When we first got into making signs, panels and murals, we looked for a technology that would give our products the best of everything. We had experience with custom HPL, which we offered under our FOLIA brand, so we were familiar with the kinds of printing available for signage and panel applications. When we came upon sublimation printing in 2006, we saw that this was technology that would solve many of the issues affecting our clients- durability, fading, maintenance, and so on.
Sublimation printing is used for a variety of applications- it’s typically known as a form of printing on plastic, textiles and ceramics, so it certainly isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when talking about signage, panels or murals. Those applications usually make use of high-pressure laminate, vinyl, or direct printing. The truth is, with the right technology, sublimation can be used for numerous applications, bringing the benefits of great colors and long-term durability.
So, what is sublimation?
It sounds a bit mysterious, but you definitely learned about sublimation in chemistry class! Basically, sublimation is a process in which heat and pressure are used to turn a solid into a gas without putting it through a liquid phase. We use that chemical process to fuse an image printed with specially formulated dyes into specially prepared powder-coats, which are pre-applied to aluminum panels.
In the case of ALTO™, the two things being fused are the powder-coat layer on the aluminum substrate, and the special dyes we use to print the digital image. It is a chemical process, but even when you know all about it, it almost seems like magic when the final product comes out!
How do we use sublimation?
Our full sublimation process has a digital beginning, a printed middle stage, and finally the sublimation phase, where everything comes together on the panel.
Perfecting the Digital Image
First off, you have the digital files, which are assessed and optimized. With sublimation, we have more control over the pre-flight and color matching phases, and we use that advantage to perfect the image for the upcoming process.
At the same time, an aluminum panel (cut to the size and shape needed by the final product), is powder-coated with a special clear coat. We use powder-coated aluminum as our substrate to add to the durability factor, while also being an eco-friendly process on a recyclable material.
Printing and Testing
Then, the digital image is printed onto special transfer paper with dyes developed in-house specifically for the process. We have to make sure that the print is fully optimized before it heads to the sublimation phase, so we run plenty of tests to ensure colors and details are just right.
The printed transfer image is then fused into the aluminum panel with a heat and pressure transfer process (that’s the sublimation part!).
Since the substrate for this process is specially treated powder-coated aluminum, once the sublimation process is done, there is nothing else to apply or do to treat the panel- no UV coatings, overlays, or special finishes. It’s ready to go!
Everything in a Single Layer
With this method, no matter what someone needs on a sign or panel, it’s all taken care of in the digital file and once it comes though the sublimation process all the elements (colors, textures, images, lettering) are in a single, indelible layer.
This is especially helpful for signs with lettering, as with different printing technologies, vinyl lettering has to be applied afterwards. Vinyl is a convenient and well-used material for making signs, but it is typically a short-term solution; vinyl has a tendency to bubble, peel and crack, and also requires specialized installation.
We also find that sublimation printing offers incredible opportunities to reproduce natural textures like wood, marble, tile or Corten steel, without the drawbacks of paying for those materials.
By combining sublimation technology with powder-coated aluminum, we get the excellent image definition, incredible colors and long-term exterior durability that our clients need for their exterior projects. It also allows us to produce totally customized products- be that a sign, an interpretive panel, or a large-scale mural.