Litho vs Digital Printing

Your design has been approved and you’re ready to go to print, but would litho or digital be better?

Here's the long and the short of which technology is suitable for what.

The quantity / speed / cost equation

Digital printing doesn’t have set-up or plate costs, but has a high unit cost. Litho has these costs, but also has a lower unit cost. The tipping point is where litho becomes cheaper than digital.

The quality / speed / cost equation

Litho printing is better for long runs, unless the higher speed of digital is needed, in which case it’ll cost more and have a lower quality. Digital printing is better for short runs, unless the higher quality of litho is needed, in which case it’ll take longer and cost more.

Other considerations

Print Type

Litho printing is a process that uses inks, aluminium plates and rollers. The inked plate, which has an etched image of your design on it, transfers the image to a blanket, which then transfers the image to the paper.

With digital printing, a digital file (such as a PDF) is sent directly to a printer from a computer. Digital printers use inks or toners in the 4 process colours and doesn’t need printing plates or a lengthy set-up.

Process

Litho presses have a number of ink units, and can print in process or spot colours (or both). The artwork is separated and a plate is made for each colour and is then mounted on the respective ink station.

No separations or plates are required for digital printing: a digital file (such as a PDF) is sent directly to a laser or inkjet printer from a computer. The printer software controls the breakdown of the CMYK colours.

Turnaround

The turnaround time is longer in litho as the inks need time to completely dry before further processing can start, a set-up and make-ready is needed and jobs also take longer to run due to their length.

Digital printing is generally quicker than litho printing as no plate-making or make-ready is required and runs are also shorter.

Run Size

Litho is suited to large print runs  as the cost of making the plates and setting the machine up are recouped over the entire print run, so the cost per unit decreases as the print quantity increases.

Digital printing doesn’t need printing plates or the kind of machine set-up that litho does, which therefore reduces costs and time and makes it suitable for short runs.

Colour

In addition to process colour, litho can handle spot colours, such as a corporate, fluorescent or metallic colour, as well as UV varnishing. It also manages tints, gradients and large solid areas of colour well.

Digital printing simulates the required colours using CMYK and generally can’t do spot colours or UV varnishing and doesn’t manage tints, gradients and large solid areas of colour all that well.

Variation

Litho printing is unable to print variable data, so all items will have the same design. With digital printing items can be personalised and printed with variable data, which is great for individualising items to make them specific to the recipient.

Litho printing produces high quality consistently, whereas digital print quality is generally lower and less consistent (but is starting to catch up fast).

Cost

The cost of making the plates and setting the machine up are recouped over the entire litho print run, so the cost per unit decreases as the print quantity increases, making litho suited to larger print runs.

Digital doesn’t need printing plates or the kind of machine set-up that litho does, which therefore makes it suitable for short runs.

Papers

Litho presses can successfully run a far wider range of paper weights (from 60gsm up to 500gsm). Litho can also offer a much wider choice of paperstocks.

Most digital presses can only run paper weights of 80gsm to 300gsm and are also more limited in the types of material on which they can print successfully.