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A Comparison of the Different Types of Printing for Packaging

A Comparison of the Different Types of Printing for Packaging

With retail and ecommerce markets becoming increasingly competitive, brand owners must find new ways to outperform their competitors in all market environments. In addition to investing in a comprehensive marketing strategy or enhancing an in-house customer service team, businesses can achieve their sales quota through product packaging that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing–with graphics and text that “pop” on the shelf and lead to a purchase.

The impact that packaging can have on short-term and long-term profits should not be underestimated. Brands that maximize the power of design can evoke emotion while capturing consumers’ attention. If retail revenue growth is softening, a strategic packaging redesign could help refresh your brand identity, renew consumer interest, and accelerate sales.

A Comparison of the Different Types of Printing for Packaging

In a packaging redesign process, you’ll need to compare and contrast the various package printing processes suitable to your product. There are several printing technologies available and each of them fits different end-use applications. This guide covers what you need to know to help you find the ideal printing solutions for your product.

1. Offset lithography

Flat Printing

Offset lithography is commonly used for large or flat items such as folding cartons, corrugated packaging, and large labels used on packaging and retail displays. With litho printing, the image is set to an aluminum plate and then transferred to a rubber blanket for processing. The image is then printed onto a substrate and may be finished with a coating or varnish for improved appearance and protection.

  • Pros

This option is suitable for printing in small to large format sizes, in high volumes, and with high-quality graphics. Offset litho is often considered the quality standard in package printing, against which other processes are measured. Color-matching is exceptionally accurate, and post-print finishes like gloss coating or foil embellishment can add a touch of luxury and quality. In addition to high quality and a variety of finishing options to choose from, fast printing speed is another advantage of offset.

  • Cons

Because aluminum plates are custom-made, lithography printing can be relatively expensive in shorter runs. Regardless of volume, most print providers require a setup fee to produce the plate. With the plate cost, customization,  short runs, and versioning are typically cost-prohibitive for most brands.

2. Flexography

flexography

For several decades, flexographic printing – commonly known as “flexo” – has been the process of choice for high-volume labels and flexible packaging, including food and beverage products. Aptly named for its flexibility, the design is placed on a flexible relief plate made of rubber and is wrapped around a cylinder for easy and efficient printing. An anilox roller – a metal or ceramic cylinder with microscopic “cells” – transfers the ink to the plate, which then makes contact with the substrate, thus transferring the image at high speeds and low operating costs. Flexography has advanced over the years to include more automation and improved quality, so much so that its proponents often say high-quality flexo quality can now rival offset.

  • Pros

Flexography is relatively cost-effective in very long print runs and has fewer printing constraints. Compared to offset lithography, which requires the printed substrate to be flat, almost any shape or format can be printed using this method. Flexography is ideal for high-speed manufacturing lines where labels should be applied to roll-formed products instead of sheets. Flexography achieves a high-quality print image with the potential for perfectly matched spot colors.

  • Cons

Flexography may be the ideal choice for companies looking for cost-effective solutions, but it also has its drawbacks. Serialization and other forms of unique codes are cost-prohibitive for traditional flexographic printing, as are small volume jobs for products with many SKU or design variations. Low-cost flexographic print providers often struggle to achieve crisp print quality and smooth or accurate color gradients.

3. Digital printing

Digital printing is a method that is growing rapidly for use in product packaging. Digital printing, while relatively new compared to flexo, offset, and gravure, is evolving and improving quickly. Inkjet particularly continues to gain mainstream adoption due to its faster speeds, lower running costs, and higher quality.

These digital presses and printers can operate on a wide range of products and surfaces, especially corrugated packaging and folding cartons. While once considered a complementary technology to conventional print methods, digital printing is now considered a viable mainstream alternative in short-, medium, and long-run packaging.

  • Pros

In lower quantities, digital printing is more cost-efficient than other methods. Some printers offer hybrid flexographic/digital printing options, allowing brands to get the best of both worlds with a perfectly matched spot color from a flexo print station and variable graphics, text, and codes printed from a digital station. One of the key benefits of digital printing is its ability to create versioned images, variable data, and personalization – trends that have taken the packaging world by storm and appear to be here to stay.

Digital printing systems such as the HP Indigo Digital Press can produce extraordinary quality on a variety of packaging substrates, including folding cartons, flexible packaging, shrink sleeves, and labels. Mass customization, versioning, serialization, and unique coding are efficient and cost-effective benefits available to brands.

  • Cons

Digital printing typically does not have the unit economics of analog printing technologies in very long runs (hundreds of thousands or millions). For these run lengths, flexo, gravure, and litho may be better alternatives. Digital printing uses combinations of tiny dots of ink to match specific colors, making it hard to get a perfectly-matched, smooth color.  So, brands that require near-perfect color match for their logo or other brand elements often opt for litho, flexo, and gravure as well.

4. Gravure

Gravure printing engraves your design into metal cylinders. Each cylinder has an assigned color, and the printing machine slowly applies ink to generate a high-quality image. It’s recommended for detailed package designs and commonly used for food products with flexible packaging.

  • Pros

Gravure’s superior image-quality and durability give it an advantage in ultra-high volume print jobs where lithography and flexography would be slower and prone to reduced image quality over time. Partnering with a reliable service provider can enable you to produce your product packaging at high speed and low running costs without compromising quality.

  • Cons

This printing option can be expensive for printing packages in low quantities. Setup for gravure print jobs often takes weeks and can cost tens of thousands of dollars, so it’s well suited to jobs that run millions of units without changes to graphics or text copy. If your brand needs versatility and doesn’t have to produce packages in large volumes, digital printing may be a better choice.

5. Screen printing

As the name suggests, this method produces your design through a woven silkscreen. Certain parts of the fabric are coated with a non-permeable material and ink is applied in the remaining areas. Since the printing surfaces do not need to be flat, this inking method can adhere to a wide range of materials such as paper, fabric, glass, and metal.

  • Pros

Unlike offset lithography and gravure, screen printing is best suited for small-scale jobs. Production time is relatively slow, but its low setup costs make it the most economical method for these small jobs.

  • Cons

Screen printing’s production speed isn’t ideal for large-scale businesses. If your requirements are heavy, going for offset lithography, flexography, or gravure printing will be best.

Printing Done the Right Way

Each printing technique has its pros and cons. While there’s no such thing as a perfect method, knowing how each practice works will help you find out which solution is the best for your business.

If you need more assistance, it never hurts to consult with the experts. You can get in touch with us—Meyers Printing has a team of experienced professionals who would love to fulfill your printing needs.