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Printing Processes Explained

Ever been confused about how one printing process is different from another? There are many processes which are used daily in our industry, but most of us do not know what is exactly involved. Below we have included a few to get you started. Stay tuned as we will be adding more shortly or suggest one here.

Offset lithography is the most common printing process. There's sheetfed as well as web offset. Web presses use webs or rolls of paper; sheetfed presses use paper that comes in sheets. Ink is offset (transferred) from metal plates to a rubber blanket (cylinder) to the paper. Most commercial printers do offset printing. Offset is used for all run lengths - from short to long. Web presses are used for long runs. Don't presume you know which press your job should run on. It all depends on the specs, particularly size, paper, format and quantity.

Letterpress is "relief" printing. It was founded by Gutenberg in 1440. Relief printing means the images on the plate are higher than the surface - think rubber stamps. Fine letterpress is being done by fewer and fewer printers, but it is absolutely gorgeous.

Flexography is another type of relief printing. It uses flexible rubber or photopolymer plates and is a web process. Flexo is used for packaging products that include cardboard boxes, grocery bags, gift wrap, and can and bottle labels.

Gravure printing (aka "intaglio") is used for printing millions of impressions: think magazines, newspapers, and direct mail catalogues. It's also used for upholstery and textiles, wall paper, plastic laminates, and postage stamps.

Screen printing was always called silk-screening, but today's screens are also made of fabric like nylon or Dacron, or even stainless steel, as well as silk. Ink is forced through a screen, using a stencil pattern. Typical uses are T-shirts, signage, point-of-sale displays, decals, and truck signage.

Engraving produces the sharpest image of all. Steel dies are cut or chemically etched to hold ink. Paper's forced against the plate using tremendous pressure, causing an embossed (raised) impression. Run your fingers over the back side of the sheet and you'll feel the engraving. It's a dead giveaway.

Thermography is a less expensive alternative to engraving if you want raised printing. It uses special powder that adheres to any colour ink. Uses include all sorts of stationery products. It doesn't require a die, as does engraving.

Reprographics is a general term describing copying and duplicating. Think in-house copying departments and copy or quick printing shops. (But today, every job is a quick printing job, isn't it?) Duplicates are made of your originals.

Digital printing is the newest kid on the block - and every customer and company I know has a need for digital printing. Today's presses use either toner or ink-jet technology. A brand-new image is made from your digital file every time. Digitals ideal for short-run, fast-turnaround jobs. You can print exactly the amount you need, which means no waste. Digital has improved tremendously, in pricing as well as quality. Most printing firms offer digital.

Variable Data Printing (VDP) is a type of digital printing that lets you personalise every copy. Words, images - or both - can be changed with each impression.