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Everything There Is To Know About Digital Printing

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It is no exaggeration to say that the emergence of digital print changed the world. Many forget how revolutionary this technique proved to be when introduced in the early 1990's, a relatively short time ago.

Back then controlling output through a combination of computers and electronic files seemed fanciful. Now it is every day standard practice.

 

Digital Printing technology has progressed greatly in a short space of time to become the dominant printing process for most short run products, demonstrating its vast capabilities.

Evans Graphics has evolved as the technology has, and maintains custom built state of the art Digital printing equipment on site that can accomplish almost any task achievable by a Digital Printer. This has led to us becoming one of the leading digital printing companies in our region.

Digital Printing methods are ideally suited to products where the volumes are relatively small to medium in size, and the design is such that it involves the use of CMYK with many colours and tints. There are far less physical origination costs involved in setting up to print digitally.

On this page we'll explain the digital printing process in detail, delving into its origins, popularisation and continual reinvention. We'll also compare it to that other enduring technique - screen printing.

Types of Digital Printing Uses & Applications

  • BannersPalettonCapture-list
  • Posters
  • Display Boards
  • Exhibition Graphics
  • Booklets & Pamphlets
  • Flyers
  • Signage
  • Almost No Minimum Quantity
  • Minimal Set Up Costs
  • Fast Production Times

 

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Digital Printing Origins

Hewlett-Packard had a big role to play in the coming of digital print. Some 600 years after the first recorded examples of print work, the information technology company’s Indigo division unveiled its E-Print 1000; a printer to you and me.

To the delight of fans and sceptics alike this machine brought computer files to life – or at least to paper. Suddenly a world of opportunity presented itself.

Terms such as 'short-run', 'personalised' and 'high quality' entered the vernacular almost overnight as businesses from all sectors updated internal and external processes alike.

Indigo itself was founded in 1977 and the journey to digital print becoming widely available certainly took some time…

In the mid 80s black and white laser printers were available and not uncommon in many offices. The technology required to power such machinery however was costly whilst the sheer size of the equipment proved somewhat of a turn off. Nevertheless the likes of Xerox, Apple and Canon succeeded in bringing laser printers to market at this juncture.

Further advancement came when desktop publishing surfaced. Indeed by the middle of the decade businesses were empowered to print and publish their own digital files. Software was released that allowed offices to print regularly and promptly.

Better still small edits could be made in-house, without a reliance on professional printers. That said, the operation remained a costly one, with only a handful of organisations able to foot sizable bills.

And still an everyday home printer eluded us. By this time the technology clearly existed – and had done for ten years or more. Nevertheless technical hiccups undermined any large-scale launch.

Ink efficiency was debated, along with ways to prevent nozzles from becoming clogged with dry ink and thus malfunctioning. A solution of sorts was found when print companies implemented liquid ink cartridges. This move convinced the bigwigs at HP to release the DeskJet printer in 1988 – available for the princely sum of $1,000.

Come the mid 90s a revolution turned arms race was underway. QMS unveiled the first ‘desktop’ laser printer in 1993 and Apple quickly followed up with their own version in ’95. These products retailed for $12,500 and $7,000 respectively.

Technological advancement means digital printing methods and printers have seen countless revisions. Nowadays the process is faster, cheaper and considerably more powerful. None of it however would have been possible without that first breakthrough just 30 years back.

What Is Digital Printing?

Digital processes prompt a variety of frequently asked questions. So what is digital printing and how does it come to fruition?

In layman terms those all-important electronic files are replicated through a combination of dots and colours. Together these conspire to produce an image using either toner or ink.

A more detailed explanation would highlight how the images themselves are assembled from a complex set of numbers and mathematical formulas. Said images are captured from a matrix of dots – otherwise known as pixels – in a process referred to as digitising. These digitised pictures govern how and where ink is distributed as an exact match – or at least something resembling it – is created.

Think of it like your office printer only on a far larger scale.

Digital Printing Colours

Digital Printers typically deal in what is called a four-colour process; that quartet being Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black – or CMYK. When an image is readied for print it is composed of these primary colours, which are split into a set of patterns and percentages.

Combinations of the group make anything not included within their midst– when blended 100% yellow and 100% magenta will facilitate red for instance.

CMYK is not to be confused with RGB. The latter is made up of Red, Green and Blue and are the colours of light a computer screen utilises to display its colours.

Expecting something shown in RGB (digitally) to look identical in CMYK (print) is folly.

Digital Banner

Digital Printing Setup

One of the real advantages of digital print and digital printing methods is how little setup is involved, at least compared to traditional approaches such as lithography or letterpress.

Refreshingly, there is no need to replace plates between jobs, nor a need for pre-press costs associated with those same plates. Indeed additional equipment is minimal.

Naturally, this results in far quicker turnaround times as sheer admin and maintenance are reduced. In fact the majority of preparatory work for digital print comes from behind a computer desk. Make no mistake, the page make-up is key to a successful project…

_R1A6205Using software ranging from Photoshop to InDesign clients are required to first set a page size. From there a bleed must be added – typically one sized at least 3mm.

Elsewhere, crop marks must be be shared to indicate where the material is intended to be trimmed. More on each of those points shortly…

Where images are included they should be done so in accordance with either a TIFF or EPS file format, the latter containing fonts.

Worth noting is where images are added from a JPEG format designers are advised to save at a maximum quality. Colour images meanwhile should be readied in the aforementioned CMYK format while a minimum input of 300 dpi is advised to achieve a good quality output.

Fonts can prove problematic in the lead-up to many digital print jobs. Variations in type design and/or alternative fonts can undermine the final product. Artwork is often as good as the typeface emblazoned across it and should that not be embedded in any saved version a substitute will likely be introduced – one with no guarantee of suitability. For although you may have purchased a font, your printers of choice may not.

Saving to a pdf often guards against this problem – as that platform offers a preview of the correct fonts embedded. Always embed.

It is also worth checking legal requirements to ensure all lettering complies with current legislation. Yes, this is serious business.

Though files can be supplied via anything from a CD to an FTP upload it is good practise to make backups. Several of them. Do not risk losing your creative and be mindful too of data security.

Finally, it pays to accompany any files with written guidance for printers. Be as descriptive as possible when explaining how you want your artwork to ultimately look.

Let us take a closer look then at some of the terminology mentioned above:

Bleed

A bleed refers to ink that exceeds the trim edge of a page. Why? To ensure it extends the edge of the page after trimming. Clients are encouraged to build in 3mm worth of bleed on all edges given that digital printing involves a fair amount of movement.

Failure to include a bleed line will result in an unwelcomed white border appearing around the artwork. Worse still printers will likely trim the job under size, cutting into the image detail and thus underdelivering.

Crop Marks

Crop marks are a visual cue to printers as to where they need to cut the paper; knowledge of this is not a given.

Trim Line

This, quite simply, refers to the finished size of the piece and denotes the end of the document itself.

Live Area

The centrepiece of your design; the area reserved for its main detail.

Highlight all of the above before sending your document to any professional printer. Failure to do so may result in them refusing the job outright.

Digital Printing Short Runs

Given its relative simplicity digital printing lends itself to an on demand service. Indeed thousands of sheets – often large format - can be produced at a relatively low cost. These savings offset the general pricing model, which is traditionally higher than others.

What are termed short runs meanwhile – these quantities of between 1 and 100 – can often be realised also. The absence of any real setup – and the ability to print minus plates - means professional printers can afford to accommodate such low key jobs.

Knowing this, prospective clients oft ask for single sheet test runs before committing to full scale orders. Digita; printing methods allow for this.

Digital Printing Drying

Printing digitally onto substrates is not exactly the end of the process. Indeed inks need to dry when added to the likes of a plastic surface, which is unlikely to absorb as well as paper. Some form of drying solution is therefore necessary and more often than not comes in the shape of UV ink.

The latter dries (or cures) a UV or UV LED light source. Conveniently it can be stored within the same printer head, though this ink is exposed to UV or UV LED light in quick bursts, this in attempt to dry it faster.

The curing process is one associated with luxury prints in particular, namely brochures. Such documents demand the best possible printing technique; one that increases production speed, reduces reject rates and facilitates superior bonding.

Remarkably UV Curing has become a multi-billion pound industry, one that grows by 10% a year. The technique has all but displaced conventional water and solvent-based thermal drying methods.

Digital Printing Advantages

The advantages of digital print are many and varied. They include...

  • Low cost
  • Easy setup
  • Fast turnaround times
  • Suitability for small print runs
  • High quality, full colour and gradation print
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Versatility - ideal for custom designs

Output is generally of a very high standard; with image quality striking and colours vibrant.

As highlighted earlier on this page, digital reads practical; low costs attributed to the sheer ease of the process. By extension digital print jobs are concluded far quicker than traditional alternatives. This allows for short runs and on-demand services to be offered.

Time previously spent readying plates and colour matching is won back and orders distributed quicker as a result. Those offering digital print are more than capable of achieving 24 hour turnarounds. Challenge them if they say otherwise.

Digital_Printing_Advantages

Printing machines used for electronic printing tend to have lower build costs associated with them. Better still they are inexpensive to run, increasing their appeal to large and small businesses alike.

Digital flat bed presses meanwhile  are capable of printing onto materials 50mm thick. The advantage of that? Versatility for a wide range of substrates other methods simply could not handle. Similarly, digital printers can use the entire length of a printable item meaning choice is increased.

Elsewhere digital is without doubt the best option available for custom designs or personalised prints, competitive rates offering a good alternative to litho or screen presses in particular.

Digital print is environmentally friendly in as much as print can be. Crucially, ink is only ever ejected onto the parts of a substrate earmarked for decoration. The subsequent clean-up operation is also far quicker.

As for standard prints these can be improved upon, a higher quality attainable courtesy of glossy finishes, texture prints, embossed effects and more.

Finally forget not that technology dictates digital printing methods will improve further still. Print heads are only getting smaller, enabling better quality in even faster time frames.

Digital Printing Disadvantages

As with any printing technique digital has its downsides too.

For though short runs make financial sense large volumes can prove expensive. This is a result of digital presses running at a maximum of 50 feet per minute. Basic maths says this is competent for smaller orders of say 10,000 – 15,000 but less so for anything dwarfing that. Indeed larger quantities necessitate speeds of anywhere between 300 and 500 feet per minute. Some jump. Printing pantone colours in particular can prove extortionate.

Another drawback is the unavoidable fact that digital inks fade fast if over-exposed to sunlight. Sadly the opacity of digital inks is not that of their screen-print equivalents given they are naturally thinner. This impacts on lifespans.

Harking back to colours once again digital printing is basically restricted to CMYK with special pantones expensive due to their rarity. This can complicate the exact matching of images and logos.

Finally, although setting up for digital prints is straightforward the upkeep of machines is not. Maintenance costs can spiral to the chagrin of many a professional printer.

Is Digital Printing Sustainable?

As touched on above, digital printing is far better for the environment than many traditional methods. This is due, in large part, to a reduction in waste.

Unlike screen printing, preparatory work and tools are few and far between. Certainly, there is no need for plates which have to be replaced on a semi-regular basis due to wear and tear. Preparation for digital printing involves little more than a computer...

Because digital lends itself to smaller print runs, this lessens the likelihood of surplus prints included purely to fulfil an order threshold. In this sense, less is more.

Many of the materials involved in digital printing are also of a sustainable nature. These include polymer-based inks free of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). Not only do these consume less energy but emit fewer greenhouse gases than the solvent based equivalent or even the UV-cured variety.

In short, digital eliminates a great deal of physical and chemical waste, reducing CO2 emissions in the process.

DPI Explained

DPI stands for dots per inch and is a barometer for the quality of print.

Measurements are based on the physical number of dots per inch evidenced in any digital print; this number created by the spread of ink across any surface area.

When printers manifest an image they eject tiny dots made from the CMYK colour set (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key). The space between said dots is what DPI measures – in other words the density of them.

It is generally accepted that the higher the DPI the better the image quality – tonality and colour blends will certainly be superior.

150dpi is deemed a minimum standard for those seeking high quality photographic reproduction in printed materials such as magazines. Opting for anything lower than 200dpi however will likely return unsatisfactory results.

Indeed 300dpi is seen as the accepted standard for most printed materials in this age.

Nevertheless one size does not necessarily fit all. Newspapers for instance are known for using 85dpi to good effect. Billboards meanwhile plummet to 45dpi knowing they will be viewed from a distance and therefore not closely inspected or critiqued.

DPI is not to be confused with PPI – pixels per inch. When dealing with PPI the real takeaway is the more pixels per inch, the higher quality your output. If there are too few pixels per inch in your image it is danger of being both too large and too pixelated – creating a blurred effect.

PPI can be set by those looking to print at home but they must be mindful that an in crease in pixels per inch translates to a reduction in the size of the printed photo.

Again 300ppi is seen as the print standard and is the ratio typically adopted by professional photographers.

Inkjet vs Toner

In short there are two types of digital print cartridges – inkjet and toner. The former involves the projection of ink onto paper that is queued up on rolls – so as to quicken the process.

Efficiency varies depending on the model of printer but it is generally accepted that 500 images per minute can be printed this way.

Toner on the other hand is a powder made up of fine particles of plastics and resins. This substance is applied to the media electrolastically and heated in order to stick permanently.

Toner is considered a premium offering; its cartridges dearer and its output of a higher quality. You get what you pay for however with extended lifespans offsetting the financial outlay.

Paper Types

Before going to print digitally it is of paramount importance to settle upon a paper type and weight. Your decision will of course vary depending on the purpose of the material itself; a catalogue for instance will necessitate a sturdier GSM rating than say a leaflet.

Page counts, stitching, coatings and budgets also come into the reckoning before any project can be truly quoted. By way of a size guide, consider the following…

80-100gsm: The go-to for standard office paper. Unlikely to be utilised for anything larger.

110-120gsm: Generally considered for stationary paper such as letterheads.

130-170gsm: A little heavier and as a result trusted for the printing of posters and leaflets amongst others.

170-200gsm: When paper starts to feel like card. Firmer and acceptable for brochure covers or high end visuals.

200-250gsm: One step up and therefore heavier card. Its weight allows for a quality finish.

300-400gsm: Board material and by extension and popular choice for business cards.

400gsm+: Top quality and popular with high-end companies keen to showcase their worth through classy business cards.

What is Large Format Digital Printing?

Large format digital printing – also known as wide format – refers to prints made on a bigger scale, using a bigger variety of materials.

Whereas conventional printers succeed in producing documents and photographs, they are found wanting when output becomes even slightly more ambitious.

In that instance size and substrates are suddenly limiting.

Few home printers can spawn work bigger than 450mm x 640mm or on anything other than paper.

By contrast, large format machinery can realise designs reaching 3m x 2m or greater on all manner of different materials.

So, while the digital printing principle itself is unchanged, everything is upscaled.

Large format printing is a service offered by professional printers who possess the specialist technology to meet demand – namely large flatbed printers. As recently as twenty years ago these were scarce, resulting in eye-watering costs being passed onto customers. Thankfully this is no longer the case.

That’s a great relief to anyone hoping to print something poster sized or greater.

Large format digital printing is better suited to short runs and facilitates quick turnaround times.

The print quality is enhanced, with superb image reproduction guaranteed.

The aforementioned flatbed printing machines are better suited for rigid substrates that lay flat on a table, as the name suggests. Roll-fed printing is alternative for more flexible materials like vinyl. In that instance a continuous roll is fed through the printing press before being cut to size afterwards

Large format digital printing is the go-to for banners, murals, trade show graphics and more. You can go as big and as ambitious as you like.

Learn more about our large format digital printing capabilities here.

Digital Printing on Clothing

Though digital printing can be used to realise clothing designs it is somewhat limited in this department compared to the screen printing equivalent. Indeed printing digitally will require printing onto cotton exclusively. Moreover digital is somewhat limited when it comes to colours, relying on CMYK mixes to replicate designs.

It is generally accepted that the screen printing process of pouring every colour layer through screens makes for a longer-lasting product. Conversely digital print sees images transferred onto materials directly. Though exact details can be captured at this point they are subject to an increased rate of degradation.

Does Screen Printing or Digital Printing Last Longer?

In many respects, digital printing remains the new kid on the bloc. Since its emergence in the late 1990s it’s been regularly compared to traditional processes, none more so than screen printing, which dates back as far as the Song Dynasty Era.

Customers that compare and contrast the two are often eager to know which lasts longer.

The truth is both are capable of producing durable products.

Digital printing is not quite as robust so lends itself more to collateral required for one-off events such as exhibitions and trade shows.

Screen printing meanwhile is renowned for producing images that stay the course – particularly those intended for garments. This is down to its superior adhesion qualities. The fact ink is laid down onto a screen means the press is thicker– making for better resistance to abrasion.

Digital printing capabilities are good and getting better. High quality prints which maintain their colour and vibrancy are easier to come by than ever before. Moreover, a series of treatments, including varnishing and lamination, mean most will endure.

If you want to know more about how digital printing compared to screen printing, click here.

What’s the Difference Between Digital Printing and Litho Printing?

Lithographic printing – more commonly known as offset –emerged in its original form the 1700s, making it some 300 years older than digital printing.

The modern version sees images etched by a laser onto aluminium plates covered in ink. These are put through the printing press, itself made up of fast-moving rollers that the material is fed through. The image is ‘offset’ from the plates to the roller before meeting the intended material – hence the moniker.

Offset printing certainly has its benefits. Its best suited for heavily textured materials and lends itself to large blocks of solid colour, which tend to come out smoother when printed this way than digitally. Its also good from a finishing perspective, given ink is soaked into the substrate. Digital inks, by contrast, tend to lay on the surface.

Litho is popular with those looking to produce the likes of books and catalogues. Indeed, its good for large volumes, which it can print quickly, but does take far longer to set up. It is reliant on repulsion of oil and water.

That said digital printing wins out in most aspects. It boasts shorter turnaround times, less waste and cheaper costs, primarily down to the lack of setup involved. In our view it is the superior process.

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