Digital Printing Vs Litho Printing Comparison | A review for beginners – what to know prior to printing
This guide is ideal for beginners and give the comparisons where either process can be used. Here is a quick summary of Digital Printing Vs Litho Printing, with a more in-depth review of both technologies in the full article below.
Digital Printing Summary
- Cost efficient on small quantities
- Full colour CMYK printing as standard
- Slight reduction in quality in some instances
- Limited paper weights
- Personalised printing of text and graphics per copy
- Enhanced print finishing effects can be added during printing
- Faster turnaround
Litho Printing Summary
- Cost efficient for larger quantities beyond a few thousand copies
- Fast printing speeds but needs time to dry once printed
- Better print quality
- Print on to heavier boards
- Wider range of spot (Pantone) colours
- Better printing results on large solid colour areas
Before we compare Digital printing Vs Litho printing here is a brief 30 second history of each technology.
When we talk about digital printing, we aren’t talking about high street photocopiers, the two are very different and produce different results. A digital printing press is a highly calibrated piece of equipment used in business quality commercial print, which is where we will focus.
Digital printing was introduced in 1993 when computers became wide spread and more cost effective. It made a commercial entrance to printing in 2001, notably when HP (Hewlett-Packard) purchased Indigo.
Since then huge investments and improvements mean the technology has greatly improved. There are many manufacturers of digital presses, Heidelberg for instance is another one.
At a first glance it is now extremely difficult to spot the difference between a Digital Printed or Litho Printed Job. This technology was born as a full colour printing process – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (CMYK) using a printing pigment. Liquid toner inks are now common.
Additional colours have been added to improve colour accuracy such are light cyan and light magenta to enhance photographs. Special effects such as varnishes and white inks have also have made an entrance. This is a fast-moving technology which is ever evolving.
Lithographic printing as it is known was invented in Germany in 1796 and Litho offset printing as we know it as today was invented in 1875.
Unlike digital the litho process requires metal plates be affixed to cylinders on the press for printing.
Making plates used to involve taking a photograph of artwork under controlled lighting conditions in a dark room, then using a chemical bath to develop the plate. Film processors then did away for the need of dark rooms, followed more recently in the noughties by direct to plate processors that laser the information onto aluminium plates.
Whilst we won’t focus on the exact science, in simple terms the inked plates transfer the graphics and text onto a rubber blanket, which are then transferred by impression onto the surface of the paper creating a printed sheet.
Black or single colour printing was the most cost-effective way to produce literature, but since the 1980s/1990s multi-colour printing has become more cost effective. Nowadays the four-colour printing process is the de facto standard with hundreds of special (spot) Pantone colour options.
Digital Printing Vs Litho Printing. The crash course in 2 minutes.
What influences the Digital Printing Vs Litho Printing decision will be down to your print specification. This means the quantity, colours, paper stocks, finished size and in some cases the speed at which you require your literature.
One of the most important factors is quantity. Digital presses are cost efficient at lower quantities.
Require anything from 50 or 100 flyers up to a few thousand, digital will be most cost-effective route for you. Unlike Litho, digital does not need plates and thus set up costs are much lower and printing is quicker.
Litho is a more economical option where higher volume printing needs as required, think multiple page brochures, magazines and direct mail.
Once the set-up process is complete it is a faster printing process, capable of printing at up to 16,000 sheets per hour on large presses. The Litho “cost per thousand copies” is lower than Digital, as digital has a minimum fixed cost per page applied called a “click charge”
Paper – Sheet Size
Both Litho and Digital print A3 & A2. HP have recently launched a new digital press capable of producing 10 A4 pages in one pass which matches equivalent Litho presses. The most common large format Litho press is B1, which prints 8 A4 pages on one sheet of paper.
Paper and Board Stocks
Digital presses print from 80gsm upwards to 350gsm, while sheet fed Litho presses print from 70gsm up to 400gsm or 450gsm, making them better for heavier packaging requirements and items such as business cards.
Both Digital and Litho print use the full colour printing format, CMYK. Both technologies print spot pantone colours, however digital is limited to 97% of the colour gamut at best. Litho still has the edge on colour.
Spot colours are used to match certain brand guidelines specified by large corporates to ensure brand consistency. Spot colours are also used when CMYK is unable to print certain colours, these include bright oranges, metallic colours and fluorescent colours. More information about colour is available by reading Understanding Pantone and Colour.
There will always be slight colour variation between work printed on a Digital press and a Litho press due to the different technologies. Avoiding the pitfalls of Pantone and CMYK Reproduction discusses this further.
Digital printing provides a quicker turnaround, with quick set up times the printed sheet does not need time to dry, this results in a faster finished product.
Litho uses vegetable oil based inks, which need time to dry and thus requires time to rest before print finishing and shipping.
The beauty of digital is that it offers the customer variable printing, since there are no metal plates and the image is printed directly on to the page. Each printed page is unique, allowing huge possibilities for personalisation of text and graphics during the printing process. This is not possible with Litho.
Litho is a very robust process proven over hundreds of years but as technology allows, digital is moving along at a fast pace, we may see Digital over take Litho within the next 5 to 10 years.