Digital vs. Flexography: What is the right printing process for your labels?

“I don’t care if my labels come out of a cereal box, as long as they look as expected, perform properly, and meet my price point.”

We’ve actually heard some customers and prospects say things similar to the above.  And this attitude does have some merit when you think about it. If the customer is getting the desired result from his or her label printer, and that product is delivered on time and at an acceptable cost, why should they care which technology is used to produce the labels?

Typically, a label printer/converter is going to listen to what the customer wants in a label, consider the materials needed for proper function and performance, and the customer’s quantity requirements. Other considerations are the colors required by the design and how precise the color matching needs to be.  Are there any laminations or foil treatments required by the label design? Will there be any matte or gloss coatings applied?  The printer will consider all these requirements and make a production recommendation to the customer. It’s not usually a situation where the customer decides on a whim which technology they want to use.  But knowing the pros and cons of each process in a given situation will help the customer understand why a printer would recommend one over the other.

What’s the difference between digital and flexographic (flexo) printing?

Flexographic Process

Flexo printing utilizes “flexible” plates (flexo!) mounted to plate cylinders at color stations on the press. Basically, a series of rollers at each station transfer ink to the print plate, and the plate transfers the ink to the print material with pressure from an impression cylinder.  The combination of color stations is how the final design is rendered. There’s more to it than that, of course, but essentially that’s how flexo works. Any changes made to the label design will require new plates, which costs money.  If a customer requires a large quantity of labels and doesn’t anticipate any design changes, flexo is probably the better way to go. Flexo is also capable of matching any Pantone color and can accommodate foil treatments and laminations.

Digital Printing: Look mom, no plates!

Instead of using plates to transfer an image, digital printing applies toner directly to the label material. As a result, set up and changeovers take much less time and are less costly. Digital is also more forgiving when it comes to design changes. Simply make the changes to the digital file and send the new file to the printer. Version changes? Digital is your answer. Many smaller brands utilize digital to produce different versions of the same label to increase shelf appeal or yield multiple ‘flavors’ in the same press run.

But unlike flexo, digital is limited in the effects it can render. There is no capability for applying foils or laminations with digital. And digital lacks the precision color matching of flexo. Not to say digital colors don’t match the designer’s vision; just that it is not as precise as flexo. If your project requires an exact Pantone color match, flexo is probably a better choice.

At AWT, we’ll always advise a customer as the best print method for their project. If you are working with another printer who is leaving this decision up to you, here are some guidelines:

Flexo is the way to go if you:

  • Need larger quantities of the same label, and you’re confident the design won’t change soon
  • Have complex, layered designs
  • Are incorporating effects like foil and lamination
  • Require a fixed Pantone color

Digital printing will suit you better if you:

  • Use complex graphics that are hard to replicate on flexo plates
  • Have multiple SKUs of the same size
  • Need variable printing for a promotion or limited time offer
  • Have relatively lower quantity requirements

Of course, every project is different, and these are not hard and fast rules. You can count on one of our experts to recommend the best production method for your specific circumstances and needs.

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