Natura System By Sawgrass... a Quick Review

Written by:  Larry Cohn, Fun Faces Foto Gifts, August 2002

At the Long Beach Big Show, Sawgrass Systems had a booth demonstrating their new Natura Digital Apparel System, a system for producing sublimation-like results onto cotton garments.  Good move on their part. The message was simple, and by isolating the message into it's own booth, the message came through...at least to me. What's the message? That you can produce printed cotton shirts with roughly the same qualities as a subbed poly or Soft L'ink shirt, with only 2 extra (easy) steps, and the finished product can cost less than a subbed Soft L'ink shirt.

The first extra step is that the art needs to be run through the printer twice, once for the toners of the image to get applied, and the second time, after changing toner cartridges, to lay down a layer of clear bonding material on top of the art, and the art only. This way you don't wind up with a rectangle sheen of clear stuff on your shirt, you just have a slight hand over the art itself. The hand is not bad, more like that of a hot-peel screen-printed transfer, not thick like an ink jet transfer. The salesperson at the booth, Jason, showed me a shirt that he said had been washed once, and the hand was gone. So the slight hand becomes a much less important point if it goes away after the first wash.

If you have just one or two shirts to make of a given image, I can see this step being a hassle, but if you are running 50 shirts or so with the same image then you would only need to change to the clear toner cartridge once and run all 50 transfers through a second time. Jason said that since the clear toner pass is a "one-color" pass, it takes much less time to print the second time.

The second, slightly troubling (to me) extra step is that after pressing the image on the shirt, he sprayed a hydrogen peroxide/water mixture to the shirt and pressed again for a second or two, to remove scorching. He said that if he reduced the temperature from 400F to 375F he could eliminate the scorching but the pressing time would increase (from about 25 seconds to 40 seconds?) I'm not sure I got these times right, but you get the general idea.

So really, with what I can see as two relatively insignificant extra steps, the process itself is quite similar to what you might do now using full color laser sublimation toner on a poly shirt.

Cost wise, compared to using laser toner sub or ink jet sub, the costs shift from the shirt to the toner, with the overall cost probably being somewhat lower. You save big time on the shirt costs, but more importantly you can have your choice of any of the currently available 50/50 or 100% cotton styles at your favorite shirt distributor. (How do you spell WOW?!) Big sigh of relief. (Sawgrass recommends Hanes fabrics for the best results and durability, so there may be some garments that would not give you optimum results). The results I saw on pastel colored shirts using this process were still vivid enough to sell (more vivid than what I've seen with dye sub on pastel shirts), so that opens more doors as well.

But as I said, the costs largely shift from the shirt to the toner. Sorry, no free lunch. According to the Sawgrass literature, the cost of a 10" x 12" printed transfer at 55% print density, including the cost of the paper and pro-rated printer maintenance, is $2.09. At an 85% print density it is $2.94. Sawgrass adds the cost of a Hanes Comfort-T cotton t-shirt to their cost chart, but to try and compare costs to something more comparable to the Hanes Soft L'ink with dye sub you'd probably have to figure in the cost of a Hanes Beefy-T instead. So add $2.00 for a Beefy-T and you are up to $4.09-$4.94 total cost, based on 55% to 85% coverage.

This price range is more likely than not to save you money compared to dye subbing. If you are a high volume subber and get your ink very cheap from one of the alternative ink vendors, and you are printing heavily saturated images, then it is possible to beat these prices, based on using the Soft L'ink shirt, but not by much. If one or more of the alternative subbing shirts hits the market at a lower price point then this will make it much easier to beat the Natura price points. But at this moment, the Natura system does seem to offer "hard-to-beat" price points overall.

Getting back to the "no free lunch" part, the cost of getting into this system is quoted as $7485 based on the cost of the printer, on-site installation, configuration and training, and a start-up toner set.

Compared to the cost of getting set up with some of the other laser options, it's not too different, and you can, if you choose, also use this printer to run regular OEM laser toner, the Sawgrass Subli-Max sublimation laser toners, or probably the sublimation laser toners of your choice. But Jason said that the Natura system requires a beefed up Xante laser printer, due to some problems running wtih an off-the shelf version of this printer. So this printer is "backward compatible" with any other toner system designed for this related series of printers, such as the QMS 6100, but you can't run the Natura toners unless you have a specially modified printer from Sawgrass.

Has my ongoing quest for a digital t-shirt printing solution that is more competitive to screen-printing been met with this system?

In a small way, yes, although I feel that if the Natura toners were less expensive and we could take another dollar per shirt off the run costs, then it would really take off. If you could, say, count on a "worst-case" toner/paper/P.M. cost of $2.00 per 10" x 12" sheet, and we went with a $1.30 shirt to compete with a similar bid from a screen printer, then you are at $3.30 worst case, less for less toner coverage. At that price point I feel we could be very competitive with many larger screen-print jobs, depending on the colors involved and the volumes, than we currently are.

The washability of these shirts is supposed to be comparable to that of subbing onto poly, and there was a sample shirt at the booth, which they claim had been washed 100 times, which seemed to prove the point. So we would still have the advantage over screenprinting of better washability and less hand, two advantages that we can carry over from subbing.

(Note to Sawgrass: Great system! Now reduce the toner costs by about 1/3 and subbed shirts may soon be a thing of the past for higher volume players, except for customers needing poly shirts.)

Disclaimer: Some of the things I have no knowledge of concerning this system: color matching accuracy and ease, toner consistency batch-to-batch, toner consistency within the batch, overall maintenance experience of this printer, shelf life of unpressed transfers (any migration over time?), UV fastness, assurance of proper (as advertised) toner cartridge fills, washability of 50-50 shirts compared to 100% cotton shirts, shelf life of toners.

Copyright © 2002 Larry Cohn. All rights reserved. This article may not be copied or reproduced.

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