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Flexo, Litho & Digital: Know Your Print Tech

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Understanding different types of printing technology

Chosing the right printing technology for your e-commerce packaging is key. Lithographic, flexographic and digital printing technologies are all used for printing on to corrugated cardboard and a multitude of other substrates, but which one is right for your business?

Each printing technology has its benefits as well as its limitations, and understanding what these are and the differences between the technologies can help you choose the best option to meet the needs of your business.

Table of Contents

Lithographic Printing

Lithographic printing was first used in 1796 by German author and actor Alois Senefelder who kept his techniques close to his chest. Luckily, the secret eventually got out and now, lithographic printing, also known as offset printing, is the most common method of printing onto paper.

Litho Printing is great for:

  • High-quality prints with sharp details
  • Large print runs of paper or card stock - brochures, packaging, magazines and marketing collateral
  • Accurate consistent spot colour for product packaging

The method involves transferring an image from a metal plate onto a rubber cylinder, which then, in turn, conveys the image to the material. Lithographic printing has lots of advantages: it can produce high-quality images with sharp details in vibrant colours and is capable of producing a large number of prints in a short amount of time.

Another plus point is the relatively low cost per print.

Offset lithographic printing press in action
High speed lithographic offset printing press

The main disadvantage of lithographic printing is that it often requires the use of a metal plates and metal plates can be costly and time-consuming to produce and setup. Costs are improving, thanks in part to the continuous improvements in Computer to Plate (CTP) technology, but setup labour time and restrictions on substrates mean lithographic is not really viable for low volume work.

If you wanted lithographic printing on your corrugated e-commerce packaging you would need to laminate the prints onto the material prior to cut and glue manufacturing processes. This often makes it prohibitively expensive for all but high end promotional work.

If your budget can't stretch to this set-up cost, or you're operating under time constraints and have lower quality requirements, don't panic. There are other less expensive options out there, such as flexographic printing.

Flexographic Printing

Developed in the United States by printers looking for a more efficient way to print on corrugated cardboard, flexographic printing was first used in the late 19th century and is very similar to lithographic printing. However, instead of metal, the plate used is flexible polymer. As its name suggests, flexographic printing is flexible; it's capable of printing on a variety of materials, not just the corrugated cardboard it was designed for.

Flexo printing is great for:

  • High-volume simple prints, typically 2-4 colours
  • Large print runs across a wide range of substrates, including cardboard, plastics, glass and ceramics and more.
  • Accurate consistent spot colour application, great for logos on cardboard boxes, as an example.
4 colour printing press for corrugated packaging CMYK
4 colour CMYK flexogpraphic printing press

It's also fast and cost-effective, impressing quick drying ink directly onto any practically any surface. Another benefit of flexographic printing is that - like lithographic printing - it can produce a large number of prints in a short amount of time and can use oil-based and water-based inks.

The main downside of flexographic printing is, yes, you've guessed it, it requires the use of a polymer plate, which can also be expensive and time-consuming to produce, though going down this route, will be less expensive than lithographic printing.

Digital Printing

Finally, we come to digital printing, a relatively new technology that uses inkjet or laser printers to quickly and cost-effectively produce prints on corrugated cardboard.

The big advantage of digital printing is that it can produce prints swiftly with a high level of detail.

Digital printing is great for:

  • Low-volume photographic and detailed prints.
  • Great for short run promotions, or for customisable and personalised campaigns.
  • Wide format printing, signage, window displays, point of sale.
  • Vibrant and detailed colours where brand colour matching isn't a concern.
digital printing press wide format industrial
Wide format high fidelity digital printing press

But, be aware that it's not as durable as other printing methods and is usually water-based, so it only works on porous surfaces.

Additionally, the ink is very expensive: weight for weight, digital printer ink is more expensive than gold.

Consideration points when chosing between printing technology

Everyone is drawn to colourful print. Adding a splash of creativity and an ingenious design to an unboxing experience really helps to improve brand recall or it can help highlight your company's unique selling point or environmental ethos.

There's lots to consider when it comes to selecting the print type needed to achieve your business goals.

When deciding between flexographic, lithographic or digital printing technology, the main consideration points for a business owner are the cost, quality, speed and volume of the prints. It's also worth giving some thought to the cost of the technology, the quality of the prints, the speed of the printing process and the volume of prints needed as these are all important factors.

testing colour accuracy of printing press output
Inspecting and testing lithographic prints for colour accuracy

The cost and the substrate - in other words, the surface to be printed on - are probably the two key consideration points when deciding between printing technologies.

Different printing technologies are better suited to different types of substrates, so it's important to consider what type of material the prints will need to be printed on. In some cases, the substrate could require specialised inks or coatings in order to ensure the best possible printing quality and colour accuracy on output.

Something that might not occur to everyone: When choosing between flexographic, lithographic or digital printing technology, it is also important to assess the environment in which the printed item will be used.

When you're dealing with ink, it's far to say that some printing technologies are better suited than others when it comes to indoor or outdoor environments.

Environmental considerations

Unsurprisingly, the printing process itself has an environmental impact and given how hot a topic environmental preservation is right now, it's only right to examine the impact each printing technology being used has, especially as e-commerce businesses strive more and more to be eco-friendly.

The solvents used in printing can have environmental implications. Those used in digital printing, for example, often contain ethylene glycol, a synthetic compound. If these compounds were ever released into the environment, such as a river, for example, they will have a serious negative impact on flora and fauna and the compounds are also unfit for human consumption, hazardous to health if inhaled or ingested. The proper disposal of such compounds is vital to avoid any potential impact to the natural environment or human health.

testing water for ink contamination from printing manufacturing
Testing waters for manufacturing run-off contamination, such as inks, cleaning products and more.

As far as efficiency is concerned, overall, it could be argued that flexographic printing is the best type of printing for the vast majority of applications, mainly because it can print directly on to a variety of substrates and is fast.

As already mentioned, it's a direct printing process that uses flexible plates attached to a rotating cylinder allowing for quick and efficient printing on a variety of substrates, such as paper, plastic, and metal. Moreover, the plates (referred to as stereos) used can be recycled and reused, making it a more sustainable option.

Flexographic printing inks are also more environmentally friendly because they are water-based and therefore contain fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than traditional solvent-based inks. They also use fewer energy resources, are less hazardous to store and produce less waste than solvent-based inks.

Additionally, flexo inks are easy to clean up and any excess ink is able to be recycled or reused. Some flexographic inks contain plant-based materials, such as soybean oil or vegetable oils. This helps reduce the use of petroleum-based products and is another reason why the inks are a more sustainable and environmentally friendly option.

Conclusion

The Packaging Club has access to the best printing technology the industry has to offer when it comes to custom printed packaging.

We're one of a small handful of companies in the UK with access to four colour flexographic printing presses designed for direct to corrugated printing, which enables us to achieve photo-like prints at a much lower cost per unit when compared with litho or digital.

So, whatever your custom packaging needs, we will have the right technology to meet your goals. Let's talk bespoke packaging today.

This article was written by...

Nathan Calvert

Nathan is Head of Digital at The Packaging Club. He has worked in the packaging sector for over 15 years across food, consumer electronics, FMCG ecommerce and more, both directly in-house or as a freelance consultant.

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