Different Printing Methods and Packaging Design
For book lovers and publishing connoisseurs, few things come close to a beautifully bound edition of a book whose pristine pages are delicately enclosed in an elegantly designed cover. It is the ultimate aesthetic element which lures in the reader, just as a finely packaged item will directly appeal to a consumer seeking a quality product. Serving as an extension of the product itself, packaging design needs to meet high criteria in order to reach its marketing potential—it needs to feature a design which encompasses the company’s ethos and appeals to the consumer, comply with logistical standards such as withstanding transportation and meeting specific size regulations, and reach a particular caliber of appearance. This is where package printing becomes an integral part of the creative process for companies all over the globe seeking to garner attention or give their brand a refresh, turning it into a rapidly growing industry of its own.
Naturally, the wide diversity of packaging—ranging from the plain boxes used by online retailers such as Amazon to the more detailed and collectable ones from high-end suppliers—means that the printing industry has to keep up with the constantly changing demands as issued by its clients. Accommodating these demands, printing companies use several different printing technologies with varying features to ensure that every package is printed to its fullest quality potential, the most common methods being digital, offset, and flexo (flexography) printing. In this rapidly-growing sector, these processes include both a new approach to printing (digital), as well as well-established traditional methods that are being frequently innovated (offset and flexo).
Digital printing is one of the fastest-growing segments in the creative and corporate world today, in part due its versatility, precision, usability and relatively low cost, giving both large and small businesses the utilities they need to package their product effectively. It works by transferring a digital image from a device such as a computer, camera, or smartphone, etc. directly onto a variety of media using a large-format and/or high-volume inkjet or laser printer. While its initial cost rises above traditional printing techniques, its accuracy and performance means that companies can save money overall, as well as time and labor. One of digital printing's main advantages over lithographic and flexo is that it does not require plates.
One of the most popular uses within the digital method is fine art inkjet printing, used in both the corporate and domestic sphere by which an image is transferred directly from the computer to the inkjet printer via a series of electronic files in jpeg, gif, png, and other formats. In laser printing, a beam of light is transferred onto light-sensitive paper to create the desired image. Some of the best features of digital printing include:
• Photographic and fine art printing (excellent quality, freedom to choose paper stock such as matte or glossy finishes, and digital retouching capabilities via photo-editing software)
• Desktop publishing (enabling people to produce quality print products from their own home, thanks to the competitive selection of printers and cartridges on the market)
• Variable data printing and advertising (allowing the mass personalization of printed products)
• Print on demand (optimal accessibility and customization).
How Offset Printing Works
Like digital printing, images from the computer are transferred (or offset) onto a plate cylinder or blank cylinder via a laser beam which burns the image onto the surface. Flat image carriers like planographic carriers which take the ink from rollers can be used when merging this process with lithographic printing, working in conjunction with a non-printing section which forms a “fountain solution” or film which prevents the ink from entering the clear areas or “negative space” of the design. In web offset, reels of paper are fed into the press to run through in-line sections which print out the specific graphic. After drying by air or ultraviolet, the product is virtually complete and ready to be assembled into a package.
Because of the durability and versatility of offset printing, the technology is able to handle various paper stock types and large capacity machines can process as much as 15,000 impressions per hour, making offset printing a highly productive endeavor, although this process can be expensive depending on the detailed nature of the project involved.
The Art of Flexography
Another commonly used printing method is flexo, which uses a flexible relief plate (rubber or plastic) that can accommodate materials ranging from paper and cellophane to plastic, metallic film, and non-porous substrates (usually seen in food packaging). Once a digital image is prepared, a photochemical or laser engraved plate made from polymers takes the image and using various methods (stack type, central impression cylinder, in-line, etc.) prints out the design, followed by the finishing which involves coating, cutting, folding and binding, depending on the package. With fast-drying ink and adaptability and capacity to cover large areas of color, flexographic printing is used in the production of several packaging items such as:
• Corrugated containers
• Folding and beverage cartons
• Multiwall and paper sacks
• Plastic bags
• Disposable cups and containers
• Stationary (labels and envelopes)
• Adhesive tapes
• Food wrappers.
Impact on the Design Process
As these technologies reach new levels of sophistication along with the ever-changing design and marketing field, all forms of printing are becoming more productive and precision oriented. Yet while all are capable of producing high-quality packaging print, specific types of packaging will have their own specific needs. This can go so far as to affect the impact on the design process itself. Factors such as feasibility, durability, size, shape, material used, and what graphics and colors are featured all play a pivotal role in determining which printing technique to use.
For some companies, particularly in the organic food industry, styles and designs tend to be simpler and therefore more “natural” and “organic”, as well as conveying a return to agricultural roots in which case a complex packaging design is not required. However, the material itself—whether card or wrapping—may be best suited to flexo printing, which can quickly and easily produce the image onto the material. Some businesses may choose to use offset printing for one particular aspect of the packaging (such as a folding component made from card or other heavy stock) instead using flexography for more complicated designs and materials.
If all methods of printing are accessible, with a little resourcefulness packaging can feature varying textures, finishes, and patterns. During the brainstorming process, it is useful to examine the technical side of how to adapt between processes should the need arise to combine more printing methods. This includes factors such as drying time, order of printings, availability of machines, and their respective cost. Coordinating two or more different styles of printing can save time and money if organized efficiently, as well as opening up a realm of possibilities for design scope.
One of the increasingly important factors in the package printing process which also determines printing methods is the effect that the production will have on the environment. With a significant onus on both large corporations and small businesses to reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible, more printing techniques involve the use of solvent-free paper and ink, and aim to make the energy used in producing the packaging as efficient as possible. Recycled materials are finding their way into the composition of packaging more and more, and printing machines are being developed to incorporate this as well as improve their energy efficiency.
In light of this, having access to the diverse array of processes available will fulfill the function of a powerful design, be cost-effective, sturdy, and sustainable, and perhaps in the near future the package printing industry will see the inclusion of another technique or a merging of flexo, offset, and digital, and in turn become even more available to small business owners.
Written by Jonny Rowntree, a freelance writer based in Northern England, working with worldwide printing partner, Elanders UK.