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Printed Cardboard Packaging – What Are Your Options?

David Mason: Last Updated 16th February 2024
Posted In: Brand Positioning | Guides and Advice xx 31633

Selecting Suitable Printed Boxes

Choosing an appropriate print type for your industry / application

Whilst the ability of your corrugated packaging (i.e. cardboard boxes)to protect your goods in transit is critical, using printed cardboard packaging can have significant benefits for your brand and business too.

But which type of print should you use?

This guide sets out the 4 main types of printing that can be used for cardboard transit, retail or ecommerce packaging, plus which is most applicable for your business. You’ll learn:

  • The 4 types of print typically used on cardboard packaging
  • The pros and cons of each method
  • Suitability for different markets / uses
  • How to decide which is right for you

Please continue reading below to get started, or use the contents links to go to your specific area of interest. Alternatively, we will be happy to answer any questions you may have – please get in touch.

Quick Reference / Contents


Why how you print your boxes matters

Your brand – and the perception of it – is crucial to your business.

It helps to win new business. It helps you maintain relationships and customers. It makes your products recognisable in a sea of rival and alternative products. It gives you a point of difference.

Ultimately, it can be the difference between driving sales or losing market share. Getting your packaging artwork wrong can be disastrous.

Printed packaging box
Printed cardboard packaging can actually be produced in a surprising number of different ways

Your packaging has a crucial role to play in this. In fact, printed cardboard packaging is not only a way to protect your products whilst they make their way through the shipping and transportation process. Increasingly, it is a way of presenting your products, advertising your business and increasing brand awareness too.

To achieve this, and to make your packaging look as eye-catching as possible, there are a number of different print options available. Each print technique has a range of benefits (and limitations) specific to it however.

Choosing the right one can make a significant difference to the success of your packaging.

01: Printed Cardboard Packaging Options

The standard options when manufacturing printed cardboard packaging

So what are the main print types you can choose from when sourcing corrugated packaging? Well, in no particular order, here are the options you should be considering:

  • Screen print
  • Flexographic (flexo) print
  • Litho laminated print (lithographic)
  • Digital

The remainder of this guide provides further details on each of these methods, along with advantages of each.  Whether you require high or low volume printing runs, there will be an option to perfectly suit the needs of your packaging project.

02: Silk Screen Printing

Simple print method for bold designs / low volumes

Silk screen printing is one the oldest and most basic forms of printing. Yet it can still be used for printed cardboard packaging.

It is a print technique that makes use of a mesh to transfer ink onto a material. Despite its’ simplicity, this technique can produce excellent quality single or two colour images.

Silk screen printing makes use of stencil (or multiple stencils if using more than one colour in the artwork).

This sees a design imposed onto a screen of polyester or a fine mesh. Blank areas are coated with an impermeable substance so that the ink cannot transfer through, whereas the image area and is made of porous material which allows for full ink coverage on the substrate.

During printing, the ink is forced through the screen which is mounted on a frame using a fill blade (or squeegee).

When being used for packaging materials the board is generally screen printed prior to its conversion into a box or display. A clear benefit of this method is that it can product a higher resolution image than many other techniques.

Due to the setup time and manual nature of the process, this form of printing is rarely used for corrugated packaging (unless very low runs are required). It is also only really suitable for transit packaging that carries basic branding, due the limitations on colours.

Saying that, this method is ideal for printing Correx® packaging or protective cases, which are generally required in lower volumes.

Screen printed packaging
Screen printed packaging can be used to create bold designs, and is also perfect for using on Correx®

Key benefits of screen printed cardboard packaging

  • Cost effective for low quantity print runs
  • Produces a high-quality image on to corrugated cardboard
  • Can print on to a multitude of surfaces including cardboard, plastic and Correx®
  • Creates long lasting images that will not easily rub off with use

Disadvantages of screen printing packaging

  • Long preparation times before printing can begin
  • Minimum order numbers are required due to the long set-up processes
  • Due to the manual nature of the process, it is not suitable for mid – high volumes
  • There can be restrictions on the size of the graphic that can be printed
  • Costs can increase if the design contains a large variety of colours

03: Flexo Printed Packaging

Perfect for simple, striking print in mid to high volumes

Flexography (flexo) is a form of printing that which makes use of a flexible relief plate. It is often referred to as being a modern day version of the letter press.

One of the main benefits of flexographic printing it that it can be used to print on to a wide range of substrates (materials) including plastic, foil, brown paper, cardboard and other packaging materials.

Flexographic printing begins with the development of a flexographic plate. The technique makes use of plates that have with raised images. Only the raised images come in contact with the substrate during printing and deposit ink onto the material, thus generating the printed image.

Flexographic printed packaging
Flexographic print can usually be done "in line" (i.e. at the same time as the packaging is die cut), and can create a striking appearance

Flexographic plates are made of a flexible material such as plastic, rubber or UV sensitive polymer (photopolymer). This is so that the plates can be attached to a roller or cylinder for ink application.

Flexographic inks unlike those used in lithography, generally have a low viscosity. This enables faster drying and, as a result, faster production, which results in lower costs.

This also helps flexo to be suitable for use in the food industry. In fact, press speeds of up to 600 meters per minute can be achievable now with modern printers.

Whilst flexographic printing can be used for full colour printed cardboard packaging, this method lends itself more to 1 – 3 colour, bold graphics in high volumes.

Key Benefits of using Flexographic printed cardboard packaging

  • Can be used to print use on a wide range of absorbent and non-absorbent materials
  • Images can be printed in a wide range of colours enabling vibrant image production
  • Uses fast drying inks, which might be solvent based, water based or UV curable
  • Cost effective and economical for large volume runs
  • Ink evaporates quickly making it safe for use on flexible food packaging

Disadvantages / drawbacks of this print method

  • Images tend to be simpler, being unable to produce complicated intricate artwork
  • Newer techniques can generate results more quickly and with a more crisp finish
  • Cost of printing plates means it is not suitable for low volume runs
  • Flexography can produce poor shadows
  • Potential for issues such as bleeding and pin-holing to occur on the finished product
Flexo printed packaging
Flexo printed packaging can yield some impressive results, and is a cost effective choice for use on transit packaging

04: Litho Printed Packaging

Exceptional print quality for high volume requirements

Lithography is the most commonly used, high-volume commercial printing technique available.

The image that will be printed is transferred from a computer onto a printing plate and is cut into the plate using a laser.

This ensures accurate reproduction of the image onto the plate and providing a high quality result. It also allows for full colour, photographic quality images.

The process is based on the repulsion of oil and water. The image that is to be printed is coated with ink from rollers within the printing press. The areas that are not to be printed attract a coating of water and as such repel any ink and remain unprinted.

Lithographic printing
Litho printed or litho laminated packaging, actually sees the print placed on to a separate sheet of material which is then laminated onto the corrugated cardboard

Lithographic printing can be achieved on a traditional printing press or on a sheet-feeder. The benefit of using a sheet feeder is that the material can be fed into the press one sheet at a time at very high speed to achieve quick results.

However, this makes it unsuitable for printed cardboard packaging. Whilst cardboard is a strong and versatile material, it can be difficult to print directly on to due to its’ thickness and also the ridged surface (created by the fluting).

As such, when used for packaging, the design is printed onto paper which is then laminated onto the face of the corrugated board (hence being commonly referred to as “litho laminated”).

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.

Advantages of litho laminated packaging

  • Achieves a high quality and consistent image every time
  • Suitable for high quality photographic quality imagery
  • Cost effective for high volumes as the unit cost decreases with increased quantities
  • Able to cope with long runs without losing quality
  • Can easily produce specialist finishes such as pantone spots and metallic colours

Disadvantages / drawbacks of this print method

  • The nature of the technique means that set up is expensive
  • Due to complex set up lithographic printing can take longer than other techniques
  • There is no option to amend designs once the plate has been set up / printing started
  • Smaller colour gamut therefore colours can be less bright
  • Not cost effective for short runs
Litho laminated packaging
Litho laminated packaging can produce exceptional print finishes, including photographic quality imagery.

05: Digitally Printed Packaging

Exceptional print quality for high volume requirements

Digital printing is a method of printing that uses a digital based image and prints directly onto the chosen material.

Rather than making use of traditional printing press techniques, digital printing requires large format laser or ink-jet printers which deposit pigment or toner on to a wide range of materials that require printing.

As such, there is no mechanical set up associated with digital printing as there is with more traditional techniques such as Flexography and Lithography.

Instead the images are sent digitally to the printer from design software. The means images can easily be amended to ensure the best result even once printing has begun.

Digital printing is an option for projects that need to be completed quickly. Whilst the cost-per-page of printing can often be higher than traditional techniques, this cost if offset for low volume runs by there being no mechanical set up costs or need to purchase / replace printing plates.

Digitally printing packaging
Although it can produce results comparable with litho print, digital printed packaging sees the ink applied directly to the corrugated materials

As well as the cost benefit and the speed at which images can be printed, digital print can also help with image quality.

Due to the non-contact nature of digital printing, there is a significantly reduced risk of image distortion which is something that can happen often in analogue techniques.

In addition digital printers do not need the material to be tightly held or stretched during the printing process meaning that more materials can be printed onto and giving designers more choice.

As with litho printed cardboard packaging, photographic quality images are easily achieved, although pantone colours and metallic tend not to be supported.

It does allow for changing designs and dynamic elements however, such as changing promotional codes or customer personalisation.

Key Benefits of using Digitally printed cardboard packaging

  • No plates or complicated setup leads to a fast turn-around of orders
  • Easy to generate proofs before printing run begins with amendments easily achieved
  • Artwork can be amended during production with no need for new plates / setup
  • Enables bright, vibrant images on materials including paper and corrugated board
  • Cheaper than traditional options for low volume printing jobs
  • Allows for personalisation and variable aspects

Disadvantages / drawbacks of this print method

  • Can be hard to match pantone colours (branding may not be as easily reproduced)
  • Specialist finishes such as metallic are not as easily achievable or cost effective
  • Quality can be inconsistent, as some materials produce better results than others
  • Expensive on longer runs due to print times
  • There is less control over the colours that are produced by the printer
Digitally printed packaging
Digital print can produce excellent results, and is more cost effective than litho laminated print for low volumes

06: So which do you choose?

Deciding on the best printed cardboard packaging for application

Despite having all of this information, it can still be difficult to decide which one would be best for your specific application.

As a general rule, screen printing would not be suitable for corrugated packaging unless you are looking at very low volumes (e.g. under 100), and only require basic one or two colour graphics.

It is however an ideal choice for printing Correx®, plastic packaging or even protective cases.

Flexographic printing is ideal for printed cardboard packaging that requires bold, striking graphics.

This makes it a good choice for transit packaging, but less so for retail applications. It is reasonably cost effective regardless of print run, but the cost of the plates need to be justified (ruling out very low volumes).

Litho laminated printing is the best choice if you need the highest quality print.

Photos and intricate graphics can be easily reproduced, making it perfect for retail packs and POS. However, the cost of the plates and setup mean lead times are longer than other methods, and that it is not cost effective for low volume runs.

And finally, digital printed packaging offers an alternative to lithographic (and flexo) methods.

It can be cost effective in very low volumes (due to no printing plates being used and minimal setup costs), but due to the print speed is not suitable for high volumes. It can produce results comparable to lithographic, including photographic imagery, and can be used for personalising packs to (as elements can change between individual prints).

In Summary

Your perfect printed cardboard packaging

All four of these printing options can be sourced directly from GWP Packaging and applied to your packaging.

A team of experienced staff will be able to offer impartial advice on the printed packaging option that is right for your business based on a range of factors (budget, structural design, end user etc.), as well as ensuring that your products gain the attention they deserve.

Further Reading...

About the Author

David Mason, GWP Packaging

David Mason

Sales Director | GWP Packaging

David is Sales Director for GWP Packaging, having originally joined the company (then Great Western Packaging) back in 1990. [Read full bio…]

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