September 8, 2021 

The History of Commercial Printing Methods in the Modern Era

The history of commercial printing has helped shape industry in the modern era.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of industrial printing in the history of mankind. Ever since the Han Dynasty invented woodblock printing in third-century China, humans have used industrial printing methods to spread news, document history, make art, and more. However, it took hundreds of years of innovation for printing technology to be capable of these applications. 

For example, while the ancient Chinese initially used woodblock printing to create intricate designs on cloth material, by the seventh century, they were using the same method to print on paper. By the 11th century, the Chinese introduced wooden movable type. This invention greatly increased the speed at which texts could be reproduced. Gradually, eastern countries like China and Korea began to use metal movable type in the late 11th and 12th centuries to create their texts. 

In the mid-1400s, famed German inventor Johannes Gutenberg introduced the metal movable type printing press to the west. This action revolutionized European society, as it led to a level of mass communication unprecedented at the time. Written texts became much more accessible, book prices dropped dramatically, and literacy rates rose exponentially in the centuries that followed. 

Gutenberg’s printing press also marked the beginning of commercial printing in the modern era. Below, we take a broad look at the history of commercial printing in the post-Gutenberg era, illustrating how the printing revolution has led to the wide array of printing technologies available today. 

Framing the History of Commercial Printing in the Modern Era

The year 1450 marked the first commercial use of Gutenberg’s printing press. In the centuries that followed, books became easier to print, the newspaper business flourished, and commercial printing increasingly became available to private businesses. In effect, Gutenberg’s invention led to the birth of the western mass printing industry.

However, by the time of the Industrial Revolution (from 1760 to approximately 1840), the printing press was just one of the printing technologies available to the public. Other technologies of the time, such as lithography, are still in use today, while hardware like the printing press has been replaced by more sophisticated machinery. 

With this in mind, we have framed the history of commercial printing by focusing on methods that were invented both during and after the Industrial Revolution that remain a part of the modern printing industry today. While this is still an expansive topic, we have focused on four technologies for the sake of brevity:

  • Lithography
  • Flexography
  • Inkjet printing
  • Thermal transfer overprinting


Invented in 1796 by German actor and playwright Alois Senefelder, lithography is a printing method that uses a combination of grease, water, and ink to transfer an image from a tablet onto paper. The method revolves around the central idea that grease repels water. 

To begin the process, the user takes a grease marking tool and creates a design on the tablet. Once the design is done, the user applies a combination of chemicals and hum to the tablet, causing the design to penetrate the tablet’s surface and stay intact as a hydrophilic layer. Turpentine is used to remove excess grease from the tablet’s surface, erasing the surface level design, but leaving the hydrophilic layer design.

The user then wets the stone with water and applies a layer of greasy printing ink with a roller. The water rejects the ink, but the hydrophilic layer bearing the intended design accepts it. After the hydrophilic layer is saturated with ink, the user places paper on top of the tablet and uses a press to apply even pressure across the surface. This action creates a perfect ink representation of the hydrophilic design onto the paper. 

Today, lithography is still used by artists to create high-quality prints cost-effectively. The same principles used in lithography are also used in offset printing (aka offset lithography), a commonly used printing method to create maps, books, and newspapers.


A flexographic printing machine.

Flexography was invented in 1890, close to a century after the development of lithographic printing. While lithography excels at creating sharp images on flat paper, flexography can print on both curved and uneven surfaces. Additionally, these surfaces can be constructed from a variety of materials, including plastic, paper, cellophane, and metallic film. 

Flexographic presses utilize a series of rotary cylinders to feed a substrate through a rotating flexible printing plate. Each press has three cylinders:

  • An anilox roll that feeds ink to the plate cylinder.
  • A plate cylinder that bears the intended image.
  • An impression cylinder that maintains proper substrate tension to ensure a proper print.

Essentially, the press pushes the substrates by the plate cylinder with the help of the impression cylinder. As the substrate passes through, the plate cylinder uses the ink provided by the anilox roll to mark the material with the intended design. This setup enables the press to feed substrates through the printing plate at a continuous rate. 

For designs that require multiple inks, operators utilize multi-station presses that imprint different inks at each stop. These presses use quick-drying inks so the designs can dry quickly and cleanly as the substrate moves along each stop. Through this process, users can create complex designs quickly and reliably.

Thanks to its speed and ability to create complicated designs, flexographic printing is today’s go-to method for creating consumer product packaging, including wrappers for pre-packaged food and other common retail goods. 

Inkjet Printing

Developed in the early-to-mid 20th century, inkjet printing is a digital printing method that is used to mark everything from pharmaceutical packaging to beer bottles. The idea of inkjet printing is simple. Using an internal computer, inkjet printers propel droplets of ink in a controlled fashion to recreate a digital image. Modern inkjet printers largely come in two categories—continuous inkjet models and thermal inkjet models. 

Continuous inkjet (CIJ) printers operate by pressurizing ink into a continuous stream. The stream begins in a main reservoir where a pump pressurizes the ink, feeding it toward the printer’s nozzle. There, a select number of droplets are expelled onto the substrate to recreate the intended image. The remaining ink is rerouted back towards the reservoir so the operation can continue uninterrupted. 

Thermal inkjet (TIJ) printers don’t use pumps to pressurize and propel ink—they use heat. Within each TIJ ink cartridge is a series of heating chambers. These chambers heat the contained ink, causing a bubble to form. Once the bubble collapses, the ensuing vacuum effect propels the ink from the printer’s nozzle, creating the intended image. 

Both inkjet printing methods are commonly used to outfit industrial products with traceable barcodes and other required markings like serial numbers and barcodes. Accordingly, they are commonly found in food packaging operations, wire/cable factories, and other manufacturing plants. 

Thermal Transfer Overprinting

Commonly abbreviated as TTO, thermal transfer overprinting was invented in 1981 by the SATO Corporation. Inspired by older analog printing methods such as hot stamp, TTO is another digital printing technology that is ideal for flexible film applications as well as several other label substrates.

As opposed to inkjet printing that uses liquid-filled cartridges as ink sources, TTO machines utilize a type of ink-coated carrier film called ribbons. The ribbon is fed through the TTO machine’s printhead, which contains a thermal heating element. When the flexible film substrate passes along the printhead, the heating element causes the ink to melt off the ribbon in a controlled fashion, leaving a well-defined image on the substrate. 

The marks made by thermal transfer overprinters are known to be sharp, durable, and high-resolution. To take advantage of these benefits, TTO machines are commonly used to mark materials that are intended to either last for years or exist in extreme conditions. Some examples include frozen food bags, construction materials, pharmaceuticals, and aerospace parts. 

Stay Updated on the Latest Printing Developments by Following C&M Digest

Modern printing methods stand upon the technological advances made hundreds of years ago. With the help of these past developments, commercial printing groups today can mark substrates of all materials with sharp, clear designs.

To stay informed about future developments in the printing world, subscribe to the C&M Digest newsletter. With information on both the latest industry developments as well as retrospectives on the history of commercial printing, our newsletter is filled with compelling content from across the marking world. To get in touch with us about possible collaborations or ideas for coverage, contact us today.

C&M Digest Team

The C&M Digest Team is composed of experts from across the coding and marking world. Comprised of ink developers, hardware veterans, and engineers, our News Team delivers informed coverage that is always free from brand bias.

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