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What Are the Most Common Commercial Print Methods?

Posted on 26, July, 2018

Last Modified on 28, August, 2019

Printing is everywhere. You can find graphics replicated on practically any surface - from polyester fabrics to wood and vinyl. Have you ever wondered what type of printer or printing process was used to create a banner or imprint a graphic on a promotional water bottle? To some, it may seem that the act of printing an image onto a surface is a universal, one-size-fits all process. However, the method for reproducing a graphic varies based on the resources of the manufacturer, production volume, and the materials being used. A standard inkjet office printer and copier would not work for producing images on fabric, for example. There are tons of industrial printing processes, each with their own unique use cases depending on materials and the desired end result. Here, we’ll define some of the most common custom printing methods and explain how each are used by today's manufacturers.

What is UV Printing?

UV Printing was originally developed for the use of quick-drying nail-polish for manicures and pedicures. It didn’t take long for this practice to expand into commercial and industrial markets. UV Printing is a form of digital printing that uses ultraviolet lights that dry or cure ink directly onto materials or substrates. The UV lights cure and dry the ink instantly, producing prints with extremely fine detail. This reduces the occurrences of holidays, blur marks and non-crisp edges when compared to other types of printing processes where ink may take longer to dry. UV cured inks are weather resistant and do not fade quickly.

Ultraviolet printing example

What Is Heat Transfer Printing?

Types of heat transfers include vinyl heat transfer, digital heat transfer and dye-sublimation. With digital heat transfers, the graphic is first printed on heat-transfer paper using special solvent ink. This makes it possible for the graphic to be transferred from the paper onto the material as it is pressed with heat. This process is ideal for larger items such as tablecloths where having a large heat press machine is extremely helpful. At Displays2Go, we have 2 industrial size heat transfer machines that make it possible for us to print and ship products quickly. In fact, many of our heat-transfer table covers get shipped in under 24 hours.

What is Dye Sublimation?

Dye sublimation printing is performed with a unique heat transfer process using special inks which sublimate onto (or into) textiles. The dye goes through a transition between a solid and gas state, bypassing a liquid state, allowing fabrics to be enriched with dynamic and vibrant colors.

The artwork is printed on special transfer paper with the reverse image of the graphic. The image is then transferred using the sublimation heat process onto polyester. The print is heated to 375° F while the dye hardens into the fibers of the material. Dye-sublimation signage is available on many different materials including flags, banners and many stretch graphics.

What is Silk Screening?

Silk-screening is a printing process that uses monochromatic screens to mass produce simple graphics like logos, text overlays and patterns onto a variety of products. Each screen contains only one color dye, with a recommended maximum of three to four colors used in the final graphic. Polyester screens are individually cut into stencils to be used in a production run. Once dyed, ink is squeegeed onto the screens, then stencils are layered to create a full image, where only exposed parts of the screen adhere to the product. Since manufacturers need to first create these stencils, silk-screen printing is most cost-effective when used on a large volume of products like apparel, promotional merchandise and feather flags.

Fun Fact: The name "silk screening" dates back to its origins in China when manufacturers used silk to create stencils.

Creating a stencil for screen printing

What Is Thermal Printing?

Thermal printing is a digital printing process that reproduces an image by heating coated thermochromic (also known as 'thermal') paper. Unlike inkjet printers, thermal printers do not use liquid ink to produce images. Instead, thermal printers use small, selective heating elements to transfer pigments. Thermal printers are most commonly used to produce labels, signs, markers and other heavily-used items that may be smeared if printed with liquid ink.

When paper is passed over the thermal print head, the coating turns black in the heated areas, producing an image. The heat then activates the thermosensitive layer of the paper responsible for coloring the image. Thermal printed images are durable, versatile and require little maintenance compared to other types of graphics.

What Is Vinyl-Imprinting?

Vinyl printing lends itself to designs intended for small runs due to the individual set-up it takes to create each graphic. Vinyl sheets are fed into the printer where designs are cut and shaped in pieces of colored vinyl. A heat press is then used to transfer each vinyl color of the design onto the material combining a process using heat and pressure to create the final graphic.

Since vinyl printing is often limited to a 1-color-print, the artwork is required to be uploaded as a vector file format supplied by software such as Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. This format produces designs in lines as opposed to pixels like in a jpeg file. Vector graphics can be resized and manipulated without losing image quality, whereas rasterized files have a fixed number of pixels which lose quality when expanded.

Vinyl imprinting process

What Is Latex Printing?

Latex printing is slightly different from other commercial printing techniques, starting with the aqueous inks used in the process. These water-based inks cure or dry in seconds allowing media to be applied to materials almost instantly. Colors resulting from latex prints are also very vibrant and durable, often more than solvent printing. The inks are also arguably one of the most eco-friendly options available. However, keep in mind that the print heads themselves become a consumable which in turn, offsets much of the environmental savings of the water-based ink.

What Is Solvent Printing?

Solvent printing is a form of digital printing. Unlike thermal applications, the solvent method uses liquid ink which is printed on top of your substrate. Solvent prints do not cure or dry instantly like latex but most substrates will not bleed or rub off unless treated aggressively. Most solvent prints fully cure after 24 hours and last for many years. The solvent printing we do at Displays2go uses variable dot printing to allow for high-quality images that are not disrupted by breaks in coverage as the drop sizes change and overlap. We use eco-solvent inks with a Greenguard Gold Certification. For many years, solvent printing has been the print method of choice for many sign companies, especially when printing banners or other durable goods like backlit signage.

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