When it comes to printing, there are two main methods to choose between – lithographic and digital. Both systems have their various advantages and disadvantages, with the technique you opt for very much dependent on the type and size of print that you’re after.

So, how can you decide which method to go for? Let’s break down the pros and cons for each system, and see which method is right for you.

Digital printing business

What’s the difference?

First things first, it’s important to identify what the key differences are between the two methods.

Digital printing effectively uses the same system that many of us use when printing at home or in the office, the main difference being that it’s on a much larger and higher quality scale. This makes digital printing a popular method for businesses.

“A gap in the market was created by web to print suppliers that had pure speed and cost in mind, high quality print was merely a consideration”, YouLovePrint.

It’s also a lot quicker than lithographic printing, as it uses a laser-based system to rapidly reproduce image outlines onto its printer drum. For a fab video of how a digital laser printer works, see below:

Lithographic printing is a little more complicated. Dating back to 1796, this system is a more traditional way of printing, using printing plates that are specifically designed, developed and customised for each order. The method works as follows:

  1. The design you want to print is separated into different colours – cyan, magenta, yellow and black – and then sent to a plate making facility.
  2. Printing plates are then specifically designed and developed using either a traditional photographic process, or a more modern Computer-To-Plate system.
  3. These plates are then used to apply each of the colours to a rubber roller.
  4. As the paper moves through this rolling mechanism, the image from the plates is applied onto it.

In a similar way to how owning a vinyl is perceived as ‘cooler’ than owning a CD, lithographic printing is a fancier, more unique and old-school printing method, whereas digital is faster and more efficient.

However, as already mentioned, the method you choose really depends on the type of print run you are looking for. Big run? Small run? Quick run? Now we know the differences between each of the methods, let’s figure out which one is right for you.

Digital printing proof for a client

In a hurry?

If you need your printing done yesterday, and are in a real rush, then digital is the better choice. It’s much simpler to set up and a lot faster – you basically just open the file you want to print on your computer and click go.

That’s not to say you should rule out lithographic printers completely though. In fact, lithographic printing can occasionally be quicker, depending on the situation. Producing the customised printing plates for each order is the process that can take up a lot of time. Once these have been made though, lithographic printing is actually a lot quicker than digital printing, churning out 18,000 sheets per hour compared to 4,800. Therefore, if you have already had the printing plates made during a previous order and are simply looking for a rerun, lithographic printing could be the best way to go.

Online custom printing business

Looking for better quality?

When it comes to print quality, the debate between lithographic and digital printing is a tough one to call. Due to ever-advancing technology, digital printing is improving in quality all the time, but lithographic has much more of a ‘claim factor’ to it – it’s much cooler being able to say you’ve printed something with a lithographic printer.

However, the quality really depends on what you are looking to print. If you are wanting to make a hundred copies of a flyer that features a stunning, colour-filled image on its front cover, lithographic printing will produce a smoother-looking print, with no risk of pixilation. However, if you’re looking to make a hundred flyers with a less-detailed design, digital printing could offer an equivalent level of quality.

Another factor to consider is the type of finish you would like, as this will depend on the paper you choose. For example, digital prints look more or less the same across any type of paper, which is especially great if you are looking for consistency throughout your prints. Nevertheless, digital won’t be so effective when used on textured or coloured paper, unless you are after a particularly vivid effect. Lithographic prints tend to offer more of an ultra-glossy, matte appearance, seemingly blending the ink into the paper.

Saying which method is better is a difficult one to call really – both are fantastic ways of printing, but lithographic probably has the slight edge.

Digital printing machine in close-up

Which is cheaper?

It’s a fair question to ask but, once again, deciding which method is the most cost-effective really depends on what you are looking to print. To make it easier, let’s break it down:

1. Looking for a short run?

In need of a small number of flyers for a one-time event? Digital printing is definitely the better bet. There are no set-up fees and you simply only pay for the number of prints you need.

2. How about a big run?

Once the lithographic printing system is all up and running, the cost-per-print works out a lot cheaper than using a digital printer. While the set up costs may be more expensive at first, the savings you’ll make when making thousands, if not tens of thousands, of prints will be considerable.

3. What if I want to make the same order more than once?

Once the lithographic printing plates have been made, they can be used over and over again, meaning you will avoid the expensive set up costs when needing to make a repeated order. What’s more, lithographic printers are a lot faster at printing once they’re set up, so if you’re looking to make the same order multiple times, litho is the way to go.

4. What if I have more than one design?

Due to the need for lithographic printers to have printing plates customised and produced for each order, printing multiple designs can be very time-consuming and costly. Therefore, digital printing would be the recommended option. Although, that will depend on the number of prints you need for each design.

Lithographic printing process

Final thoughts

Choosing between digital and lithographic printing can be a difficult decision, with each method offering their various pros and cons. The choice really depends on the print run that you are looking to do, so it’s up to you to assess your requirements and go with the method that fits best.

Think about the lead time involved, the costs, the quality, the type of paper, even the ‘coolness’ factor, and your decision will suddenly become a lot easier to make.