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What is the difference between pad print and 4 color process?

Decorating products with printing is an important part of the manufacturing process for many consumer goods. Two common printing methods used are pad printing and 4 color process printing. Both techniques allow for applying images and designs onto products, but they each have their own unique advantages and drawbacks.

In this article, we’ll take a detailed look at pad printing vs 4 color process printing. We’ll compare the two decoration methods in terms of how they work, image quality, suitable applications, cost effectiveness, and more. Read on to learn the key differences between pad printing and 4 color process so you can determine which is better suited for your products.

What is Pad Printing?

Pad printing, also known as tampography, is an indirect offset printing process that can transfer a 2D image onto a 3D object. It uses an elastic pad made of silicone to transfer ink from a flat engraved plate onto a product.

Here is a quick overview of how pad printing works:

  • An image is engraved onto a flat metal printing plate
  • Ink is applied and scraped across the plate, filling the engraved image areas
  • A soft silicone pad presses down onto the plate and picks up the inked image
  • The pad extends up and presses onto the product, transferring the inked image
  • The product is cured or dried to finalize the print

Pad printing excels at printing on flat, curved, irregular, and uneven surfaces. It can print on a wide variety of materials including plastic, glass, metal, rubber, and more. The pad’s flexibility enables it to make full transfers onto 3D objects.

What is 4 Color Process Printing?

4 color process printing, also known as CMYK printing, is a direct print method that applies full color images onto products. It uses just four colored inks – cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK) – to produce printed images with millions of different hues and tones.

Here is a quick rundown of how 4 color process printing works:

  • A full color image is separated into CMYK channels on a computer
  • The 4 color separations are printed on the product one at a time
  • Tiny dot patterns of each ink overlap to form blended colors
  • The inks are cured and bonded onto the material
  • A full color image results from the combination of layered CMYK dots

4 color process printing is commonly used for decorating flat substrates like paper, cardstock, plastics, metals, and more. The printing press applies the inks directly onto the material surface.

Print Quality Comparison

One of the biggest differences between pad printing and 4 color process is the print quality each can achieve. Let’s compare the image resolution and color capabilities:

Image Resolution

4 color process printing can produce highly detailed photorealistic images. Printing resolutions up to 2400 dpi are possible depending on the equipment used. This allows for intricate designs with smooth gradients and fine details.

In contrast, pad printing typically has lower resolutions around 100-200 dpi. The silicone pad causes some natural distortion and dot gain when transferring the image. This limits pad printing to simpler designs and icons. Fine details and small text may not always print clearly.

Color Quality

4 color process printing has a much larger color gamut and can replicate continuous tone photographs. Combining different dot percentages of CMYK inks can create millions of shades and hues. Photographic images look vibrant and realistic.

Pad printing has a more limited color palette. Each ink formula must be mixed separately, making color matching difficult. Photos often appear dull and grainy. Blending and gradients may show noticeable stepping and banding effects. More colors require more passes, reducing efficiency.

For top quality image reproduction, 4 color process printing provides superior resolution, tones, and a larger color gamut compared to pad printing.

Suitable Surfaces for Printing

Since pad printing and 4 color process use very different ink transfer methods, they each work better on certain surfaces.

Pad Printing Surfaces

As an indirect printing method, pad printing can print on nearly any surface because the elastic pad conforms around the shape. It excels on:

  • 3D objects with curves and uneven surfaces
  • Vertical surfaces
  • Concave areas
  • Small and intricate parts
  • Plastic, metal, glass, rubber, ceramic, wood, etc.

Pad printing can decorate items where other print methods would have difficulty reaching. The flexible silicone pad can press onto flat, angled, round, and oddly shaped items.

4 Color Process Surfaces

Since 4 color process directly prints onto the material, it works best on flat or mostly flat substrates like:

  • Paper
  • Cardstock
  • Plastics
  • Metals
  • Glass
  • Wood
  • Textiles

4 color process has difficulty printing onto curved, uneven, or complex 3D shapes. Ink adhesion issues can also occur on very smooth or very textured surfaces.

For flat substrates, 4 color process offers superior image quality over pad printing. But pad printing can decorate challenging 3D geometries that cannot be direct printed.

Production Speed Comparison

For medium to high volume production runs, 4 color process printing typically has much higher throughput than pad printing. Here’s how their production speeds compare:

4 Color Process Speed

Modern 4 color process printing presses are very fast. Sheet fed offset presses can print 8,000+ sheets per hour. Digital presses have speeds over 1,000 sheets per hour. The CMYK inks are quickly applied in succession as the materials move through the press.

Pad Printing Speed

Pad printing is much slower since objects are printed one at a time. Output typically ranges from under 100 to 1,500 pieces per hour depending on the machine. The pad must lift, extend, transfer the print, and retract for each print. More colors lower the speed further.

4 color process printing is generally better suited for higher volume production runs of over 1,000 imprints. Pad printing tends to be used for smaller batch printing up to 1,000 imprints.

Cost Comparison

Both pad printing and 4 color process offer cost effective ways to decorate products at production volumes. Here’s an overview of their relative costs:

4 Color Process Cost Factors

  • Low ink costs (only 4 inks needed)
  • Minimal plate fees
  • High print speed reduces labor time
  • Lower cost per print at higher quantities
  • High initial printing press investment

Pad Printing Cost Factors

  • Higher ink costs due to color mixing
  • Plate costs per color
  • Slower speeds increase labor time
  • Lower equipment investment
  • Lower cost for lower print runs

4 color process printing tends to be more affordable at production runs above 1,000 imprints. The fast speeds compensate for the higher initial equipment costs. Pad printing has lower initial costs but higher per print costs at higher volumes.

The Best Applications for Each Method

Based on their respective strengths, pad printing and 4 color process are each better suited for certain applications. Here are the optimal uses for each technology:

Best Applications for Pad Printing

  • Printing on 3D objects
  • Short run custom printing
  • Complex molded parts and industrial components
  • Medical devices
  • Automotive components
  • Appliances
  • Awards and trophies
  • Pens and writing instruments
  • Toys

Best Applications for 4 Color Process

  • High volume production runs
  • Books, brochures, posters
  • Product packaging
  • Labels
  • Cups, plates, napkins
  • Promotional materials
  • Newspapers, magazines
  • Paper products
  • Flat or simple 3D plastic/metal parts

Pad printing’s ability to decorate complex shapes makes it ideal for printing on medical devices, automotive parts, electronics, plastic bottles, and more. 4 color process excels at high speed printing of paper goods, product packaging, and other flat substrates.

Pros and Cons Comparison

To summarize the differences, here is an overview of the key pros and cons of pad printing vs 4 color process printing:

Pad Printing Pros

  • Prints on curved and uneven 3D surfaces
  • Transfers images to hard-to-reach areas
  • Simple and fast plate making
  • Low equipment investment
  • Good for short runs under 1,000 prints

Pad Printing Cons

  • Lower print resolutions and quality
  • Slower production speeds
  • Higher cost per print at high volumes
  • Limited color reproduction

4 Color Process Pros

  • Photorealistic print quality
  • Vast color reproduction
  • Very high print speeds
  • Cost effective for longer runs
  • Handles flat and simple 3D shapes

4 Color Process Cons

  • Only works on flat or mostly flat items
  • Difficult to print extremely small or intricate parts
  • High initial equipment investment
  • Not ideal for short run printing

Considering these pros and cons can help determine when pad printing or 4 color process printing better fits your specific product decoration needs.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can pad printing and 4 color process be combined?

Yes, it is possible to combine both printing methods for some applications. Pad printing could first decorate a complex 3D surface. Then 4 color process printing could add high resolution images and text onto flat areas of the same part.

How many colors can be pad printed?

Most pad printing machines can support between 1 to 6 colors. Printing more colors requires more passes and plates, so multicolor pad printing above 4 colors is less common.

What products are best for pad printing?

Pad printing works very well for printing on plastic components, industrial parts, electronics, medical devices, automotive parts, squeeze bottles, pens, and other products with 3D geometries.

What products are best for 4 color process?

4 color process is ideal for paper products, packaging, labels, plastic/metal parts with large flat areas, mugs/glasses, and other high volume consumer goods.

Can pad printing or 4 color process print on textiles?

4 color process printing works very well on textiles and fabrics. Pad printing can be used to print on small areas of textiles but has limitations printing large fabric graphics.


Both pad printing and 4 color process both offer affordable ways to decorate mass produced products. While they both transfer images onto materials, the two techniques have distinct differences in their printing capabilities.

Pad printing’s use of a flexible silicone pad allows it to print on 3D objects very effectively. It excels at printing on plastics, medical parts, bottles, industrial components, electronics, and more. But pad printing has lower image resolution and is slower compared to 4 color process.

4 color process printing with CMYK inks provides superior photorealistic image reproduction on flat paper and cardstock. Its very high speeds also make it the most cost effective option for longer print runs over 1,000 imprints. But it can only print on flat or simple 3D objects.

By understanding the strengths of pad printing vs 4 color process, you can determine which technology is better suited for decorating your particular products. Both offer affordable and effective ways to customize products with professional graphics and finishing.