The growth of digital printing technology has brought technical advancements, more options, and exciting new features to today’s commercial printing. It’s also brought some confusion. An understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of digital printing and how those compare to traditional offset lithography is critical in making the right choice.
Offset lithography is the most common high volume commercial printing technology. In offset printing, the desired print image is burned onto a plate and is then transferred (or offset) from the plate to a rubber blanket, and then to the printing surface. The lithographic process is based on the repulsion of oil and water. The image to be printed gets ink from ink rollers, while the non printing area attracts a film of water, keeping the non printing areas ink-free.
Mechanical Steps Eliminated in Digital Printing
Digital printing eliminates many of the mechanical steps required for conventional printing, including making films and color proofs, manually stripping the pieces together and making plates.
So … Which is Better
Well, it seems that depends.
Advantages of Digital
- Shorter turnaround.
- Every print is the same. More accurate counts, less waste and fewer variations, due to not having to balance ink and water during press run.
- Cheaper low volume printing. While the unit cost of each piece may be higher than with offset printing, when setup costs are included digital printing provides lower per unit costs for very small print runs.
- Variable Data Printing is a form of customizable digital printing. Using information from a database or external file, text and graphics can be changed on each piece without stopping or slowing down the press. For example, personalized letters can be printed with a different name and address on each letter. Variable data printing is used primarily for direct marketing, customer relationship development and advertising.
Advantages of Offset
- High image quality.
- Works on a wide range of printing surfaces including paper, wood, cloth, metal, leather, rough paper and plastic.
- The unit cost goes down as the quantity goes up.
- Quality and cost-effectiveness in high volume jobs. While today’s digital presses are close to the cost/benefit ratio of offset for high quality work, they are not yet able to compete with the volume an offset press can produce.
- Many modern offset presses use computer-to-plate systems as opposed to the older computer-to-film work flows, further increasing quality.
Still Not Sure Which is Right?
Use this checklist to help decide:
Quantity. Offset printing has a front-end cost load. Short runs may have a high unit cost. But as quantities increase, the unit cost goes down with offset printing. Very short runs can be much more cost effective with digital printing; while larger quantities are likely to have a lower unit cost with offset printing.
Printing medium. Do you need or want a special paper, finish or unusual printing surface, or unique size? The options are increasing continually for digital, but offset printing still offers the most flexibility.
Color. Digital presses use four-color process printing. If you need only black ink or one or two ink colors, offset printing may offer a more cost-effective solution. If you need four-color printing, digital may offer advantages in lower up-front costs.
More on color. If you’re planning to print using the Pantone® Matching System, offset printing will give you the best match, since it uses actual Pantone® ink. Digital printing simulates the color using a four-color matching process, so some digital printers may offer less accurate color matching on projects.
Turnaround. If you need it fast, digital usually offers quicker delivery.
Proofing. Digital offers accurate proofs since you see an actual sample of the printed piece. Accurate color proofing for offset printing can be expensive.
Customization. Without question, digital printing offers the most affordable way to customize marketing materials, direct mail pieces, letters, etc.