How does the digital printing process differ from standard (flexographic) box printing?

Most box manufacturers utilize a flexographic print process and they print it directly onto corrugated board. This results in the lowest possible price per box, in small run quantities of 1,000 or more. However, flexographic printing requires a print plate (one per color) which can result in considerable “pre-press” costs of $500 or more, per color, inside or out. Digital printing is plate-less so any number of colors and combinations can be achieved at minimal prepress costs.

Is all digital printing the same?

Without getting into a long, complex detail, the answer is no. While all digital is a “sprayed” process, (not pressed on using print plates like flexographic) it can be printed directly onto premade corrugated board or it can be printed onto the top sheet that can later be laminated to complete the corrugated board structure. Variations of digital printer, inks and converting equipment can make them all a little different for various applications.

How does this impact graphic design?

In addition to onetime plate cost required by flexographic printing, we always must worry about ink traps (color overlaps) wherever any two colors come together. When digitally printing, any two colors can meet without overlap, eliminating the possibility of creating a third (usually unattractive) color. Digital enables you to create a virtual rainbow of color.

Also, with flexographic printing, screens can be used to create different shades of the same color, but with digital, precise and variable color gradients can be produced easily enabling half tones and photo quality images.  

What does this mean in terms of finish and options?

Flexographic printing typically produces a flat finish, but with digital, just about anything is possible including low luster to high gloss Aqueous type coatings, and even differing “spot” coatings are possible. A “litho label” like look can be created at a much lower cost.

Is this a litho label process?

No. Digital printing is still direct onto the corrugated board (or liner sheet) where labels are typically offset printed onto label stock and laminated to the corrugated board. Both have distinct advantages in specific applications.

What are the minimums for digital printing?

This is where it becomes a little tricky because the minimum varies and is determined by several factors including the box size, and the graphic design. There are companies with specialized equipment designed for short digital runs but that is not us at this time.  With the equipment and process, we have in place, it is fair to say our digital minimum begins at 1,000 and goes up from there.

If your standard minimum for flexographic printing is also 1,000, what is the digital advantage?

Digital is the best option for lowest possible prepress cost (no plates) and for more sophisticated graphic designs that simply cannot be produced with flexographic box printing. It is also the best option for one-time needs (special promotions, etc.) where a rerun is unlikely.

Digital printing is the ideal solution for variable copy or “combo” runs such as for different flavors, fragrances, seasonal, promotional or other limited run graphic designs. Since no print plates are required, a run of 2,000 with four different copies (500 of each) can be easily and inexpensively produced.

What is the cost difference between digital and flexographic box printing?

Without hesitation, we can tell you flexo is always going to be less expense at almost any quantity but that difference becomes less significant as the volume increases. In low quantities, the cost difference might be well over 50% higher but keep in mind the cost of print plates is eliminated by going digital. At 25,000 the cost difference might be under 10%. That may be an acceptable cost difference if digital creates the look and finish that is desired.

What is the lead time for digital printing?

Once the art has been submitted and approved, we can typically ship a first-time order within 2 to 3 weeks. Subsequent, repeat orders can be even quicker.