Digital printing v Litho printing – What’s the difference?

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Printing is something which has entered everyone’s lives in the last 10 years or so. If you own a PC or a laptop then there is every likelihood that you have a printer attached to it. And nowadays some of them are very good indeed, easily good enough to print out photographs as well as more routine items like letters or shopping coupons etc. But they work best with the inks made by the manufacturer and if you are looking for long life then original inks are essential. I use Epson printers which use Claria inks. Epson claim that these inks will last up to 200 years which, if true, should be long enough for anyone. But this longevity and convenience does cost highly. If you are only printing a few copies then unit costs will not be too much of an issue but if you were to say decide to print a run of leaflets then costs will mount up very quickly.

Luckily commercial printing has evolved at a similar pace to home printing and now most printing companies offer short run digital printing at competitive prices. In many ways the methods used are similar to home printing but using printers more akin to laser printers than inkjet. Digital printers are quick and convenient and if used with properly compatible materials they can be close in quality to litho printing. But, like inkjet printing, running costs can be high and so digital printing does become expensive for long run work and then litho printing becomes more cost effective.

Litho printing is highly skilled work using machines which are not at all like inkjet printers. Litho printing uses a set of printing plates, one for each colour so if the work involved is full colour it will require four printing plates. The printing plates used to be made by creating a film negative which was then used to make the plates so four colour plates needed four negatives. Modern technology uses what is known as CTP or Computer To Plate technology so one step has been removed making modern platemaking quicker and cheaper than in previous times. It is still expensive however and even when the plates are made the process of attaching them to the machine is time consuming work. However once this stage is reached it is possible to print many thousands of prints, as many as 100,000 or more, and so Litho printing can be very cost effective if the run length is above around 1000.

Where digital printing comes into its own is in the production of short runs of books or collated documents. It is possible for a digital machine to print a book as a whole which obviously removes the need for the pages to be collated together before it is bound. Some book publishers now offer a print on demand service for out of print books and can offer items which would otherwise be unavailable. Even for the person who wants to print off a few calendars as Christmas presents it is possible to get professional results in very short runs or even one offs.

There are compromises though as digital printing is not yet quite up to the same standard as litho printing. It is a little like comparing digital photography with film photography. There is no arguing that film is still better. It offers more detail and better handling of contrast and a good negative can produce large prints with more definition than a digital print. However digital photography has taken over from film because of it’s cost and convenience and the fact that it is quickly catching up with film and may one day be its equal.

So digital printing offers convenience and cost effectiveness with finished results only slightly behind that of litho. It also allows printing in short runs which would be prohibitively expensive using litho.

However litho does still offer better finished results and can be used on a much wider range of materials than digital. If run lengths exceed 1000 the it is undoubtedly the way to go and with the advent of being able to order online and transfer files instantly it offers the best quality at exceptional prices.

We proudly brought you this guest post courtesy of the guys over at Circle Services, one of the UK’s leading print companies!