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Things have come a long way since the invention of the printing press. Today, you can select from several different printing processes, any of which could be perfect for putting the finishing touches on packaging for your products.

Among the most common packaging printing options, today are:

  • Lithography
  • Flexography
  • Digital and Inkjet printing
  • Rotogravure
  • Silkscreen

How do you know which one is right for your packaging? Usually, it comes down to factors such as:

  • Cost
  • Volume
  • Print quality
  • Finish options
  • Turnaround time
  • The material on which the printing technique can be used.

Below, we explore the five most popular printing techniques that commonly are available for use on packaging. Once you understand more about the cost, quality, and finish options of each, you’ll be equipped to choose the printing method that makes the most sense for your packaging.

1. Lithography

Sometimes called offset printing, lithography remains one of the most popular printing processes. For the production of packaging boxes, it is the top choice among all of the contenders.

This printing method involves the use of a flexible aluminum plate that has the desired image impressed on its surface. The plate is inked and then pressed onto the paper or other material. Sometimes the inked image is first transferred from the plate to a rubber blanket before being applied to the printing surface.

The ink is oily, which helps it to repel water. Thanks to a dampening system, this oily ink is not allowed to run onto spots where it is not wanted. Essentially, certain portions of the printing material are receptive to the ink while other spots are treated so that they repel ink and are instead receptive to water. Accordingly, the result is a bright image with sharp lines.

In other lithography printing setups, a waterless offset or dry offset approach is utilized. This means that the manufacturer applies a silicone layer to the places where the ink is not needed.

This printing method boasts several advantages. For instance, it remains a top printing performer because lithography delivers excellent image quality and incredible versatility. It’s even possible to use this technology on a variety of printing mediums including cardboard, corrugated, paper, metal, plastic, and others.

Finishing lithography offers plenty of choices too. The customer can ask for a matte soft touch or a high gloss finish to give their packaging exactly the right look. One option is the UV Finish, an application that produces a long-lasting glossy appearance. Also popular is the Aqueous Finish, which is commonly known as the soft touch. It features a satiny feel and handily repels dirt and fingerprints.

Customers also appreciate that color gradients in even the most complicated graphics are smooth and clean with lithography. Similarly, lithography is a great choice when a high volume of packages is required. Some lithography machines can churn out 15,000 impressions every hour.

However, lithography isn’t necessarily the best choice in all situations. It can be expensive to get started because creating custom plates is costly. The process also can be finicky as the print service must be perfectly flat. Because of the costs and time involved in producing the aluminum plates, lithography is not recommended for low-volume printing projects or short runs.

If you are interested in using lithography for folding labels or cartons, this may be a smart choice. Lithography or offset printing frequently is seen on packaging for food products, cosmetics, and electronics.

2. Flexography

This technique is a modern update of letterpress printing. Letterpress printing is a relief printing process that uses a printing press. In this process, a raised and inked surface is pressed against individual sheets of paper or a roll of paper. A worker performing the letterpress technique creates and locks movable type into place on the press, applies ink to it, and then presses paper against it to create an impression on the paper.

Flexography is similar in that it also makes an impression on the printing medium using a flexible relief plate. Enormously popular for food packaging, flexography is a direct printing process in which the printing plate directly transfers the ink to the printing material.

One big difference between letterpress printing and modern flexography is how the plates are made. Flexography uses lasers to engrave the design onto the plate. Ink is then removed from its receptacle and an anilox roller is used to apply the ink to the design. The inked surface is then pressed onto the printing material and a finish may be applied.

When it was being developed, flexography was known to result in inferior images. However, the use of digital printing has vastly improved the sharpness and clarity of the images.

While lithography uses aluminum plates, flexography typically relies on photopolymer printing plates that wrap around rotating cylinders. Thanks to the rapid movement of the cylinders, flexography can produce many finished prints in a short span of time.

Flexography typically is less expensive to break into than lithography, so companies on tight budgets may want to consider it. Despite being more affordable, flexography can be used on many materials such as plastic, cellophane, and corrugated. The packaging does not have to be flat for printing, which can be a plus for some applications.

Keep in mind that image quality on packaging printed with flexography technology is noticeably poorer than it would be with a lithograph image. Moreover, color gradients may show banding with this printing method.

This printing method frequently is used for stand-up pouches, corrugated cardboard, and food wrappers. Shrinkwrap and milk cartons also may be printed using this technique.

3. Digital and Inkjet Printing

Precise and efficient, digital and inkjet printing are rising stars in the packaging industry. In fact, many companies already have printers in their offices that are suitable for printing packaging images. Thanks to the improved quality of both printers and cartridges, it’s possible for desktop publishing to produce incredibly high-quality images.

You’ll see digital or inkjet printing on corrugated boxes, labels, paper cartons, film, and paper. No plate tooling costs are involved, making this an affordable and accessible option. Frequently, digital printing is recommended for small runs.

Brilliant, colorful images and crisp text make digital printing a highly attractive option. Plus, if changes need to be made to the design, these can more easily be accomplished with digital printing than they could be with lithography or flexography.

Keep in mind that digital printing does not give you as many finishing options as other printing methods. Accordingly, if you expect the finished printing to be handled quite a bit, it may be worth the expense to go with a different printing technique.

Other potential downsides are that you cannot use metallic ink and matching colors can be difficult. Moreover, if you do need large quantities, they will be quite expensive with digital printing.

4. Rotogravure

This direct, rotary printing process is perfect for large volumes. For instance, many newspaper and magazine publishers use rotogravure to churn out their many editions.

In the packaging industry, rotogravure may be used on stand-up pouches and bags. Folding cartons also may be printed with this technique.

Rotogravure involves a cylinder that is engraved with a design. The cylinder is inked, and the ink from the cylinder is transferred to a web of paper to produce graphics with outstanding color and clarity. Superior color performance is made possible because each color is applied with its own cylinder. Moreover, the cylinders are etched at different depths so that they hold more or less ink. These changes in depth result in varying hue intensity for the colors.

Rotogravure excels at capturing intricate details, and it frequently is used for printing photo images. It’s possible to produce a high volume of prints in very little time, but if your business doesn’t need a large run, then rotogravure may be too expensive for your needs.

This technique may be used to print on thin materials, and it even works well as a means for giving packaging a seamless, no-label look.

5. Silkscreen

Instead of plates, this printing process uses mesh to transfer ink to the printing surface. A blocking stencil guides ink placement and a machine efficiently moves a blade across the screen to fill the open sections of the mesh with ink.

Silkscreen is rather a time-consuming process as only one color can be applied at a time. If you want a multi-color design, then several screens will have to be created.

Accordingly, silkscreen is best suited to small orders that are printed on paper, metal, wood, glass, and fabric. The setup costs are relatively low, and a perfectly flat printing surface is not required.

Some companies opt for silk screen printing when they are coming out with a special or limited-edition product. However, some businesses choose silkscreen when they want their products to have a more sophisticated look and feel. This is true in the case of companies that use silkscreen for shampoos, body lotions, and perfumes to give their customers a more exclusive vibe.

Ask Mid-Atlantic Packaging

Are you still wondering which printing technique is perfect for your products? Call Mid-Atlantic Packaging and wonder no more.

Our packaging experts have been working in the industry for decades, making us the perfect partners for helping you to meet all of your company’s packaging needs with customizable packaging products.