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Need To Know

Litho Technology

As digital print technologies continue to evolve, we ask whether there is still a place for litho in the print industry and find out how industry members are using the historic technology within their production processes

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Route 1 Print’s litho stream produces long-run orders of flat and folded items

Holding its own

Said to date back to 1798 when discovered by Alois Senefelder, lithography didn’t become commercially popular until 1820. Fast forward 200 years and the historic printing method is still a tried and trusted favourite for many print houses despite the development of digital printing technologies.

According to the University of Oxford, lithography was used to produce prints of local views, notable people, and other prints such as illustrated bills.

For those unfamiliar, lithography is a mechanical process traditionally using stone which later evolved to plates made from zinc around 1830 and aluminium around 1890.

Designs were historically drawn or painted with greasy ink onto a stone plate moistened with water, with the application of oily ink meaning that it only adheres to areas of the plate with the drawing. The print is then produced in a scraper press with the paper run against the inked drawing surface.

In commercial printing today, offset litho is commonly used to produce products such as newspapers, magazines, books, brochures, posters, leaflets, and so on. This process was patented by John Strather in 1853 and differs from the original litho method as a printing machine is now used instead of the designs being hand drawn onto the surface of the metal plate.

The name offset was given due to the image being inked and transferred from a metal printing plate to a rubber blanket which then offsets the image onto paper. 

Whilst the evolution of digital printing technologies caused some to query the future of litho printing, the method is still used by many print houses and although it has some limitations such as a time-consuming setup process due to the handling of plates, it is a favourite amongst many due to being ideal for high volume printing.

As offset and digital printing use different methods there is naturally going to be differences in the quality of output, albeit subtle to the untrained eye. Whilst colours may not appear as bright and vivid as that of a digital print, litho print tends to be more consistent, so this is something to consider when deciding the best method for the job.

Due to these differing specifications such as length of runs and the desired output, there are arguments for both digital and litho technologies and the more industry members we speak to, the more it becomes apparent that there is a space for both technologies to complement one another.

Workhorses of Litho

A name that pops up time and time again in the world of litho is the Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 106. The lastest in the manufacturer’s litho offering, the Speedmaster XL 106 offers consistent high quality with steady production speeds of 18,000 sheets per hour in straight printing or perfecting mode.

Features such as continuous process optimisation through artificial intelligence; fully automated air settings when changing substrates; and plate changing in under one minute with AutoPlate XL 3, makes this press a popular choice within the print industry.

Sheet-fed UV litho printer and print enhancement company, Oriel Printing Company, recently invested in a Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 106-7+LYYL (seven-colour offset raised press 75 x 106cm) with double coating system, double intermediate station, feeder, and delivery logistics and image control, along with Autoplate Pro. 

The company says the decision to replace its CX102-7+L with a new press was part of a strategy to increase its print capacity.

Oriel Printing Company recently invested in a Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 106-7+LYYL with double coating system


“We’ve been running at full capacity for two years now,” says Richard Simms, managing director at Oriel Printing Company. 

“With this, we expect at least 25% more press hours will be available. We will also have the ability to print two coatings in a single pass. We previously printed double-coat work in two passes.

“We can run water-based coatings in a single pass. We previously limited our speed to 10,000 sheets per hour because we didn’t have infrared dryers – we used UV dryers instead. The new machine has both infrared and UV dryers.”

With the new investment, Oriel is seeking to increase its client base and is targeting packaging companies that may have overspill or printing companies moving into packaging but need Oriel’s UV printing expertise for difficult substrates such as foil boards or microflute boards.

Another company that has recently invested in Heidelberg litho technology is Beamglow, producer of luxury packaging. The company has purchased an XL 106-7+LYY-1+L Heidelberg printing press which has replaced an older seven-colour double coat litho press.