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The differences between digital and litho printing

Have you ever received quotes for digital and litho printing and not known which to go for? Price is often the deciding factor but there’s much more to consider than just the cost. Here I have put together some pros and cons of digital and litho printing but before we get to them, let’s look at how the different print processes work.

Offset Lithography printing (usually referred to as Litho)

This is still the most common form of commercial printing. Usually the print run will be four-colour. This means that the design is separated onto four different printing plates. Each plate then prints a single colour: cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK). These colours combine together to make a full-colour print. Additional plates can be added with this method to print spot colours. These can be special inks such as fluorescent or metallic or they can be a Pantone ink that matches a corporate colour. Alternatively there can be fewer colours used such as two-colour printing where only two specified colours will be printed, because only two plates are being made, this is cheaper than four-colour litho.

Digital printing

Digital printing has no plates, the design file is transferred from a computer directly to the printing press. Again the four-colour process is used so there is no cost advantage to having fewer colours as with litho. The printers used are usually large format and/or high volume laser or inkjet printers.

Litho printing pros:

The main cost in litho printing is setting up the plates, once these are set up, the cost per copy is cheaper than digital. This makes litho the best choice for a large print-run. For example, printing 2000 brochures.

Printing is not limited to four colours, special or spot inks can be included to add impact to the design and print of the item.

Litho printing is better for large areas of solid single colour. The colour comes out smoother and no pixels can be seen.

Litho printing cons:

  • Not suitable for short-run printing as it is not cost-effective.

  • The turnaround time is longer with litho, usually taking about 5 working days. This is because time has to be allowed for the ink to completely dry before packaging.

Digital printing pros:

  • Excellent for short-run printing as there are virtually no set-up costs. For example if you wanted to print 50 invitations, digital would be the best choice.

  • Digital printing is faster, usually taking about half the time of a litho print run. This is because there are no plates to make and less drying time.

  • Digital printed items can be personalised. For example a direct mail campaign could have the name of the recipient incorporated into the design.

  • Printed material is not limited to paper. Designs can be printed onto metal, wood, plastics, glass and canvas.

Digital printing cons:

  • Because there is a cost per item, digital printing can be more expensive than litho for large print-runs.

  • Areas of solid single colour can sometimes look pixelated with digital printing. Making the quality appear less than litho.

  • Only colours made from CMYK can be printed, there is no way to include spot or special colours.

  • Each type of printing can be more or less suitable for you depending on your criteria and what you want to achieve. The general rule is litho for long print-runs and digital for short-print runs but do take into account special extras such as spot colours and personalisation.


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