There is a wide variety of print methods that can be employed when deciding how to manufacture your bespoke packaging. The huge range of options can be intimidating. This guide aims to break down and explain the different types of print that are commonly used within the packaging industry. From digital to litho to flexo. There are many reasons why a certain type of print may be required for a packaging project. There are cost differences associated with the different forms of printing.
Flexographic printing (Flexo)
Flexographic printing or flexography, sometimes abbreviated to ‘flexo’, is a style of printing which requires a flexible relief printing plate. Flexography is commonly compared to a modern version of the letter press. It can be used to print on almost any type of substrate, including plastic, metallic films, cellophane, and paper. It is usually utilised for printing on non-porous substrates and is widely used in the food packaging sector. Flexographic printing is also used in flood printing.
Flexo print is a form of direct-to-board printing. It uses a flexible relief plate to offset ink directly onto the board, before being die cut into the desired shape. Flexo plates are usually mounted onto a cylinder, which rolls onto an anilox roller that is partially submerged in ink, this collects a thin layer of ink on its surface which is transferred onto the printing plate, before offsetting this onto the material.
With flexo printing, a separate printing plate is required for each colour that you print. The number of colours you print increases the number of ink stations required and therefore the number of printing plates you require – and your costs increase accordingly. The cost of flexo printing plates depends on a variety of different factors but is primarily determined by the amount of print coverage you require and the complexity of the print area. Naturally, the more area the plate needs to cover, the larger the plate needs to be and the greater the cost.
In some instances, where a varnish is required to help seal the ink on your boxes, varnish plates will be required. These operate in exactly the same way that standard flexo plates do, but instead of ink they place a thin layer of varnish, overlaying the already printed surface. Sometimes it is possible to utilise blanket stereos (stereos that cover the entirety of the blank) but where varnish free areas are required, a bespoke varnish plate will need to be commissioned. Varnish free areas are typically required when a carton needs to be printed onto by a customer, at a later stage. This may be to outline batch numbers, sell-by dates, or any other product specific information.
Flexo print is commonly used for:
Lithographic printing (Litho)
Litho printing tends to be compared to photographic print quality and is widely regarded as the highest quality print type on the market. Where digital and flexographic print is best suited to modest quantities, the price of lithographic printing decreases significantly as quantities increase. Litho printing involves plates being loaded into a printing press where the image is transferred onto a rubber sheet and then applied to the chosen substrate. The process relies on the repulsion of oil and water (water-oil immiscibility), the image that is being printed attracts ink from the rollers whilst the unprinted area attracts water, meaning it remains ink-free.
Litho printing is a more advanced form of printing than flexo and provides a much clearer and more detailed print finish Lithographic print, when used for corrugated boxes, is not a form of direct-to-board printing. Most litho printers are setup to print onto solid board, coated or uncoated papers or folding boxboard substrates up to 700mu in thickness. This means you cannot run corrugated board directly through a litho printer. Generally, the pressure that a litho press applies would crush a fluted board, reducing any impact protection that the substrate would have otherwise offered. Your graphics would first need to be printed onto a liner, or paper which is then laminated, using an adhesive, onto a single face corrugate (S/F corrugate) or a standard corrugated board. This additional lamination process does mean that litho laminating is a more expensive method of printing onto boxes and is better suited to high value items or where stand out design is required, often in the retail environment. However, printing plates for litho presses are generally much more cost-effective than flexo printing plates and your setup costs would be conversely much lower.
Litho print is commonly used for:
There are various ways that digital printing can be done. The two main ways are Inkjet printing, and xerography. These two techniques account for again 15% of the total volume of print in the world. The printers you have at home usually rely on digital printing. It does not rely on plates but rather on toners and cartridges.
An inkjet printer produces an image by propelling diminutive drops of ink out of print heads. Inkjet printers can print on a wide variety of substrates, such as paper, plastic, canvas or even floor tiles. Inkjet devices are most commonly used for printing signage and posters. It is also favourable for shorter run projects as you don’t have to pay for printing plates or origination costs, books and photo books for example. A benefit of inkjet printers is that you are able to print variable data, such as mailing addresses or coupon codes, which cannot be achieved through flexographic printing. Sometimes it makes sense to use a combination of flexographic and digital print, depending on the type of project.
In xerographic printers, such as laser printers, the image is created by selectively applying a charge to a metal cylinder, known as a drum in the print industry. The electrical charge attracts toner particles which then adhere to the medium that is being printed on. To ensure that the toner has properly adhered to the substrate, it passes through a fuser that melts the toner into the medium.
This process, originally developed by a Hungarian physicist named Pál Selényi in 1942, was cumbersome but eventually led to the development of the Xerox 914, the first commercial automatic copier.
Digital print is commonly used for:
This type of printing is far less common than the three methods mentioned above and is probably one of the most expensive methods, though produces a high-quality print.
Usually split down into either ‘roto’ or ‘gravure’ printing colloquially, it is a type of intaglio printing process which involves engraving an image onto an image carrier, or large cylinder which the ink is directly applied to. The cylinder then transfers this image to the chosen substrate. An indirect gravure process is also possible, where the cylinder first transfers and image.
Rotogravure print is commonly used for:
- Newspaper and magazine publishers.
- Flexo printing is a great, simple option. It’s a direct-printing method where designs are applied directly to your packaging material. It’s a versatile, cost-effective choice for simple designs and bulk orders.
- Litho is a premium, high-end printing process that laminates printed sheets on top of your box. Unlike other printing options, lithography is a two-step process.
- Digital printing is a process that, like flexo, allows for direct-to-box printing. It is one of the most economical ways to print your custom packaging as it doesn’t require tooling or die.
What print is best for my packaging?
There are many different elements to be considered when deciding what the most suited method of printing for your bespoke packaging. Sarcina Packaging can help talk you through what processes are best for your products and packaging, whilst staying within your budgetary requirements.
Call Sarcina Packaging today for free impartial advice on how we could help you to make these decisions easier.