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January 2, 2019

Flexography vs. Lithography vs. Digital Printing: A Primer on Commercial Printing

Who’s Flexo? What’s a Litho? If you’re confused about the different printing methods available to business owners, you’ve come to the right place.

Commercial printing is the link between your customers and your brand. Whether it’s for packaging, labels, business cards, or shipping materials, it pays to know the differences between each of the printing options that bring your marketing materials to life.

If you need a primer on the differences in flexography vs. lithography vs. digital printing, you’re in the right place. Given that printing is the heart of packaging design, we love to talk about it—and we’ll set the record straight for those of you who are confused about the process.

Let’s review the differences between each style and compare the benefits of commercial printing.

Let’s start with flexography.

Flexography (called “Flexo” by the cool kids) is a surface printing method that utilizes flexible rubber plates and quick-drying inks to transfer images onto surfaces.

More specifically, a Flexo printing process will involve creating rubber (or polymer) plates with the desired image engraved on the surface. These plates are then wrapped around hard cylinders that pick  up ink and apply them to the printing medium. After application, the material is sent through a dryer to prevent smudging.

What’s so great about Flexo?

Flexo has been around for a few decades, making it an older choice for commercial printing. And the process has stood the test of time for good reason: It’s simple, fast, and low-cost at scale. Manufacturers print and cut their materials all through a single system, which mean high efficiency for mass-produced designs.

In terms of materials, Flexo is a great choice for printing on non-flat media: corrugated cardboards, shrink sleeve wraps, pouches, double-sided labels, and so on. We can thank the unique “stamping” process of flexography for this benefit. Unlike other printing methods, Flexo slaps the ink right on the substrate’s surface with no trouble printing on uneven surfaces or mixed media.

Clearly, the market supports this method. Market research suggests that the flexographic printing industry will hit a whopping $40 billion by 2023.

What are the drawbacks of Flexo?

Flexo does have a few drawbacks. Each plate used in the flexographic process can print only one color at a time. If you want multiple colors, you’ll need additional plates—which can raise your project’s costs. And depending on your project, it can also be less affordable at scale than our next option: Lithography.

Lithographic Printing

Next up, we have lithographic printing—a method that’s been used since 1796. We love explaining Litho because it gives us the chance to discuss everything from printing styles to Latin to basic chemistry.

Lithography involves applying ink to a printing plate typically made of metal or stone. Here’s where the Latin comes in—the term “lith” actually means rock or stone. Of course, metal plates are more common these days.

Whether stone or metal, the Litho plate is then pressed into a rubber blanket, which itself is used to apply the ink into the printing substrate. (As an aside, the use of this rubber blanket is why you’ll often hear Litho referred to as “offset” or “offset lithography.”)

Part of the Litho process involves applying an oily emulsion to the printing plates before it’s transferred to the blanket. If you think back to chemistry class, you’ll remember that oil and water repel each other—and since most commercial inks are water-based, this emulsion helps the ink stay where it should when applied to the substrate surface.

What’s so great about Litho?

The biggest advantage that Litho has over Flexo is in print quality. The complex processes listed above give Litho printing a high-quality finish that’s ideal for packaging with detailed designs or photos.

Litho works best for flat media, such as paper, foils, cloth, plastics, or flat cardboard. It’s also suitable for larger projects as the materials perform well during long print runs. The combination of high-quality prints and efficiency in large-scale projects are why Litho has remained a printing mainstay for hundreds of years—and why it’s so commonly used for projects like magazines, stationary, and textbooks publications.

What are the drawbacks of Litho?

Litho is best for flat media and doesn’t perform well on rough surfaces. This limits its application for uneven print jobs, corrugated cardboards, textured surfaces, and any other specialty print projects.

Lithographic jobs also tend to cost more than Flexo jobs due to the complex nature of the printing process and the unique materials required. However, Litho is great for big printing projects, so the unit cost will decrease as the project quantity increases. Therefore, it can become more affordable at scale.

Digital Printing

The newest contender in the printing arena, digital printing, is quite different from Flexo or Litho.

Think back to the old Inkjet printers we used to have. Digital printing works in the same way, using a combination of ink cartridges and heat to apply thin layers of ink to substrate surfaces. And … that’s basically it. Simple, right?

What’s so great about digital?

Digital is unique when compared to Flexo or Litho as it’s not designed for mass production or long print runs. Digital offers some great benefits:

  • High-quality images
  • Low setup costs
  • Data variability from print to print

That last point is key. Each print can be customized based on the data entered into the printing software, meaning that companies that need custom barcodes or unique identifiers on packaging can easily adapt their templates for this purpose. Flexo and Litho, both of which require custom-built plates for large-scale production, can’t accommodate print jobs in this way.

What are the drawbacks of digital?

Primarily, the biggest drawbacks of digital are its relatively high production costs and slow production speed. It’s not suitable for print jobs where thousands of labels need to be created, and it doesn’t offer cost advantages at scale.

Digital is ideal for short runs (and it’s becoming more economical for bigger projects as digital technology develops. Forecasts show the digital print for packaging market will reach $15.3 billion this year, but it’s still limited in its capability compared to more established printing methods.

Which is best for my project?

All, and none. Comparing flexography vs. lithography vs. digital printing isn’t about competition; it’s about recognizing that these options are complementary methods that most brands employ in conjunction. It all depends on what materials you’re printing on and your company’s goals. Keep this in mind as you consider options for your printing runs, and don’t get caught up in favoring one option over another.

author

by Kevin Smith
Managing partner at SmashBrand. We're a group of experienced brand owners, thinkers and world-class designers united by an obsession for creating category disrupting brand experiences.

Purposefully selective, we work with brands that want to stand out and also stand for something.

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