Short-Run Digital Printing

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Digital printing is cost-effective and high quality. It opens the door to creative designers who also now have access to digital design tools. This article is about the benefits using digital printing to print greeting cards.

Lets go back to lithographs and the days when images for commercial printing had to be drawn by hand.

The technique of lithographic printing dates back to the end of the 18th century. The word comes from the Greek word for stone (lithos) because the first plates were made of stone.

The process works on the principle that oil and water don’t mix.

The image is drawn on a flat plate of metal or stone with a greasy ink. Then the plate is coated with with a mixture of acid and gum. This fixes the greasy image and etches into the remaining parts of the plate.

The plate is moistened and then a greasy printing ink is put on the plate. Because the printing ink is greasy, it only sticks to the parts where the image has been drawn.

The plates just touches or slides by the paper during printing. The plate isn’t pressed onto the the paper so it lasts a long time. One plate can produce thousands of prints.

That’s more efficient than the older technique of pressing an inked plate and the paper together to make a print.

As with all printing techniques, the original image is reversed when it is printed. As you can imagine, that makes it hard to draw the image.

Offset printing solves this. It works by using a second plate or offset. The image is first transferred and then reversed a second time during printing.

The Impressionists Liked Lithography

Artists started to use lithography more creatively. The Impressionists were quick to see the advantages. They would draw the image with waxy ink on paper and transfer it to the plate. This freedom fitted in with their idea of immediacy of expression.

That spread of lithography fitted with the newly emerging photography. Soon the technique of inking a photographic image on sensitised paper was developed. Being able to use photographic images meant that more or less anything could be printed for the mass market.

The Economics Of Printing

Each design needs its own plate. And a lot of the cost of lithographic printing is in setting up the plate. So to make lithographic printing economical, several hundred sheets have to be printed from each design.

Also, if you are a commercial printer with a lot of customers, each with their own designs, you have to store all those plates to use the next time around.

Short-Run Digital Printing

With digital printers, the software renders the digital images directly onto the press. That means there is no need to create a plate at all.

Digital printing machine have improved in other ways. Today we have digital-offset printing machines that can print to the same quality as lithographic printing. The advantage over lithographic printers is that they can do small print runs economically.

Each design is stored as digital information rather than as a plate. And that has resulted in an explosion in the number of designs.

What this has done of course, is to enable independent greeting card publishers to print small runs on demand.

Now, instead of 500 copies of each new design, a designer can run off, say, 24 copies per design.

This is important for three reasons. First it reduces cash outlay. Second, it keeps down the stock that needs to be held.

Third, a new design might not sell. If it doesn’t sell then the money tied up in it is dead. The only recourse is to have a sale. But even that might not get rid of the stock. Alternatively, the designer might sell remainders to a reseller that buys up old stock for foreign markets.

Small print runs increase flexibility and they spur the creative process.

It is now easy for a designer to get small numbers of new designs printed to test the market.

Designing Digitally

Printing is one end of the process. At the other end is designing the cards. Digital design tools mean that the whole process can be done digitally and transmitted digitally.

It is now easy for a designer at one end of the country to employ a printer somewhere else entirely. The only variable cost then is the cost of transport of the finished products.


Digital printing is cost-effective and high quality. It opens the door to creative designers who also now have access to digital design tools.

The question is, what will the future be like?

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