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Fresh prints: Paper is only half the story for the modern printer

Printing has long been regarded as a fairly simple process: ultimately, it’s just adding ink to paper, right?

Well, not quite anymore.

These days, improvements in printing technology and ink itself means that while paper may still be regarded as printing’s primary medium, we’re now also making our mark on a wide array of other surfaces.

And as the possibilities for the media upon which we can print continues to expand, nailing down the right print job is becoming a more involved process.

But before we go delving too deeply into the question of printing, let’s take a moment to go over the basics.

Put your ink on this

Your humble piece of A4 starts as a tree – or other plant, such as bamboo, cotton or hemp – which is chopped down, stripped of its bark and chipped into small pieces. These pieces are then either ground down or cooked using chemicals to make ‘pulp’.

The pulp is then bleached (if needed), before being sprayed onto a machine that begins to form it into sheets, remove the water content and compress it into a roll.

As the last step, the roll is colored – again, if required – cut and packaged up, ready to be sold.

Paper itself differs largely based on the ingredients used to create it. For example, according to the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the U.S. dollar is a mixture of cotton and linen, which “gives United States currency its distinct look and feel”. By comparison, newsprint is increasingly made from recycled fibre.

These two examples are indicative of why it’s important to choose the right paper for the job. Cotton has a high absorption rate and is more durable than wood pulp, which are both important attributes in the manufacture of money, whereas newspapers are made from materials that are cheap yet relatively strong – both highly desirable in a medium that has a shelf life of one day.

Plastic and metal and more, oh my!

Of course, the printing can be done on so many more mediums than paper – in fact, high-quality business printers are capable of creating top-of-the-line prints on the likes of plastic and even metal.

And just as well, as these are mediums that are increasingly useful in modern business.

Though printing to paper is fine for internal memos or contracts, it’s just not likely to ‘wow’ a client anymore. To really make your company stand out – without breaking the bank – wall art can be created from your portfolio and printed to plastic cladding, while illuminated signs can bring life after the sun has gone down.

As for metal, it’s waterproof, as well as scratch and stain resistant, making it one of the best ‘canvases’ available for print jobs you want to display on a permanent basis, such as plaques and signage. While it will last longer out of direct sunlight, printing to metal is the most affordable way to create a lasting impression.

The right tool for the task

Obviously, given the broad range of options now available to virtually all businesses, printing has come a long way since the dot-matrix printer.

One of the biggest advances has actually been in the development of ink.

Ink is another millennia-old invention, but where our forebears crushed up plants and used the dye within to make their marks on papyrus, these days our printers are using advanced technology such as pigment ink.

This ink actually comes in very fine powdered form, which is suspended in a liquid solution. As a result, rather than being absorbed into the medium upon which it is printed – as liquid, dye-based ink does – pigment ink bonds with the surface and sits in situ.

This means the medium upon which you’re printing should determine the ink you use – ask yourself, will an absorbed or bonding ink do a better job? If you want a print job that really pops, it’s better to use a dye-based ink. However, if it’s for a surface that’s going to be exposed to the elements and sunlight, pigment ink is more robust, so it’s a better option.

Printing and you

While most printing in a business tends to be for low-level concerns, where legibility and speed are really all that matter, the advancements and differences in printing tend to come to the fore when things go wrong. Specifically, when a vital project just looks wrong – the color in a vital presentation is faded, or just won’t seem to set.

Which is why managed print services are becoming more common.

Putting your printing needs in the hands of a specialized service ensures you always get the right ink on the right medium to ensure a picture-perfect result.