Printer Primer: Understanding the commercial printing methods that create a standout store experience

Did you know that printing is the second-oldest industry in the world?

The process has been around for hundreds of years. German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1436, but even before that, Chinese and Korean bookmakers had been woodblock printing with moveable metal types.

In today’s world, there are many types of commercial printing methods available for the production of signage, displays, and other visual merchandising items that bring your in-store experience to life.

The printing process your vendor chooses will be determined based on a number of factors, including:

  • What’s included in your campaign: Wide-format decor signage, shoppable displays like floor stands, seasonal swappable items like window clings–each element may require different commercial printing techniques
  • Environment or climate, including whether the assets will be used indoors or outside, as well as the type of lighting (natural or artificial) and the length of time in market
  • How much customization is needed and whether there will be variation between prints

These factors also impact the type of substrate, or materials, used as well as the type of ink or toner. We’ll cover these printing elements in later in this printer primer series.

But first, let’s walk through the printing techniques you may need for your next commercial printing project.

Lithographic printing

One of the most popular forms of printing, lithographic printing involves adhering ink to a specific, exposed portion of metal plates, which is passed onto a blanket cylinder and then onto the paper.

Also known as offset printing or offset lithography, litho is one of the oldest methods out there—and for good reason.

Litho printing works in a lot of situations.

There is a cost for the initial setup, but the price per print quickly decreases as the quantity increases. That makes lithographic printing ideal for high-volume, high-speed, high-quality printing production.

The one caveat is there shouldn’t be any variation between prints, or you’ll end up paying too much for setup with each variation.

When will your vendor recommend lithographic printing?

It’s a great printing option for seasonal and promotional in-store signs and displays that need to last only for six months or less. After that time frame, depending on environmental factors, they could fade.

Advantages of lithographic printing

The biggest advantages of lithographic printing are:

  • Highly cost-effective for longer-run projects
  • Fantastic image quality
  • Can run embellishments that digital cannot
  • Perfect solution for companies that need 500+ sheets of the same sign or display
  • If your project involves customization, digital printing is likely going to be a better option.

Digital printing

We’re not talking about your home office printer, although the process is similar.

Digital printing involves sending digital images from a computer to a press, where they’re printed directly onto a surface using specially developed inks—no plates needed!

The two main types of digital printing are:

  • Inkjet, where the image is sent to a printhead that recreates the image or text by spraying microscopic droplets of ink onto the substrate.
  • Electrophotography, which uses a static charge to arrange the tiny ink particles into the image on an electrically charged drum and then delivers the completed image onto the printing surface. That image is then heat fused to the printing surface using a laser.

When will your vendor recommend digital printing?

Digital printing is used quite a bit because it’s so versatile and allows for so much customization. Specifically, digital printing is a highly cost-effective option for lower volumes and variable data.

What is variable data?

Variable data refers to the multiple addresses, names, photos, and other information that differ and still need to be included on printed materials such as signs or direct mail pieces.

For example, let’s say a retail chain with stores throughout the country is running a campaign in partnership with the NFL. Every sign may have the same company branding, but each store sign will need to be printed with the local team’s name and, likely, a star player and the team logo.

Printing those signs using litho or flexo machines wouldn’t be nearly as cost-effective or efficient as it would be on digital machines.

Advantages of digital printing

The biggest advantages of digital printing are:

  • Consistent and flawlessly crisp and clear image quality
  • Ability to customize and vary prints
  • Short runs with quick turnaround times and lower set-up costs

Screen printing

Screen printing is a technique where stencils are laid over a screen made of cotton, nylon, or metal. The printing ink is pushed through the screen using a rubber squeegee to imprint images.

The setup for screen printing is pretty extensive, so if you’re not printing high volumes of the same image, it can get expensive.

On the other hand, screen printing is quite cost-effective for bulk printing.

When will your vendor recommend screen printing?

Your vendor will probably recommend screen printing for permanent graphics that need to last longer than six months. For example, exterior signs and displays that can hold up in inclement climates and environments.

Screen printing is also especially effective and popular for adding embellishments, such as glitter, reflective foil, embossing, and a high sheen.

Advantages of screen printing

The biggest advantages of screen printing are:

  • Higher quality output (compared to digital prints)
  • Many embellishments such as glitter can be done on screen
  • Durable for long-term use
  • Can be used on multiple substrates, including glass, wood, and textiles

Dye sublimation

Introducing the new kid on the block!

Dye sublimation uses heat to transfer dye onto fabric. The dye sublimates or transitions between solid and gas states without going through a liquid stage. This process allows the printed image to become part of the material instead of resting on the surface. The result is no print scraping or cracking over time.

When will your vendor recommend dye sublimation printing?

Dye sublimation is large format printing technique best used for fabrics, retail environments, and permanent graphics, such as:

  • Hanging window banners for indoor and outdoor settings
  • Sound-deafening curtains and cubicle dividers
  • Flexible materials that can be easily folded and shipped inexpensively
  • Large panels that can be seamed together and stretched.

In particular, your vendor may offer dye sublimation as a way to reduce shipping costs because fabric can be easily folded and fit into small packages for transport (e.g., a 75-foot banner printed with a company logo for a major trade show display or an expandable banner stand that can be expanded or contracted on a frame).

Advantages of dye sublimation printing

The biggest advantages of dye sublimation printing are:

  • Ability to use any color with high-quality resolution
  • No cracking, fading, or deterioration of the image
  • Can be printed on polymer-treated, nonfabric items like glass, plastic, fiberglass, ceramics, and aluminum, as well as on any type of fabric
  • Outdoor durability
  • Easily used for high- or low-volume print jobs

Flexographic printing

Flexography is a direct (not offset) printing method that uses relief plates, similar to rubber stamps, which are made from rubber or photo polymer. The flexible printing plates are wrapped around a cylinder on the printing press.

Flexo is unparalleled at producing large volumes of identical prints with considerable efficiency. Once the plates are set up, the economies of scale make this type of printing preferable.

When will your vendor recommend flexographic printing?

Flexo is likely to be the go-to option for projects like packaging labels and promotional items such as scratch-offs and gaming.

Advantages of flexographic printing

The biggest advantages of flexographic printing are:

  • Highly versatile and can be used to print on almost any non-absorbent material or substrate
  • Combines print and finishing into one step
  • Cost-effective for larger print runs
  • Utilizes both water-based and UV inks

Which commercial printing method should I use?

Here’s the good news! You don’t need to know what method of printing should be used for your project. Your print partner will help determine that based on the unique needs of the project.

Often times, complex retail marketing campaigns will require a variety of these different types of commercial printing to produce the best results for your brand.

However, the more you and your team understand the various printing methods and advantages, the better you'll be prepared for the types of questions your vendor will ask and what they will ultimately recommend.

Do you need help bringing a project to life? We can help. Get in touch →

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