Meyers VP: Lithography Remains the Answer for Many Printing Needs
From its origins more than 200 years ago as an efficient way to publish theatrical works, lithographic printing has grown to be the preferred method for a vast range of print projects. Currently, the technology is expected to account for more than 70% of the world’s print output by 2022. And while other technologies have emerged over the past two centuries, lithographic printing is still a cornerstone of the print industry and is likely to remain a vital tool for years to come.
So, why does lithography continue to thrive while other print technologies have fallen out of favor? Quality is one factor. Lithographic presses continue to produce the sharpest images available, but lithography has some other significant advantages, too. It is unmatched for speed, economy on large jobs, matching custom colors, using specialty varnishes and coatings, and for its ability to print on nearly any smooth, flat surface.
Why will lithography endure? There are a few simple reasons.
The Technology Continues to Evolve
While the principles behind the technology remain the same, the lithographic printing of today is a far cry from the wax- or fat-on-limestone presses of the 18th century. Modern presses can print on hundreds of surfaces without leaving an impression, while computer-to-plate technology increases the clarity of printed images. Ultraviolet-curable inks allow for instant drying and higher gloss levels for coatings and specialty effects. More efficient media transport systems enable higher speeds and more consistent sheet-to-sheet registration. In fact, some sheetfed presses are capable of producing as many as 20,000 sheets per hour.
Advances in lithographic technology have resulted in better and more consistent quality, and have cut lead times significantly.
On the software side, ink-key presets and closed-loop color systems enable faster changeovers between jobs while cloud-based data analytics mean color management is no longer a mysterious art understood only by leading experts.
In other words, while lithographic printing is a mature technology, it is far from static. Presses are improving all the time, and as that evolution continues, lithography will continue to become better, faster, and more versatile.
We Can Print on That
The use of ultraviolet inks, which will dry on non-porous materials, means the options for lithographic printing go far beyond paper.
Want something printed on steel? Plastic? Acrylic? Lithography works for those surfaces and more. There are hundreds of possibilities, opening the door to a wide range of creative possibilities.
That kind of flexibility will only become more important as companies look for ways to make themselves stand out in retail markets. Unique materials and printing effects help brands separate themselves from their competitors, and lithographic printing remains the best way to produce those effects on a large scale.
The Price is Still Right. So is the Speed
Digital print technology has made tremendous gains in recent years, and smaller presses like the Inca X3 produce quality that only a trained eye can distinguish from work produced on a lithographic press. The short makeready times that digital presses deliver are perfect for short-run jobs, and as demand for customization grows, so will the value of digital, with the global market for digital expected to reach $187.7 billion in 2018.
However, digital is still a small percentage of the overall print market. And even the fastest digital presses are still quite a bit slower than an average lithographic press. That speed difference, combined with the high cost of digital ink, makes digital an inefficient choice for high-volume jobs.
In the future, digital presses will get faster, and the cost of digital ink will come down. The refining process for digital ink is still much more involved than the process for lithographic ink, though, meaning prices can only come down so far. That price gap, plus the flexibility of lithographic presses when it comes to matching custom colors and using specialty varnishes and coatings, gives the technology an edge on a wide range of jobs that it is unlikely to relinquish anytime soon.
Consider a recent job that required a combination of UV and conventional ink printing on the same form. One of the colors specified by the client was a fluorescent pink with a pigmentation that caused it to burn out instantly under UV light. Because of the flexibility of the lithographic process, we were able to print four-color process in units two through five, followed by a conventional fluorescent in the sixth and a gloss aqueous coating over the top. Problem solved.
A Vital Tool
Lithographic printing has a long and fascinating history, and its future promises to be just as interesting.
And while digital presses and other new technologies are finding a more prominent place in our industry, it’s important not to get so enamored of the latest addition that we forget the presses that have long formed the backbone of the print industry. New technology will always have a place if it allows us to do jobs better, faster, or more consistently, but for a wide range of projects, lithographic presses will remain the standard for years to come.
Christopher Dillon is VP of operations for the Retail Marketing Solutions division of Meyers. He joined Minneapolis-based Meyers in 2005 as a project manager and has consistently taken on more responsibility including new business development and account management supervision until being promoted to his current role. Dillon is a graduate from the University of Minnesota with a major in communications and a minor in political science. He is currently nearing completion of his MBA degree through The University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.