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Digital vs. Flexo Printing: Which is Right for Your Labels?


Quality labels play a pivotal role in any product. However, there’s more than one way to manufacture your custom labels.

Digital and flexographic label printing are both viable ways to make product labels, but it’s not always obvious why one would be better than another for your business. Let’s break down the differences between the two printing processes (and how you don’t always have to decide between the two).

Flexographic Printing vs. Digital Printing: How They Work

The differences between flexographic and digital label printing largely boil down to how the two processes work. Each method aims to accomplish the same task – print product labels. However, the way they go about this task is very different.

The flexo label printing process

Flexo label printing is the old-school approach where ink is physically pressed onto either film or paper. This process uses custom rubber printing plates to stamp your design onto the label material. These plates are attached to cylinders so that the flexographic printing press can make multiple imprints on a roll of labels. Larger projects will sometimes avoid the rubber plates and engrave the label design directly on metal cylinders instead to accommodate massive quantities.

The problem with flexographic printing is that its various costs can add up rather quickly. Every color will need its own plate for your design, which means you’ll need multiple custom plates for every design.

That number increases dramatically if you have multiple SKUs. Let’s say you need labels for four different SKUs and each of them needs four different colors. That’s 16 total plates that you’ll need to pay for if you go with flexographic printing.

There are additional costs associated with this flexographic printing. Time and labor is a factor as well. Flexographic printers need to align each plate to create a perfect imprint on each piece. This process isn’t short – some jobs can take days to set up properly. Testing these setups also requires a lot of waste material. It’s not uncommon that 15 percent or more of your material costs go toward waste accrued during flexographic setup.

So why would businesses turn to flexographic label printing if there are so many initial costs and delays? This method is well-suited to handle large-scale label printing projects. Larger quantities help amortize initial costs over a long print run of labels, which is why massive businesses, like Budweiser, use flexographic printing for millions of labels. However, that same scale is less likely to be realistic for small to mid-size businesses.

A digital printing press used for digital vs. flexo printing.

The digital label printing process

Digital printing eliminates the need for plates in favor of using technology. Digital label printing presses read art files that lay out your design and call out specific Pantone colors and other key instructions. The printer then uses an electrophotographic process to transfer images onto a material. HP Indigo printers use heated blankets to blend electronically charged particles into a smooth film. This process creates a defined image on the blanket, which in turn is transferred onto the label substrate.

Because of the lack of custom plates and lengthy setups, the digital printing process offers businesses a lot more flexibility and cost-saving capabilities. Because of how they’re made, flexographic presses will use a lot of spot colors. Digital presses do CMYK blending to achieve full color label printing without the need to source different inks for every hue.

Digital label printing is also a much more scalable option. By cutting out tooling and setup costs, digital printing can help accommodate your label needs with quicker turnaround times. That time savings means that you’ll get your labels sooner than you would if you had to wait for new plates any time you adjust your order.

While digital offers several advantages, there are some occasions when the flexographic printing technique is necessary. For example, plates are needed to apply flood or spot coats onto labels. In addition, digital printing technology hasn’t quite come far enough to accommodate more than a few select metallic, fluorescent, and pastel inks. Until those specialty inks are developed, you may need some form of flexographic process to enjoy those types of capabilities.

A digital label printer utilizing flexo label printing techniques for finishing.

Combine Digital and Flexographic Label Printing for the Best of Both Worlds

While both digital and flexographic label printing offer certain advantages, you don’t necessarily have to settle for one or the other. Digital label printing is adaptable enough to include flexographic into its finishing processes so that you can enjoy the benefits of both.

During the digital label printing process, printed labels go through a finishing machine to put on final touches such as decorative treatments or print protection. However, some digital label printing companies have flexographic stations incorporated into the finishing process to address specific needs like flood coats or fluorescent inks.

As with traditional flexographic printing, these added finishing processes will still require plates for any custom designs. However, the costs and time associated with tooling and setup are drastically reduced since you’re only making a single plate. Flood coats of white ink or label varnishes won’t require any plates either, as they require a solid stamp that’s already available in-house. In short, you’re still able to achieve the benefits of flexographic printing without all the extra investment or delays.

Find the Right Label Printing Partner for Your Company

Both digital and flexographic label printing have their advantages, but it’s important to find the right solutions for your product labels. At Blue Label, our digital label printing technology and flexographic finishing stations allow you to invest in the best, most cost-effective labels for your company.

We strive to do more than simply print labels. Our experts work with you throughout the ordering process to enhance your designs and identify potential issues before they become a problem. Thanks to our flexibility, we can deliver stunning labels that cut out costly tooling costs and lengthy turnaround times. Contact us today to have Blue Label get to work on your next label project.