Screen Printing vs Digital Printing
Screen printing and digital printing are two different printing processes. During the screen printing process, the image is turned into a stencil or screen. The screen is then placed on the fabric. Next, the printer swipes ink across the screen to transfer the image to the fabric. Digital printing does not require any screens. In this process, printers transfer a digital image using a device, such as an inkjet printer, that is capable of graphics output.
Each of these processes is achieved through a series of different steps. We’ll help you understand what goes into each process and which technique best suits your needs. This is your complete guide to screen printing vs. digital printing.
What Is Screen Printing and How Does it Work?
Screen printing involves stenciling an image onto a screen made of porous fabric, usually mesh. A separate screen is created for each color of the desired design. The screen is then placed on top of the substrate, or the material that will bear the image. The printer swipes ink across the screen using a squeegee to pass the image through the screen onto the substrate. This process, called serigraphy, is done for each separate color of the final image.
Because screen printing requires color separation, and each screen needs design-specific stenciling, screen printing is a time-intensive process. As a result, many screen printers have a minimum order requirement to ensure their effort is worthwhile. If you want a large order, screen printing is an excellent option, as bulk screen printing orders tend to be less expensive than digital printing. However, for smaller quantities with a high color count, you may want to choose another route.
Color and Precision of Screen Printing
In addition to quantity requirements, another challenge of screen printing is the lack of digital precision that Direct to Garment (DTG) digital printing offers — some detail in intricate images and designs can be lost during the screen stenciling process. However, screen printing does produce color purity. Screen printers can apply desired ink colors directly through the screen, resulting in vibrant images true to the colors you want. Digital printing translates a digital file into color outputs, which may result in unintended color dilution or saturation.
Screen printing is generally thought of as a process applied to cotton T-shirts. While this is one of the most common substrates, screen printing is a versatile process that can be performed on a number of different materials, such as:
When done manually, screen printing is a lengthy process, but automation advancements, such as automated screen printing presses, are improving production times. Other innovations like faster dryers and ink cured with UV light have also improved screen printing production speed. Screen printing renders finished products true to the exact coloring you desire on a wide array of potential substrates.
Why Choose Screen Printing?
Imagine a company wants to order thermoses for all five hundred employees, and it wants the company logo printed on the surface. In this scenario, the company would benefit if it choose screen printing because of the material it wishes to use. As you’ll see below, there are many advantages to screen printing you’ll want to consider when deciding if it is the right choice for you.
Benefits of screen printing include:
- Color: Color matching is one of the biggest advantages of screen printing. This process uses “true color” inks, so your final product will have the exact color you requested. Ink is also placed on the substrate in a thicker layer during screen printing, which results in bolder colors. Screen printing is a great choice for darker materials.
- Material: Because screening simply places ink on the surface of a substrate, you have a lot more material options with screening than with digital printing, which uses a water-based ink that absorbs into cotton fabrics. You can use almost any material your heart desires for screen printing, from ceramic mugs to a metal sign.
- Shape: Also, because screen printing can be done by hand, you can choose to print designs on a variety of shapes. Whether you wish to print a motif on a lampshade or text on the brim of a baseball cap, the object can be maneuvered to ensure quality printing.
- High-Volume Capabilities: Screen printing production times have dramatically improved with the invention of automatic screen printing presses and new drying technology. If you’re looking to order more than 15,000 items, screen printing can be the more cost-effective option because once the screens are made, they can be used time and time again.
What Do I Need to Know About Digital Printing?
So, how does digital printing work? The process starts with a digital file that contains the image you want to print. Rather than using the image to create a screen or print plate, graphics software is used to send the image directly to the printer. The printer then creates the image by spitting thin layers of ink onto the surface of your fabric of choice.
Because setup is minimal, digital printing is a faster process than screen printing. This set up efficiency lends itself to orders of any size, big or small.
Digital printing is like a lot of other digital processes — precise. If the image you want to print includes a lot of intricate details or lettering, digital printing will be able to flawlessly transfer that image to your fabric.
When it comes to color, digital printing allows for unlimited color combinations because, unlike screening, there is no color separation required for digital printing. However, because colors are combined and printed as the printer reads them on the digital file, color purity can sometimes be compromised. This is why digital printers do not have a Pantone color match capability.
Lastly, digital printing utilizes a water-based ink that performs best on 100% cotton fabrics. The plastic-based inks used in screen printing adhere to a number of substrates, making digital printing a bit more restrictive in this regard than screening.
What Are the Advantages of Digital Printing?
Digital printing is the newer of the two processes and has its unique advantages. For example, if you would like an image of your adorable pet cat printed onto a purse, you probably want to choose digital printing for photographic accuracy. Advantages of digital printing include:
- Speed: Digital printing is a fast process that can handle rush orders. All the printer needs is the digital image, which is then printed directly onto the final material. Even if you’re not on a tight deadline, this process will eliminate a lot of waiting compared to screen printing.
- Quantity: Digital printing allows you to request small orders, whereas screen printing usually has a minimum order requirement and set-up charges. For example, if you’d like to give custom pillowcases to a few friends, your best bet is to go digital.
- Price: Digital printing doesn’t involve multiple steps — the printer simply needs your image and a substrate. The minimal amount of setup time and equipment means the process costs less than traditional screen printing methods for small to medium size orders.
- Flexibility: Digital printing allows for greater variability without driving up costs and production times. If you wanted to print the same design with multiple captions, this type of variability would be costly with screen printing. With DTG, it is simply a Photoshop manipulation.
- Detailing: Digital printing is extremely precise, so small, intricate details can be recreated on the final product. This makes digital printing the go-to choice for sharp photographic prints or other complex artwork or images.
- Environmentally Friendly: The digital printing process doesn’t require a lot of different materials, equipment or chemicals. This means there is less waste and no worry of chemical disposal.
Screen Printing vs Digital Printing
So, which process works best for you? The screen printing vs. digital printing debate can be easily settled by analyzing your project’s needs. Here are a few questions to ask yourself when deciding between the two processes.
How Many Items Do I Want to Order?
If you’re doing a bulk order of several thousand items, screen printing will likely be the more cost-effective option. If your order is smaller than that, digital printing will make the most sense.
How Much Do I Want to Spend?
The price of your order will depend on a lot of different factors, including size, design and turnaround time. Decide on a price point, then identify what’s most important about your order. For example, if you would like to have a highly detailed design printed onto a few T-shirts, you’ll probably want to opt for digital printing. While screen printing can be more cost-effective for very high-volume orders, smaller orders will likely be more expensive because of the labor that goes into screen set up.
How Quickly Do I Need My Finished Order?
If a fast turnaround is important to you, digital printing may be the best option because it usually has fast production times. Screen printing is a slower, more involved process. The printer has to make individual screens for each image and color, manually ink the substrate, and heat dry the ink. Afterward, the printer has a lot of cleanup work to do. Production time has gotten faster in some cases due to automated processes, but, in general, you can expect a longer wait for screen printing.
Does Screen Printing or Digital Printing Last Longer?
Screening uses heat to dry ink, while digital printing employs a heat press to bake the ink into the fabric, making it far less likely to crack or fade.
How Detailed Is My Design?
Digital printing captures details more accurately than screen printing. If you have a design with lots of intricate detailing, you might want to opt for digital printing
How Many Colors Do I Want to See on the Final Product?
Both digital printing and screen printing can result in multi-colored designs, but it will generally be more expensive with screen printing. Digital printing allows you to play around with colors and designs without dramatically increasing the price. If you want multiple designs and colors in a single screen printing order, the cost will be significantly higher because it requires color separation.
How Important Is Exact Coloring?
The digital printing process requires printers to mix colors to get specific shades, while screen printing does not. If precise coloring is important to you, screen printing is the right choice.
What Material Do I Want to Use?
Decide what material you want for your final product. Digital printing has fewer material options, so you might have to go with screen printing to get the unique items you desire. However, with digital printing, the ink does not absorb all the way into the fabric, which helps to prevent cracking. Screen printing uses thick layers of ink that can crack with wear and tear. Digital printing works best on cotton, while screen printing works great on a wide range of materials.
Digital printing and screen printing both have distinct advantages, but deciding between the two is as simple as understanding the needs of your order. Once you’ve chosen the right method for you, feel free to get creative and have fun. Check out the Cotton Creations design station for inspiration.