricoh printers sport an advanced ink-delivery system with large individual cyan, magenta, yellow, and black cartridges. All Ricoh GelJet printers go through an initial cartridge “ink fill” process the first time the printer is turned on. This “ink fill” uses a fair amount of ink, so your yield on the first set of cartridges will be much lower than subsequent ones.
Have you ever changed an empty Epson cartridge and noticed that there was ink still in it? This is because the chip on the Epson cartridge told the printer that you had gotten your money’s worth from the cartridge. Ricoh printers also have chips that are used to communicate inks levels through the front panel and web interface. Ricoh printers, however, will continue to print even if the chip says there is no more ink! A vacuum sensor in each line monitors ink flow and will continue to print as long as ink is flowing. Once that sensor is tripped, the printer sends a kill signal to the cartridge, stopping the printer from printing and notifying you to replace the cartridge. This means that you are able to use every drop of ink in the cartridge!
The front panel of each printer indicates the ink level with a bar graph. This is far from exact. If you wish to know your real ink levels, you have two options. The first is to watch my video at www.condetv.com and search for “ink levels”. My video takes you into the service mode of the printer to display the ink levels for each color. The other method, which is easier, is to install the printer over the Ethernet interface. You can then bring up your internet browser and type in the IP address of the printer. You will then see the ink levels (See Screenshot 1). Knowing your ink levels is quite handy if you are curious how much a job has cost you in ink. You can record your beginning levels, print your job and then record the ending levels, and then do the math.
Another innovation in GelJet’s fuel system is Ricoh’s bi-directional ink pump. This was introduced with the e3300 and is part of our new printers. This feature greatly reduces the amount of waste ink deposited in the ink collector unit. The ink collector unit sits directly under the ink cartridges and must be replaced when full.
Inks: The Fuel Of Sublimation
Our new printers are powered by SubliJet-R sublimation ink from Sawgrass. This formula was developed for the Ricoh printers because of their high viscosity requirements (this is why we call them gel printers). This gel formula is highly efficient compared to ink for Epson printers. One interesting note is that if you overheat the SubliJet-R inks, blacks tend to turn brown. If this happens to you, back off on your transfer time. My test shows that 1 ml of the gel ink is roughly the equivalent of 3 ml of ink for Epson. Translating this into cost of printing means that the Ricoh printers are almost half the cost of Epson desktop printers when running traditional 110ml ArTainium or SubliJet cartridges or bags. If you are using the really small Epson cartridges, expect an even greater cost savings.
Both Ricoh printers use separate CMYK ink cartridges (FYI, Condé offers an ink cartridge recycling program). For the e7700N, Sawgrass provides two sizes of cartridges: standard or extended. The standard cartridges are the same ones used in the Ricoh e3300n, so if you transition from an e3300, you can use those cartridges in your e7700 (make sure you have enough remaining ink for the “ink charge”). For digital decorators that are unsure about how much they will print, the standard size cartridges can be a good bargain. You can mix different size cartridges in the printer. Be aware that both printers require the ink tubes to be filled at first installation “ink fill”. The SG 3110DN uses about 10ml from each cart and 7700 uses 13ml.
For the e7700, the standard carts hold about 29 ml for the CMY and about 33 ml for the K. The extended carts are roughly double capacity with CMY at 60ml and 65 ml for the black. For the SG 3110DN, the CMY carts hold 29ml with the black holding 42ml.
How many prints can you get out of a set of cartridges? For my full-coverage letter-size test page, you can get about 200 prints from a standard set and 500 from the extended after the ink charge for the GX e7700N. For the SG 3110DN, you can get about 275 prints. This assumes your artwork uses ink evenly—which most likely it will not, so your yield will be less.
What is the cost of printing? Not including the ink consumed to charge each printer, the GX e7700N costs about $0.65 and the SG 3110DN costs about $0.80 (using my full-coverage letter-size test image). This cost is significantly less than printing with desktop Epson printers due to the fact that Gel inks are a much higher viscosity (more concentrated) compared to Epson inks. This is another reason why the Gel printers have been so popular!
All Drivers Welcomed
Whether you’re Mac or PC, both printers will fit seamlessly into your world. I am both a Mac and PC person (my first Mac was a Lisa!). And for a bit of trivia, what was the name of the first iPad? Answer: Newton. As I write this article, I am running Windows 8 and 10.7 on my iMac and printing to all my Ricoh’s with our ICC profile—works great. I strongly recommend you not use the CD that comes from Ricoh, as drivers change too fast. Just download the driver from our website. In addition, I recommend that you check for any firmware updates for the printers, as Ricoh is always fine tuning the operation of the printer. After that, you may want to check the print head alignment. For connectivity, each printer comes equipped with both USB 2.0 and an Ethernet 10/100 port. If you have a network, I recommend you hook the printer up via Ethernet. If you have a wireless network, you can plug the printer up to your wireless router so that it can be shared with any computer. Once the printer is on your network, you can access many of the printer’s features and reports through your web browser (See Screenshot 2). Unlike the front panel ink levels, the browser reports give you exact details. One final note, I do recommend hooking your computer and printer up to a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) to handle short power outages. They usually also have excellent built-in surge protectors.
When Rubber Meets the Road: Paper
Sublimation transfer paper carries the ink from the printer to the heat press. Once there, the paper is placed against a substrate in a heat press where heat and pressure are applied. The ink then turns into a gas and permeates the molecular pores of the substrate. Our paper must do two things well. First, it must keep the dots of ink as small or sharp as possible; we call too much “dot gain”. Second, it must let go of the ink—hence the name release paper. I recommend two different types of papers for the Ricoh printers. For most hard substrates and as a universal paper, I recommend the DyeTrans SPP paper. This paper produces minimal dot gain, gives unsurpassed sharpness, and provides excellent release characteristics for color saturation. In addition, the DyeTrans paper dries quickly, which is necessary because of the speed of the Ricoh printers. The other paper is TexPrint R paper. I recommend this paper for soft substrates, glass, and our SubliSlate. The original TexPrint XP paper for Epson printers was reformulated for the Ricohs to dry faster. This paper gives up a little on dot gain in order to provide increased ink transfer. Our instructions tell you what paper we recommend for various substrates.
Out of the box, the GX e7700N provides one 250-sheet tray that supports letter, legal, and tabloid sizes, including our mug and water bottle papers. If you add the inexpensive bypass tray, you get another paper source that will handle paper sizes up to and including 13"x19" cut sheet and banner paper up to 51" in length (banner paper can be used for long products such as neckties). Yes, I know that a large heat press is needed, but you can do a fairly good job with ties with multiple pressings. It is not perfect, but may be good enough depending on your design. The GX e7700N also supports an additional lower tray with the same paper support as the built-in tray. With both extra trays, you are able to have three different sizes of paper available at the same time. My setup videos at www.condetv.com are especially helpful for learning to adjust the build-in paper tray that I nicknamed my Japanese Rubic’s Cube!
For the SG 3110DN, it supports one built-in tray holding our mug, letter, and legal size papers. You can add up to a whopping three more trays—two more on the bottom and the bypass tray on the back. This translates to a total of four different paper sources. This is perfect for an office environment but will be overkill for most sublimators.
The most dreaded word in sublimation. After four years of in-the-field use, I am happy to report that clogging issues, that is an incomplete nozzle check, are a fraction of what we encountered with Epson desktop printers. Clogging is caused by air in the print head, debris on the bottom of the print head, or capping station/ink pump issues. See my videos for cleaning the capping station for both Epson and Ricoh printers. I recommend doing a nozzle check at the beginning of every print day or whenever you observe a print quality or color issue. If the nozzle check is incomplete, you will need to do a head cleaning from the computer or front panel of the printer. For stubborn issues, perform a head flush. If that does not show major progress, stop and call your supplier for assistance. As a bit of insurance, I recommend doing a test print on a daily basis. This can be automated with an inexpensive windows software product called Harvey Head Cleaner. Once installed, you can configure it to send regular test prints to the printer. Yes, your PC must be on for the program to operate.
What is color management? In simple terms, it means getting accurate color. For many years, our color department has created ICC profiles for each of our dye-sub printers. An ICC profile is like a color filter—you feed it your color data and it changes the color values so that you get accurate color on the substrates. ICC profiles are the industry standard way of managing scanners, monitors, and printers. When we print, we print two types of things. The first is raster images like a photograph. With an ICC profile, these images should look great. The second is spot or vector colors. For these, your common-sense approach is to use your monitor to make color selections. This turns out to be a disaster, as every monitor is different, and to believe you have the magic monitor that displays accurate color is crazy. I operate a dual monitor system with nice monitors, and they are not even close to each other with colors. So, what I recommend is that you print a color chart and sublimate it and then use it as your guide to matching colors (See Picture 2). I have written extensively about this, and we can supply you with two types of charts. One uses the RGB palette for picking pleasing colors and the other is for matching exact spot colors like a Pantone Solid color and say a school color. My favorite palette for this is the Goe palette. It is now part of Corel X5 and X6.
Sawgrass provides an alternative to ICC profiles for the PC called the PowerDriver. Once the PowerDriver is installed, it appears as a printer in the printer folder. You print to this printer and the job is color corrected and then sent to the Ricoh driver. This solution is ideal for applications that do not support color management such as Microsoft Word, Printshop and Printmaster. There is no Power Driver for the Mac, so we would use our ICC profile.
All Ricohs are four-color printers (CMYK). So are four enough? Are six or eight colors better? When we test a new printer, I do not concern myself with the printer’s specifications. I care about the color, quality, clarity, and detail of the final product. In theory, more colors mean better mid tones and lights in photographs and smoother gradients in graphics. New Ricoh and Epson print heads now have variable droplet modes and can make four-color printers perform like six- and eight-color ones. After four years, I have found Ricoh printers produce excellent quality that meets and exceeds the needs of sublimation.
Copyright David Gross, National Business Media, Inc.