Hydrographic printing (also known as hydrographics, immersion printing, camouflage immersion, hydroimaging and cubic printing) is a surface decoration process whereby elaborate graphics – such as wood grain, carbon fiber, camouflage, geometric designs, etc. – are applied to the surface of a 3D product.
Although hydrographic printing technology has been around for more than 40 years, the process has been especially popular in the last 10 to 15 years.
Whatever the name, the process is the same: a high-definition, four-color graphic pattern can be transferred to many complex 3D shapes using a water-soluble film. Something that would be unthinkable with a typical inkjet printer or photographic printing.
what is hydrographics used for?
For years, the automotive industry has embraced hydrographic printing , using the process to apply trim to vehicle interiors
Early on, the sporting goods industry found that water transfer printing was ideal for applying camouflage patterns to gun butts and bows.
Today, the technology is used in multiple industries, including manufacturing, construction and engineering. 4D printing is being investigated to then use those parts and print them with hydrographics.
The water transfer printing process is widely used to decorate items ranging from entire SUVs and car dashboards to small items such as bicycle helmets or other car trim.
What is the hydrographic printing process?
The hydrographic printing process uses a water-soluble film containing the printed patterns. The film dissolves in water and leaves the ink on the surface
In the typical process, the item to be printed is first coated with a primer or adhesion promoter. Once dry, a base coat of primer is applied to control the tone of the pattern
For example, wood grain patterns often use a brown base coat, and many camouflage patterns use a neutral base. Once the base coat is applied, the item is ready to be decorated
The film is activated with a chemical activator. The item is then immersed in water and the ink envelops it.
After decoration, the item must be thoroughly washed and dried. This can be done in a drying room with heating and circulating air, thermal drying with heat or infrared, rapid drying with heat lamps or blow drying
Once the part has been checked to ensure that it is completely dry, the last step is to paint it with a clear topcoat.
On what kind of surfaces can hydrographic printing be applied?
One of the best features of the water transfer process is that the films can be applied to all types of substrates, such as plastic, fiberglass, wood, ceramic and metal. For fully printed textile it is best to use sublimation. Screen printing cannot print the whole piece
In most cases, if the item can be immersed in water and can be painted with traditional techniques, the hydrographic printing process can be used
However, since the paint acts as a bonding agent to which the inks adhere, all substrates – with the exception of ABS plastic – will require the application of paint prior to the actual dipping process
Depending on the type of substrate, it may be necessary to modify the surface tension to achieve adhesion of the base paint to the substrate.
would you like to discover other printing methods? Visit our session on types of printing and you can discover other techniques such as gravure, UV printing, pad printing, woodcut, lenticular… which are used to print different types of products.
On TheColor Blog you will find a lot of interesting articles about the world of printing to find inspiration for your next projects.