Choosing the right print process: lithographic or digital

Printing process

Commercial printers offer a range of different print processes suitable for different types of jobs. Each process has advantages and disadvantages over the others. In this article I look at each of the print processes and examine how they work and what their advantages are.

Lithographic press (litho)

Printing hasn’t really changed a great deal since Gutenburg gave us the printing press in 1468. Technology has allowed modern printing presses to produce millions of copies of a page in a single day, but the principle of applying pressure to an inked surface resting upon paper, thereby transferring an offset of an image, remains the same.

These days a printer creates a set of ‘plates’ which are used to press the image onto paper. There are initial costs involved in creating the plates and setting up the press. This means a litho job can be expensive and take time, but for large print runs it remains the most efficient process and also boasts superior quality and finish.

Pros

Cons

Digital print press

Digital print presses are essentially very big and very fast colour laser printers. They can handle some heavier papers and cards but offer nowhere near as much flexibility as litho print. Digital is good because it is instant. Jobs can be turned around in a day if need be and there are no setup costs which means you pay for what you print.

These days the top of the range digital print presses offer very high quality - almost comparable to a litho print job. However, not all printers have the latest top of the range digital presses. In fact unless you are very lucky, digital will give you a noticeable drop in print quality and colour will almost certainly not match.

Pros

Cons

Other print processes

Large format inkjet

See that inkjet printer sat on your desk? Imagine one of those as wide as your room printing on huge rolls of paper or cloth - that’s a large format inkjet. This is an excellent solution for printing things like one-off exhibition banners and translucent window graphics. However, large format printing can be expensive.

Screen printing

Screen printing, as made famous by Andy Warhol, is a highly versatile printing technique. It can be used to print on all sorts of materials from plastic to metals to cotton t-shirts, and many methods can be used to print special colours such as metallic colours or suedes or glosses.

To summarise

When you are creating any kind of material that is going to be printed, you should speak to a good local printer before you start designing. If you have a good relationship with a printer they will be more than happy to advise on what type of print process best suits your needs, and you can therefore tailor your design accordingly.

What advice can you offer for choosing the right print process? If you have any hints and tips or words of wisdom, please leave them in the comments below.

4 responses

Toon responded on with…

I’m glad you put….

(but technology is improving)

It’s quite true, I’ve seen some awesome digital prints in the last few months.

Aaron responded on with…

Hey Toon - You’re absolutely right. In one of my previous jobs a sales rep for a digital printing firm offered to print a few copies of one of our magazines to see if we could spot any difference in the quality. It has to be said that any differences were very slight and it was damn good quality.

That was about a year and half ago and I expect the technology has improved since, but with the technology improving so rapidly it’s difficult to for print firms to keep up - they can’t replace their digital presses every year. So I think generally unless you hunt around there still is a noticeable drop in quality with digital print, but in five years time that might not be the case any more.

Arian responded on with…

I love how you present both side of the argument. Too often people give a bias opinion when comparing two things. I felt that by giving both the pros and cons of the lithographic and digital print press, you can help readers determine which is better for their needs. I really enjoyed your article, and love the design of your site.

Gareth responded on with…

There used to be a world of difference between a traditional flyer and brochure printers, but with things like digital business card increasing in popularity, printers had no choice but to improve the quality of their product.

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