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Know the True Costs of 4 Curing Options for Direct-to-Film Adhesives

If you’re a growing shop, it’s time to consider automation.

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Know the True Costs of 4 Curing Options for Direct-to-Film Adhesives IRECT TO FILM (DTF) is a decorating technology in which artwork is inkjet-printed onto an intermediate film that can be transferred using heat onto cotton, polyester, and other fabrics, as well as treated leather. Once prepared, the transfers can be used immediately, stored for later, or sold as a final product.

Transfer printing begins with the color layer, followed by the white base. After printing, and while the ink is still wet, the graphic is coated in a powdered adhesive, which must be heated to cure. A critical step in the DTF process is thorough and uniform curing of the adhesive. A properly cured transfer has a glossy, orange-peel texture.

The most efficient choice for curing printed transfers is an infrared conveyor dryer. Unlike other alternatives that require your constant attention, these systems are largely automated. Those who are not yet ready to take that step generally have three other options: heat presses, curing ovens, and flash cure units. The following provides an overview of all four types of equipment:

After printing on DTF film, and while the ink is still wet, the graphic is coated in a powdered adhesive.

After printing on DTF film, and while the ink is still wet, the graphic is coated in a powdered adhesive.

HEAT PRESSES

To cure the transfer on a clamshell heat press, the bottom platen should be heated. For presses without a bottom heating element, the press can be closed for 30 seconds to heat the bottom platen. Whether on a clamshell or swing-away press, lay the transfer on the bottom platen with the adhesive side up, then hover the top platen just above the transfer without making contact.

Dwell time and temperature will depend on the make of heat press used, but estimate between one and five minutes per transfer at 275° to 350°F.

Most DTG and DTF shops already own a heat press. However, curing DTF adhesives requires time and attention. Occupying the heat press also could create a production bottleneck by preventing it from being used for other purposes. Most heat presses operate on 120V and should be operated below a separate powered exhaust hood to evacuate fumes. Average cost ranges from $200 to $2000 depending on brand and features.

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The powdered adhesive can be cured by hovering a heat press above the transfer film.

The powdered adhesive can be cured by hovering a heat press above the transfer film.

CURING OVENS

Suitable for individual sheets of DTF film as large as 18 x 24 inches, curing ovens are single-function devices that provide uniform heating at temperatures ranging to 300°F. Once the oven is heated to the desired temperature, the transfer sheet is inserted into a tray that slides in and out to retain the heat inside the body of the device. An automatic, timed alarm signals the operator to remove the transfer. A typical setting is 260°F at 120 seconds. A fume extractor or separate powered exhaust hood is strongly recommended.

Most operate on 120V and fit on a tabletop or counter, freeing up heat presses for other uses. Average cost ranges from $200 to $1000.

The DTF transfer is being cured in a flash cure unit. The DTF transfer is being cured in a flash cure unit.

The DTF transfer is being cured in a flash cure unit. The DTF transfer is being cured in a flash cure unit.

FLASH CURE UNITS

With flash cure units, the transfer is placed on a vented platen. The high-wattage heater swivels over the platen for uniform curing. Models with dual rotary platens can double productivity. Head leveling helps ensure edge-to-edge consistency. For shops that also offer manual screen printing, flash cure units are likely readily available and offer relatively hands-free results in about a minute. Entry-level units operate on 120V and should be operated below a separate powered exhaust hood to evacuate fumes. Average cost ranges from $150 to $1400.

 Using a conveyor dryer to cure the DTF film frees the operator for other tasks.

Using a conveyor dryer to cure the DTF film frees the operator for other tasks.

CONVEYOR DRYERS

A tabletop infrared conveyor dryer offers easy, hands-free operation. Once placed on the conveyor belt, a freshly powdered transfer travels through the heating chamber to cure. The height-adjustable heating element and digital control of the temperature and belt speed allow precision settings for repeatable results. Putting a catch bin at the end of the conveyor can improve productivity by enabling multiple transfers to move through the unit in succession without operator oversight. Infrared conveyor dryers can also be used to cure pretreated garments as well as DTG prints. For commercial, high-production applications, larger conveyor dryers accommodate multiple rows of transfers in addition to DTG prints and screen printed garments.

Unlike heat presses, curing ovens, and flash cure units, some compact conveyor dryers are available with integral powered exhaust to remove fumes and moisture from the work area, eliminating the cost of separate exhaust hoods. Tabletop units operate on 120V and 240V and start around $1600, or $2600 with powered exhaust.

The finished product.

The finished product.

TIME COST OUTWEIGHS
EQUIPMENT COST

Because curing equipment tends to last many years, its one-time cost is likely to be insignificant compared to the longer-term cost of the time the process would otherwise rob from profit-making activities. For this reason, conveyor dryers are generally the most efficient option. Heat presses, flash cure units, and curing ovens can burn your transfers if you forget to remove them in time. As a result, they require constant attention, and they can distract you from production, prepress, and even sales activities that generate income throughout the useful life of your curing equipment.

If you’re just starting out, you may not need any type of automation. However, growth should lead you to reconsider. Adding manual equipment will end up costing you more than purchasing time-saving automated equipment in the first place.

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