Creating a design and package for your food and beauty product is a complex process, full of choices. Even after you come up with the perfect design and packaging, you have one final, crucial decision to make—what printing process to use?
Printing processes range in price and technique, and it can be overwhelming to decide what the right process is for you. You’ll have to consider a variety of factors:
- Your budget
- The quality you want for your design
- The type of material you’re using in your packaging
- The volume you’re printing
Let’s take a look at the five most common industrial printing processes and the pros and cons of each:
Lithography uses aluminum printing plates or rollers to stamp your design onto your packaging. It requires a flat surface and is commonly used on cartons and labels. With lithography, you can use special coatings and a variety of finishes (from matte to gloss.)
Designs printed with lithography are typically smooth, with no visible banding. This method works with a wide variety of materials, including cardboard, paper, and plastic.
This option is the go-to for many larger companies. But lithography’s high quality comes with an equally high price tag. If you’re operating on a budget, this might not be your best option.
- Provides a high-quality design
- Easy to produce large volumes
- Long lead times
- Limited to flat surfaces
The Bottom Line: If budget isn’t a factor and you’re printing on a flat surface, this is definitely the way to go. You’ll get great quality and you aren’t limited on volume. But if you need to cut costs, there are other more affordable options (you just might have to sacrifice some quality in exchange.)
Flexography (or surface printing) is similar to lithography with a few notable differences. Instead of aluminum plates, it uses flexible photopolymer plates wrapped around rotating cylinders. Flexography also uses quick-drying inks. This results in a much faster lead time, giving you the chance to produce large quantities quicker (and cheaper) than lithography.
However, flexography produces a lower quality product than its counterpart. You’ll want to avoid gradients or you’re likely to end up with banding. It can be used on most materials, and is commonly used for plastic packaging and corrugated cardboard.
- Can be used on a wide range of surfaces
- Fast lead time
- Banding with gradients
- Lower quality than other options
The Bottom Line: Flexography is a great option if you’re on a budget and printing a simple design. If you need a color gradient or high-quality images, you’ll need to look at a different option.
Digital printing has advantages, especially for small printing jobs. You can opt for at-home inkjet or laser printing, or go with commercial digital printing for larger jobs. It’s most often used for labels and package prototypes.
Digital printing offers high quality at a much lower price than lithographic printing. The digital printing process is simple and straightforward, with no minimums and quick turnaround times. The biggest downside is that it offers minimal coating protection.
- Good quality
- Low cost
- Quick turnaround
- No or low volume minimum
- Easy to tweak designs
- Simple process
- Best for small orders
- Minimal coating protection
The Bottom Line: Digital printing is ideal for new or small companies—it’s cost-efficient and doesn’t usually require a high minimum volume. But the price adds up for large volumes, so if you need a large order it might not be your best choice. It’s also not best if your packaging is designed to be handled a lot since it doesn’t have the level of coating protection other options offer.
In rotogravure printing, designs are acid-etched onto metal cylinders then transferred onto the surface of the packaging. Rotogravure produces precision color—each cylinder holds an individual color, and they are etched at varying depths to produce the desired color intensity.
Rotogravure is less common than other printing types, but it is typically used for designs that need complex color patterns or long-lasting images. It can print well on flexible and thin materials
- High print quality
- Great for photographs or detailed images
- Can be used on flexible and thin materials
- Can produce large volumes
- High tooling costs
- High volume minimum
- Long lead times
The Bottom Line: While rotogravure offers some very nice features—color detail, image quality, long-lasting designs—it also comes at a hefty price. This is probably only the best choice in very specific situations, where you need that attention to color detail or an image that will last a long time.
Silkscreen (or screen printing) uses a polymer mesh screen. The ink is pushed through the screen to imprint your design onto the packaging.
This method has a low setup cost and can be used on a range of surfaces (including glass, wood, and metal). It’s often used on bottles and tubes.
However, production is slow and doesn’t make sense for large volumes most of the time. It also can’t produce high-quality detailed images the way rotogravure or lithography can.
- Low costs
- Can print on rounded surfaces (mugs, caps, etc.)
- Works well for a wide range of materials
- Slow lead time
- Not ideal for large volumes
- Can’t produce high-quality detailed photographs or images
The Bottom Line: Silkscreen definitely has its place if you are printing simple logos or design on glass bottles or tubes. It makes sense for printing promotional and limited-run items at a low cost. But if you need large volumes or a quick turnaround this is not the way to go.
If you need high volumes but can’t skimp on quality you can’t beat lithographic.
If you need high volumes but have a simpler image or no color gradients and need to cut costs, flexographic is the way to go.
If you’re looking for lasting images and color detail, rotogravure makes sense.
If you’re producing small volumes, stick with digital or silkscreen.
Each printing type has its advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, your choice of printing process comes down to your individual needs. You have to weigh out budget, volume, detail of your design, the quality you need, the use of your packaging, and your packaging material.
Ready to implement a new design in your packaging? We’re here to help. We can create a design that makes people crave your brand and help you with all of the decisions you need to make.