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Last Updated 21st August 2019
Posted In: Brand Positioning | Guides & Advice

Choosing Print for Your Packaging.

Is digitally printed packaging or litho laminated boxes your best option?

If you are looking to have quality or even photographic print on your corrugated packaging, you typically have 2 choices – digital print or litho print (also referred to as litho laminated).

This guide not only explains what each of these processes are and how they work, but also how to make an informed decision on the best option for your specific application. It covers aspects such as:

Which offers the best lead times
Does print quality differ
Which is the most cost effective
Other considerations and questions to ask

Please continue reading below, use the table of contents to jump to your area of interest, or get in touch should you have any questions.

Introduction

The importance of printed packaging

High quality printed packaging can be hugely important to your business.

It carries your branding. It highlights what makes your product different and / or better than your competitors. It can include important instructions, safety and other critical information. It can help grab consumers attention plus aid recall and recognition.

Ultimately, the artwork on your packaging can help drive sales of your product.

Lithographic printing press
Litho printed and digitally printed packs can look virtually identical - so how do you choose which one to use?

A good example of how this can go wrong is Tropicana. The well-known juice brand decided to re-launch their packaging to make it more appealing and give it a fresher appearance.

The result? Sales plummeted.

Consumers no longer recognised the brand so easily, were confused at the point of purchase, and sales dropped as result. The original packaging design was reinstated not long after.

01: Options for High Quality Printed Packaging.

The best printed packaging option for your business / market

There are numerous ways for you to print your corrugated packaging.

At one end of the scale you have screen and flexographic printing, which lend themselves to bold, one or two colour designs. Whilst perfect for specific products, outer transit packaging or industrial applications, for many retail, consumer or luxury packaging applications there are 2 main choices.

Litho laminated packaging, or digitally printed packaging.

Both are able to provide exceptional detail, bright colours, a high level of definition and accurate reproduction of photographic imagery.

But before diving in to which print method would be most suitable for specific applications, it is important to explain how each process works.

How litho laminated packaging is produced

The first stage of lithographic printing is creating printing plates with the desired image on. A plate for each colour being used is required, but the maximum usually required (unless using spot colours such as Pantones) is 4 (cyan, magenta, yellow and black – CMYK).

During printing, the image is “offset” (i.e. transferred) onto a rubber sheet, which then in turn gets transferred to the substrate (the paper, or whatever material is being printed onto).

The process relies on oil and water not mixing. Effectively, the image being printed attracts oil based print, whilst the empty or blank areas attract water, making them ink free.

There is another process involved however if using this for corrugated cardboard packaging, and that is the “lamination”.

Corrugated material is thick (in comparison to paper) and has an uneven surface due to the fluting. As such, the litho print is applied to a layer of paper, which is then laminated onto the corrugated material once dry.

This not only produces a better print quality, but also does not affect the fluting or structure which may be altered if passed through a press.

Litho laminating process
Litho printed boxes are actually "litho laminated" - in that the print is applied to separate paper, which is then laminated onto the corrugated board.

How digital printed packaging is manufactured

Digitally printed packaging however does not use any printing plates at all, and instead relies on computers and technology telling the printer how to create the image on the paper (or directly onto corrugated cardboard).

The software will take the artwork and convert (if not already done so) into pixels, with this digitised image used to control the amounts and positioning of the ink on the substrate.

Inkjet is typically used for packaging applications, and this creates the design / imagery by adding miniscule droplets of ink onto the material to build up the image (as with litho printing this typically uses CMYK inks to build up the image).

The result is very similar to litho laminated packaging.

Digital printing packaging
Digital printing can produce results of comparable quality to litho, but prints directly onto the corrugated material.

02: Selecting Packaging Print Type.

How to choose which printed packaging is best for your business

Having covered the basics of how the two different print processes work, the remainder of this guide focuses on the pros and cons of each method when using on printed corrugated packaging.

This is broken down into the following 7 areas:

Order quantities
Lead times
Print quality
Variable aspects
Costs
Durability

Whilst this isn’t exhaustive, it certainly provides enough information to determine which method is most likely to be suitable for your specific packaging requirements.

03: Order Quantities

Print suitability based on MOQs and volumes

Due to the different nature of the 2 processes, they are each suitable for differing order volumes.

Digital printing is commonly used for low volume runs, as there is little or no setup costs and you do not need to invest in printing plates either.

As the unit cost remains the same regardless of number produced, low volume runs are more cost effective (although there may still be MOQs).

Litho printing on the other hand is more suitable for large volume runs.

This is because the unit price is generally lower, and as the volume required rises this eventually offsets the upfront cost of the print plates. This effectively means that unit costs decrease as the quantity increases.

04: Lead Times.

Difference in speed between digital and litho

As with order quantities, the difference in setup means that digital printed packaging is more suitable for short runs such as limited time period POS. Litho printed boxes are more suitable for higher volumes, such as ongoing branded packaging for consumer markets.

Digital printing is faster for short run orders, as there is no setup time. Once the design has been sent across and checked, it can be printed almost instantly.

Litho printed packaging on the other is slower for first time orders due the requirement for manufacturing the printing plates. However, the press will run considerably faster than a digital printer, meaning that it can soon catch up.

Litho printed food boxes
Due the faster print speed, litho printed packs are suited to higher print volumes (as this off-sets the longer setup time).

For repeat orders, with the plates already produced, the lead time is considerably less for litho printing.

05: Print Quality

Which method gives the best results on packaging?

Traditionally litho laminated packaging has offered the highest quality print.

This is partly due to many years of refining and improving the technology and processes within traditional printing presses, but also as it can offer additional finishes and features too. This not only includes Pantone matching, but also metallic inks and spot lamination for example.

Full colour litho laminated packaging
Litho laminated packaging can produce excellent results, and as such is used for markets / environments where print quality and design can directly impact sales

However, digital printing is catching up fast.

Whilst it is typically limited to CMYK colours, many new digital printers are able to offer spot colours and other features now too.

As things stand though, if print quality is of the upmost importance, litho laminated packaging will be your best option.

06: Variable Aspects.

Is digital or litho printed packaging cheaper?

Put simply, litho laminated packaging is more expensive on low volume runs, due to the setup time and costs of the plates.

However, there is a tipping point when the volume required makes it more economical – due to the overall lower unit cost and higher speed of production (which offsets the setup times and costs).

Digital as a result is more cost effective on low volume runs, if you the packaging is required for a one time product or promotion (i.e. it will not be reordered – or very infrequently).

07: Durability / Production Issues

Which provides longer lasting packaging?

There is little to choose between the 2 methods when it comes to durability.

The only potential problem for litho printed packaging is if the printed sheet starts to delaminate from the corrugated material (although this is very rare).

Due to the speed at which the press runs, and the volumes that are typically produced, it can also be harder to spot any issues in the middle of a large run where the print may be affected by dust or other debris on the substrate (e.g. finding 5 affected boxes in a run of 10K).

Digital printing may be slightly more prone to smudging or ink running as it tends to be slightly wetter when it comes off the printer.

Some digital printers may also use water based inks (litho uses oil based) which may also not provide the same level of longevity.

Saying that, both methods will guarantee an attractive, hard wearing and durable finish for your printed retail packaging.

Specialist print finishes
Both litho and digitally printed boxes can have specialists finishes such as spot laminating applied (although it may require a separate process).

In Summary.

Litho printed packaging, or digitally printed packaging?

So whilst both methods of producing printed packaging produce a high quality, attractive result, in order to determine which is best for your business, you need to ask a couple of questions.

How many do you need to print? How quickly do you need them? And, do any elements need to be changed?

Answering these will guide you on whether to use litho printed packaging or digitally printed packaging.

Related Articles...

Jay Daggar, Sales Manager at GWP Packaging

[email protected]
01793 754 444

About the Author: Jay Daggar

Sales Manager | GWP Packaging

Jay initially joined GWP Packaging in mid-2008 before becoming Sales Manager in 2011, meaning he has worked for GWP for over 10 years. [Read full bio…]

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