Flexo vs. Digital Printing

Flexo vs. Digital Printing

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We take a look at the key factors that affect which printing solution is the most appropriate for your business.

As technology has developed and improved, the number of printing technology options have increased, causing confusion about what is the best choice for your labels. While some printing jobs are best suited for a flexographic printer, there are variables that can cause digital to be the most appropriate option. Also, unforeseen variables may affect which technology is most appropriate, variables that are generally uncovered while discussing your specific needs with us.

While a label may appear to be just a small piece of paper with adhesive on the back, this seemingly insignificant item can have a major impact on the sale of products. Significant time and energy should be spent determining and evaluating the target audience, selecting the right colors and designing a label that will enhance sales. According to marketing experts, a product’s packaging attracts the consumer’s attention to that particular brand, enhances its image, and influences the consumer’s perceptions about that product. It also adds unique values and works to distinguish the product from other, similar, products. As a whole, the packaging plays an important role in branding and should, therefore, be considered to be one of the most important factors.

What is Flexographic Printing?

Flexographic printing, also known as Offset printing, is a method of printing that uses flexible printing plates made of rubber or plastic. Each plate, with its slightly raised image, is rotated on a cylinder and coated with fast drying ink. The material to be printed on, or substrate, is passed between the print plate and impression roller, which applies pressure to keep the substrate against the plate. This high speed print process can be used for printing onto any number of substrates.
 Flexographic Printing Process

Benefits of Flexo Printing:

  • Enhanced Durability – You can use the flexographic printing method with virtually any substrate. This is especially important with those that are sensitive to heat, such as the direct thermal materials that are printed upon a second time using printers. Labels that need to have a longer shelf life or need to withstand the damaging effects of outdoor use are best created using flexographic printing technology.
  • Speed of Production – Another significant advantage that flexographic printing has over other printing processes is its production speed. Flexographic presses use fast-drying inks that allow the presses to add one color after the next in virtually no time at all. Furthermore, the laminating, die-cutting and other processes like cold foiling are integrated into the press line, making production continuous. Unlike other printing technologies that require the labels to be removed from the presses and taken to another station for additional steps, the flexographic presses enable cold foil, die-cut and lamination to all be completed in one step, making production continuous.
  • Colour Precision – Flexographic Printers use the Pantone Color System, a standardized color reproduction system, to determine the exact color for your graphics. This system is used around the world and allows customers to determine the exact color they want. The color can then be reproduced precisely to customer specifications.
  • Lower Costs – The high-speed and high-volume production in flexographic printing causes it to be extremely affordable for large runs. Furthermore, no work is really needed between the preparation process, setting up the printer and plates, and taking the finished product off the presses, which saves on labor. The reduced operating costs mean cheaper products of uncompromisable quality for the customer.

Drawbacks of Flexographic Printing

While there are many benefits to using flexographic printing technologies, there are several drawbacks to this printing solution.

  • Cost of Plates – The cost of the printing plates is the greatest drawback of using flexographic printing. These plates hold the images that are going to be printed on to the label, and there must be a plate purchased for each color. For a large run, with a large number of labels, the one-time cost of the plates is easily offset by the speed and production costs. For a short run, however, the cost of the plates outweighs any possible production savings.
  • Cost of Image – The act of wrapping an image around a cylinder for the press causes the image to become stretched and distorted when it is printed. Recognizing this, it is necessary to distort the image before the plates are created. The cost of distorting the image is, like the plates, a one-time fee. However, for short runs, this additional cost is a deterrent against using flexographic printing.
  • Registration – Registration is the method of correlating overlapping colors on one single image. Because flexographic printing requires movement during the process of creating the single image, the movement as the labels move from one color plate to the next, it is impossible for the colors to overlap precisely. Instead, traps and bleeds must be used. Trapping is accomplished by intentionally overlapping colors, whereas bleed refers to printing that goes beyond the edge of the label. Both of these printing methods work to ensure that minor problems in alignment are not noticed.

 

What is Digital Printing?

Unlike the flexographic printing presses that require plates, digital printers deposit toner onto the substrate. The toner does not actually permeate the substrate, but instead forms a thin layer on the surface that is adhered using a heat process.

Digital Printing Process

Benefits of Digital Printing:

  • Fast Turn Around – Digital printing doesn’t require plates to be created or images to be distorted and the setup time for the machine is minimal. For these reasons, digital printers can easily turn around custom print jobs quickly and easily, with no significant labor demands.
  • Image Quality – Because of the movement of the label on the flexographic printing presses, it is nearly impossible to achieve perfect alignment for every color plate, and bleeds and traps are added to accommodate for this. However, digital images are printed in one image, rather than using several different plates. For this reason, there is never any registration, or color overlap, with digital printing.
  • Lower Costs – Because there are no plates to create or images to distort, the cost of printing can be low in comparison to flexographic printing. That said, the cost per label is actually higher with digital printing than flexographic. For short runs, however, the higher cost per roll or per sheet is still offset by the significant savings from not having to purchase plates.
  • Flexibility – Because digital printing largely just involves the image, as opposed to costly plates, labels can be easily changed or updated at no expense. You can also easily print multiple versions of the same label quickly and easily. Digital printing allows for flexibility with your print jobs that flexographic printing can’t accommodate without adding time and money.

Drawbacks of Digital Printing

Just as there are benefits to selecting a digital printing solution, such as image quality and speed of turnaround, there are also a number of drawbacks that should be considered.

  • Higher Costs – While avoiding the investment in plates for flexographic printing may offset the higher cost per label for short runs, it doesn’t work for large runs. For businesses that need to print a large number of labels quickly, flexographic printing is the more affordable solution.
  • Less Durable – While ideal for most product labels, digitally printed labels aren’t designed to last the test of time or be used outdoors. A laminate can be added to increase the level of durability, but this requires an additional step during production.
  • Color Selection – Unlike flexographic printing that can create exact matches to the Pantone Color System, digital printing uses a four color process build (C.M.Y.K), using cyan, yellow, magenta, and black . While digital presses can often get extremely close to a color, they are still limited in their range of colors. A digital printer is incapable of duplicating an exact Pantone Color.
  • Additional Processes – Digital presses are limited to just printing that image; no additional processes can be added to the line. In order to add lamination, cold foil, or another process, you must first print the image, remove the roll, re-run it to laminate it and die-cut it after it comes off the printer. These additional steps require additional labor and therefore additional time and cost.
  • Limited Materials – Because digital presses use a heat process to adhere the ink to the substrate, they cannot print on materials that are heat sensitive. Direct thermal labels, for example, would turn black if you tried to print onto them using a digital printer.

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Selecting the right label printing technology isn’t something you should do yourself, however, it’s important to select a label manufacturer to work with you in making the decision about which label printing technology is best from a cost and quality standpoint.

The exact labeling solution cannot, necessarily, be uncovered by simply marking “yes” or “no” on a list. Each company faces different labeling challenges and has different needs, some of which may have nothing to do with the labeling technology. The only way you can truly know what is right for your business is to speak to one of our sales assistance at Spear Labels. We have the knowledge and experience to answer your questions and guide you toward a solution that is tailored to meet your needs and will provide you with high quality, affordable labels.

 

Need more information concerning Flexographic or Digital Printing? Give us a call on (011) 869 0425 or email us at info@spearlabels.co.za.

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