What Different Printing Methods are Available?

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The world of print is complex and varied, from sophisticated glass screen printing to volume production like lithography and flexography. Here, we take a look at the different types of printing methods used for printing onto paper or card. We’re focusing on the print methods used to produce items such as brochures, books, magazines and other assets, looking at how they work and where they’re used.

Lithographic (Offset) Printing

Lithographic printing – also known as litho, offset, offset lithography and even plate – is a widely-used printing process for mass production printing such as newspapers, books and magazines, as well as long runs of items such as catalogues and brochures. It involves the use of metal plates and rubber blankets to transfer ink onto paper.

With litho printing, the image to be reproduced is put onto a printing plate, originally made of limestone but these days is more usually aluminium, polyester, mylar or even paper. The metal plate is then covered with ink, then put into contact with the material to be printed which absorbs the ink. Preparation in terms of plate making and ink application is a skilled technique.  

The advantages of litho (offset) printing

  • This is a really competitive method of printing for high-volume print jobs and makes reprints more cost-effective as the plates can be reused
  • It’s really flexible – litho techniques can be used for printing onto a wide range of physical surfaces, from paper to plastic, metals, cloth and even wood
  • The image quality is really good – litho is renowned for producing high-quality imagery

The disadvantages of litho printing

  • The setup is a skilled process and takes time, so it’s rarely a competitive choice for smaller-volume print runs
  • It takes longer than other methods of printing

Digital Printing

We’re all familiar with digital printing techniques and printing methods. This involves first creating a digital image using a computer, and then transferring the digital images to the preferred substrate. Modern printing methods encompass a range of techniques, including inkjet printing and laser printing. These offer particularly cost-effective types of printing for smaller print runs.

The advantages of digital printing

  • It’s ideal for one-offs and small-volume runs
  • It can be used for a variety of print materials
  • It’s fast and flexible for a quick turnaround
  • It provides accurate colour reproduction and high-quality prints

Disadvantages of digital printing

  • The end result is often not as durable, and less able to withstand frequent handling than more traditional printing processes
  • It’s difficult to reproduce a clear white
  • Cost doesn’t scale with volume, so digital printing is not a competitive choice for higher-volume print runs

Large Format Printing

Wide format uses specialist equipment to print graphics onto paper or other substrates. It’s widely used for more traditional advertising formats and businesses with a focus on large-scale advertising. Large-format printing is the most suitable choice for printing on big formats like building wraps, billboards, banners, floor graphics, murals, printed retail graphics and hoardings.

The use of wide format printed graphics has escalated over the past couple of decades, alongside the development of increasingly sophisticated digital technologies and different printing methods.

The advantages of large-format printing

  • Increased visibility of your message over a larger space
  • Relatively low price – a cost-effective way to deliver your brand message
  • Delivers real impact and a high-quality end result with vivid colours
  • One-offs or larger print runs available with little wastage
  • Can be produced using durable and UV-resistant materials for outdoor use and longevity  

Disadvantages of large format print

  • These are limited as the medium is so specific, but it’s important to ensure that ink and substrate are compatible to achieve the optimum end result
  • Choose your large format materials wisely – if banners, posters and hoardings aren’t the right media to advertise your business, then choose a more versatile marketing tool

Screen Printing

Screen printing (also known as silkscreen printing) is a printing process that involves using a fine mesh to transfer a stencilled image onto a material. The mesh is stretched to a defined tension to create the screen, through which the ink is pressed using a squeegee to print an image onto the substrate.

This printing method is commonly used to print graphics on fabric for textile printing, but can also be used on paper, metal, wood and plastic. It’s also used for complex fine-line screen printing in the electronics industry.

Advantages of screen printing

  • It’s a really flexible, cost-effective and versatile method – it can be used to print onto almost any surface
  • It’s durable due to the method and laydown of the inks used
  • It’s best used for longer print runs as the process requires a different screen for each and every colour involved
  • It’s a straightforward transfer printing process that yields great results

Disadvantages of screen printing

  • It’s less suited to small-volume runs because the preparation is lengthy and requires more materials
  • It gets more costly and requires more time when more colours are involved
  • Many inks and screen materials are not environmentally friendly, and washing down can use large amounts of water
  • It requires specific skills to get the best end results

Rotogravure (Gravure)

Rotogravure printing, or gravure printing, is a printing method often used for high-speed, long-run projects that produce high-quality results. These types of printing utilise a technique called ‘intaglio’ printing, where a metal printing cylinder is etched using acids to hold the inks. These cylinders then transfer the ink to the printed surface.

Today, rotogravure is used primarily for printing wallpaper and gift wrap, and also for packaging applications.

The advantages of rotogravure printing

  • Modern presses can achieve extremely quick printing times, and the cylinders are durable, allowing frequent reuse
  • It’s usually an automated process with low labour costs
  • The print quality is consistent throughout for continuous tone images

The disadvantages of rotogravure printing

  • Start-up (origination) costs are high and the printing cylinders take time to produce
  • Turnaround times tend to be significantly longer than other print processes
  • A separate cylinder is required for each individual colour

Letterpress printing

Letterpress is the oldest relief printing method, believed to have originated in the 15th century. It requires more work than other printing technologies but can provide stunning results on paper. The difficulty arises when organising the letters before they are pressed. The modern version of letterpress is still used commercially today, although it has largely been taken over by techniques like flexographic printing. It’s often used to produce items such as invitations and is suitable for both short and high-volume print runs.

The advantages of letterpress

  • It’s quite a straightforward process but can be sued to personalise a job and add a touch of quality and texture
  • You get a sharp image with an almost hand-crafted look to it, with sharp typography
  • It can be used with a wide range of papers, including heavy stock, card and specialist paper

The disadvantages of letterpress

  • Each colour has to be printed separately to it’s a slow process and can limit design creativity, each colour needs to dry before the next can be applied
  • The composition element is also slow, and image printing is a particular challenge as they have to be converted to photo-engravings

Flexography

Flexography, which is commonly abbreviated as flexo, is a printing technique that is frequently used for packaging. It is considered a contemporary form of letterpress printing. It’s a versatile, consistent and efficient modern method, and can be used to print onto a variety of substrates.

Rubber photopolymer printing plates use a raised image on a cylinder, rotating at high speeds on a web press to transfer the required image.

Flexo printing technology is widely used in the pharmaceutical and food industries for printing labels and packaging with precision, speed and accuracy.

The advantages of flexographic printing

  • It’s an efficient and cost-effective method that delivers high resolution on a range of substrates
  • It can use a wide range of inks including water-based and UV inks, an important issue for food and pharmaceuticals
  • It’s a high-speed printing press process with minimal waste
  • It’s consistent and high quality

The disadvantages of flexography

  • It’s a complex process with high-tech machinery requiring regular maintenance to optimise output, suitable for high-volume jobs
  • You need different plates for every colour used in the process, and the set-up is lengthy and complicated, requiring specialist skills

Conclusion

At Smart Printing Company, we offer a selection of printing processes to match individual projects. Alongside our studio providing creative graphic design for print, we offer in-house lithographic (offset) and digital printing, large format print, promotional print and web-to-print, as well as the ability to personalise print in line with direct mail pieces and campaigns. Contact the team to discuss your project in more detail!

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