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Are you familiar with the various printing techniques?

Posted by Fiona Hood

Are you familiar with the various printing techniques?There are a variety of printing processes available to you today to produce your next print project. Some are older than others, some are not as readily accessible as they used to be and others are more expensive and often not within a your budget. Irrespective of the specifics or availability, all of these printing processes are still in use today.

Are you familiar with the various printing techniques? It is important to know what the processes are in order to gain the best possible outcome for your project. Here is your simple guide to printing techniques ...

Letterpress is the oldest and one of the most attractive forms of printing available. It hasn't changed much since 1440 when Gutenberg developed movable type and the first ever printing press was invented, although it exists on a much smaller scale today and is now a highly specialised, boutique process.

It involves using plastic, or metal plates, that have raised type or images. It is these raised type or images that give letterpress it’s distinctive appearance. As each piece of paper comes in contact with the plate, the image is transferred through pressure. The imprint upon the paper is actually de-bossed.

Letterpress has seen a revival in recent years in the fine art, craft, and design industry and is often used to produce high end invitations and stationery. However, it remains a very flexible and reliable printing method that can be used for almost anything.

Flexography or Flexo, as it is regularly referred to, is a form of printing used mainly for packaging or printing onto non-paper substrates (such as plastics and cardboard) as well as printing reel fed labels. An alternative to Flexo is Gravure, which involves engraving the image onto a cylinder to produce a higher quality printed image, although the plate is virtually indestructible, it’s high initial cost reserves it for very large print volumes like high end magazines or newspapers.

Screen printing
Screen printing is more flexible than traditional printing methods. The media does not have to be printed under pressure and it does not have to be flat or smooth. Different inks can be used to print onto a variety of materials, such as textiles, ceramics, timber, paper, glass, metal and plastic. The process involves a design being placed on top of a photo sensitive screen and being exposed to light. The emulsion that is exposed hardens and the rest is washed away leaving a stencil that ink can be drawn through using a squeegee.

Offset versus digital printing
Every print project is unique. When it comes to making a final decision on which printing process to choose, you must take into consideration quality, quantity, budget and deadline.

The two main forms of commercial printing in use today are digital and offset printing, both of which have their pros and cons. Before you make your final decision, consider their pros and cons against what outcome you want for your project and make an educated decision. 

Digital printing
Digital printing is fast becoming a major player within the printing industry. It includes many different types of technology from toner based solutions such as laser printing to ink based solutions such as wide format plotters. Digital printing ultimately allows for the most cost-effective printing of short run material and products. There are also high speed digital printing solutions such as the HP Indigo, which are now challenging offset for both speed and quality and are used for printing low to medium run projects. Digital printing is typically the best choice when you’re printing fewer than 500 units. 

The pros of digital printing:

  • Digital printing has virtually no setup time so can produce short run projects very quickly, making it ideal for those with tight deadlines. Offset has a much slower turnaround due to make ready and drying times, so if your time frame is short, digital printing could be your best, if not only choice. 
  • Budgetary concerns are extremely important when choosing how to print your project. If you have a low volume print job, digital printing without the initial setup costs, is far more economical than offset printing.
  • One of the main advantages of digital printing is the accurateness of the proof. Detailed samples can be produced of your project quickly and cost effectively, enabling you to see exactly what the end product will be.
  • Another strength of digital printing is how effortlessly a project’s text, images and colours can be customised during the run without slowing it down. If you need to personalise parts of a project, digital is by far the best option in terms of speed and affordability. 

The cons of digital printing:

  • Despite digital constantly improving, it still can’t match the quality and flexibility of offset, which offers a far wider range of stocks, inks and finishing possibilities along with delivering unequaled colour accuracy. Digital uses a four colour printing process to simulate colours, which cannot compete with traditional offset printers. Although new generation digital presses are now offering both spot and special inks.
  • Another limitation is that digital inks aren’t fully absorbed into the printed sheet, which can lead to cracks appearing in the surface near the folds or edges of the finished publication.
  • It is also important to remember that offset printing is more cost effective than digital printing for higher volume print runs as the individual unit price reduces over volume as opposed to digital which is usually based on a fixed rate per printed sheet.

Offset lithography
Offset is by far the most common form of commercial printing. Here the inked image is transferred (or ‘offset’) from a plate to a rubber blanket, then onto the printing surface. Lithography, which is based on the repulsion of ink and water, uses metal or polymer plates on which the image area obtains ink from ink rollers, while the non-printing area attracts a film of water, keeping the non-printing areas ink-free. Offset printing is typically the best choice when you’re printing more than 500 units.

There are two main sub-categories of offset printing:

  • Sheet fed: uses paper that is pre-cut into sheets and fed through the press.
  • Web (both heat set and cold set): uses a continual roll of paper that is fed at very high speed through the press.

Offset pros

  • The pros of traditional offset printing are clear. It remains the highest quality of printing available, particularly when colour and finish are concerned. Offset has developed so far that computer-to-plate prepress technology now deliver unmatched accuracy and definition.
  • As mentioned previously, offset allows more choice when it comes to print media. Many projects demand unusual paper types, finishes and size, specialised inks and coatings.
  • The use of Pantone (spot) colour inks make offset the best choice when colour accuracy is vital, such as in corporate branding. The four colour process used in digital printing simply cannot compete accurately with offset.
  • If your project is high volume, offset is not only more cost effective, but can be quicker. Much of the cost and time involved with offset relate to the prepress and make ready. However, if you have a high volume print job the unit costs reduce considerably as the run length increases because once the set up is complete, it comes down to just time and paper.

Offset cons

  • It is far more difficult to personalise or customise an offset print job during the run as new plates have to be produced and the press has to be made ready again. This is extremely time consuming and far more expensive than digital printing.
  • Offset is also slower and more expensive on lower volume print jobs than digital. This is because of the time involved in both prepress and press make ready, which increases the unit price for shorter print runs.

The advantages of print over e-media
For some printed products, such as packaging, there is no substitute. For others, electronic parallels do exist. The internet has already had a profound impact upon the printing industry. Declaring that print is dead; however, this disregards many of the advantages of print.

  • Many types of print (newspapers and magazines) still have a devoted audience. They remain a valuable part of the marketing mix for both agencies and the media.
  • Print allows for the easy distribution to a particular geographical region such as direct mail campaigns.
  • Many printed publications have a reputation and quality that is as yet unrivaled by on-line or electronic media.
  • Print media is often more engaging and emotional than its electronic counterparts. 

Most people assume e-communication is also more environmentally friendly than print. While this may be true in some cases, it is not always so.

  • The argument overlooks the impact of producing these tablets and reading devices, data storage/distribution and the power needed to operate the device.
  • People incorrectly assume their home printer has less of an impact than an offset press. In reality, a new generation printing press can produce 100 A4 pages using the same amount of energy a laser printer at home uses to print one single page.
  • The production of paper is also becoming more energy efficient. Since 1990, the use of water in paper production has been reduced by over 60 percent. Energy consumption in it’s manufacture has dropped 20 percent.
  • Paper is increasingly being recycled. Around 65 percent of all paper is recycled in Europe. The US paper industry is aiming to recycle over 60 percent this year.
  • Just remember, once a printed publication is produced, its long term storage and re-reading require no additional energy!

To help you plan your next print project download our complimentary briefing template now:

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This blog was written by Fiona Hood

As Brand Marketect, Fiona is responsible for imageseven’s corporate marketing communications and business systems. When she is not doing that she is exploring the great outdoors.


Topics: Education, imageseven, Communication, Marcom, School marketing, School, Printing