Screen printing vs digital printing: what are the advantages of each?


Digital printing is a relatively new application for printing. The first digital printers were launched in the early 1990s and over the past 30 years have grown to become a major segment of the printing industry.

Digital printing is a process in which a digital image is printed directly onto a carrier substrate using a combination of cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks to create the finished product. As digital printing has grown, so has the wide variety of printers with varying degrees of resolution, image rendering, speed, and durability in today’s market.

Screen printing, on the other hand, is the oldest form of printing, dating back to China in the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) as a means of transferring designs onto fabrics. Over history, equipment and technology have changed, but the overall concept of screen printing remains the same.

Screen printing is done by etching an image onto a screen mesh, creating a stencil. Using a squeegee, the ink is then pushed through the openings in the screen transferring the image to the substrate below. A screen is needed for each color in the job, and each color is registered with each other to create the finished product.

In the early 1900s, screen printing revolutionized the commercial printing industry, as this process made it easy to print on a wide variety of materials, from fabric, metal, wood and papers. With the advent of vinyl and plastic materials, the industrial label industry adopted this printing method for its longevity and resistance to the outdoor environment.

Comparing these two printing methods as a print buyer can be a challenge. Finding the best option for the desired end use, while controlling costs, is the primary goal of print buyers. In today’s market, more and more companies expect their brand identity to match multiple media platforms, from websites to print products, customers want the image they see on the market. computer matches the image on their printed sheet.

At Empire Screen Printing, they work with their customers to identify the right process for the end use of the product. “As a printer, we work with our customers to find solutions and identify potential pitfalls so that the outcome is understood and realized throughout the sales and production cycle. The key to this success is knowing and understanding the product requirements and the manufacturing process that will deliver the desired result at a fair price to the customer. – Alexis Marsh – Empire Screen Printings Vice President of Operations

Traditional screen printing is the most difficult output application, with larger tolerances, more variability, elaborate setups and labor intensive. Due to this process, the art goes through a vigorous prepress procedure, and sometimes the art needs to be edited to achieve a successful result. One element of screen printing is the addition of trap lines. The standard trapline thickness is 0.02″ and is usually made with the darkest color (e.g. black). The trapline hides two colors underneath, which divide the difference in the total thickness of the trapline. If the design has perfect registration, meaning more than one color constitutes a graphic shape, then a trapline is needed to maintain shape integrity. Color order is an essential process for setting up art and knowing which colors can bleed under another color. For example, a red and a green in the middle of a color spectrum have very little white in the color composition. It’s mostly pigment, which is more transparent. When these colors overlap, the overlapping line may turn brown. The four-color process and ½-tone printing are harder and more difficult to control with screen printing and can result in a moiré pattern, which occurs when the imaging dot interferes with the mesh of the screen. Graphic and font line weights should be of a certain thickness so that they do not fill in or disappear during the printing process. These changes are less and less desirable with the arrival of digital equipment.

Over time, customers see these undesirables and wonder what the alternative might be. Digital printing has changed the course of what the end user expects from their printed products. Digital provides a product similar to what they see on the computer and what is on their corporate website.

Digital printing offers a process where the client’s artwork does not need to be altered for output. There are no plates, screens, or color-to-color registration issues. Digital is a less labor intensive process and is perfect for four color process, variable data and serialization work, and is ideal for short to medium sized print runs and quick change jobs.

Over the past 10 years, digital printing has grown and is expected to continue to grow. According to, the digital printing market size is expected to grow from USD 24.8 billion in 2021 to USD 34.3 billion by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 6.7%. The demand for sustainable printing and developments in the packaging and textile industries are the main drivers of this growth.

The Screen Printing Market Share was estimated at $1.8 Billion in 2020 and is expected to reach a revised size of $5 Billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 16% according to

What does this mean for companies like Empire Screen Printing? “We need to find ways to innovate and reduce costs or we will become irrelevant in the future,” said John Freismuth, president of Empire Screen Printing. “As the market evolves, so does the research and development of this type of printing. More money is being invested in growing markets, which means that digital equipment is currently a bigger influencer in the development process. How we use this technology for what we do can be an advantage in how we make our product.

A few questions should be asked during the print purchase decision process: What is the intended use of the product? What equipment(s) are needed? Where is the product used? Will it be indoors or outdoors? On what surface is it applied? What quantities are needed? How many colors are needed to achieve the desired look, and how essential are those colors? How complex is the design?

As print buyers weigh these issues, Empire’s sales team works to find solutions to achieve the desired results and end use of the product. Digital may seem like an easy alternative, but can also lead to undesirable results. Spot color matching is limited when outputting to a CMYK digital device. Large quantities and long jobs may not be the most cost effective solution, and materials may require special coatings for the ink to adhere to the surface. Metallic inks are not available on most digital equipment, and product durability and longevity may be reduced.

Some may expect digital to be a cheaper option, but higher ink costs and more consumables drive up the price of digital. Digital is less labor intensive unlike labor intensive screen printing, and in some cases speed can play a role in production. Digital can be ideal for small to medium quantities. For longer runs, screen printing can give a faster turnaround time.

Knowing these pros and cons for each method, what did Empire Screen Printing provide its customers to combat these printing pitfalls? Over 70% of Empire’s products are screen printed. They have created a niche in the market and expect it to continue to grow. They have streamlined the production process through lean principles and eliminated waste in the process that customers are unwilling to pay.

Empire created standard work instructions and process controls for quick changeovers, implemented a Kanban system so that work was available “just in time” for the next job. Screens are digitally imaged using a direct-to-screen imaging unit, and the screen retrieval and development process has been automated, reducing lead times throughout the process.

On press, Empire has built equipment to meet their needs with a highly intuitive registration system that more effectively aligns color-to-color registration needs. Camera recording is used in print and cut operations. Bringing equipment and operations together to provide a single flow opens the door to better communication, and quality becomes inherent in the process.

Empire is also revolutionary in its efforts to provide an environmentally friendly screen printing process. One hundred percent of Empire’s screen printing manufacturing uses low VOC UV ink, and 85% of it is cured using LED technology, which is 98% more energy efficient without ozone emission. Empire can provide an environmental alternative to like-minded companies looking to reduce and monitor their carbon footprint.

Empire is not naïve to the growth of the digital market. They fully embrace this technology and have expanded their digital output capabilities.

“Offering an alternative to screen printing is essential for a diversified manufacturing facility. We will continue to improve and advance our screen printing while keeping an eye on the latest developments in digital equipment to continue growing in both markets,” says Freismuth. “The world of digital equipment is changing rapidly. What was not possible is now possible, and we have adapted to these changes to continue to offer our customers a product that meets their desired needs, whether it is a digital output or a screen printing.


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