Commercial printing relies on a variety of technologies to print on different substrates, but two of the more popular techniques are flexographic printing and gravure printing.
This post is designed to take a closer look at the key differences between the two printing technologies so you can better decide for yourself which process is right for your application.
ICYMI: Last week we discussed the differences between Flexo Printing and Offset Printing.
Flexo Printing vs Gravure Printing: The Similarities
Before we get into the differences, however, let’s take a look at a few key similarities:
- Both technologies involve the creation of printing sleeves, cylinders, and plates.
- Both can perform long-run, high-volume printing, though flexo can be cost effective for shorter runs.
- Both are able to produce exceptional results.
The Basics of Flexo Printing
Flexo typically utilizes a polymer or elastomer image carrier such as sleeves, cylinders, and plates. The image carrier is engraved to create the raised design of the final desired print. Ink is then transferred from the inkwell via an anilox roller onto the image carrier, where it is then printed onto the substrate.
Flexo printing is more commonly associated with uses in flexible plastics and other non-porous materials such as film, labels, foil, and other packaging.
Flexo is noted for producing exemplary print with fine line and text detail.
The Basics of Gravure Printing
Gravure printing works by applying ink to a substrate with the use of a metal plate that is typically mounted onto a cylinder. This plate is often made of copper or chrome.
The image or text that is intended for printing is typically laser etched into said metal plate, a process that often delivers high quality and precise results with good repeatability.
Flexo Printing vs. Gravure Printing: Key Differences
Now that we’ve gone over the similarities between flexo and gravure, and explained the basic process of each, it’s time to take a look at some of the key differences:
Cost and Lead Time:
Gravure image carriers are typically much more expensive than flexo image carriers, making the number of prints required to break even much higher. Gravure, however, has a longer press run time as the cylinders do not require as frequent changing as flexo.
Gravure lead time is usually 3-4 times that of flexo in the time it takes to manufacture the image carrier.
One of the limitations of gravure printing is that it is generally better suited for porous substrates. This is one of the reasons that gravure is best suited for high detail printing on applications such as magazine covers.
That isn’t the case with flexo printing, which is able to print on both porous and non-porous substrates, making the technology ideal for everything from film to paperboard.
Another key differentiator is the range of inks flexo is able to print with. Gravure is more limited in the inks that it works with, often making flexo the superior choice due to the ease of printing with a wider variety of inks.
Gravure requires much more ink per print, which can drive up the cost of printing.
Due to the fact that gravure is traditionally associated with solvent based inks, although water based ink capabilities have been evolving, flexo is commonly considered the “greener” options.
Flexo generally has more options for VOC considerations, and the press operations are associated with more environmentally friendly practices.
Gravure was once considered best for fine detail and tonal work, but flexo technology is further enabling prints with higher resolution and detail as it evolves -- enabling it to move into print jobs that were previously associated exclusively with Gravure.
So what process is right for you? It largely depends on the job, substrate, and a variety of other factors of the job you're printing.
Editor's note: This blog post was originally published in August 2018, and was recently updated in December 2019.