So you've finally got that design signed off on the new marketing brochure you've been working on for months – now you need to decide how you are going to print the piece? The growth of digital printing technology has brought technical advancements, more options, and exciting new features to today’s commercial printing. It has 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 when placing a print order. What's the Difference?
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.
Digital printing eliminates many of the mechanical steps required for conventional printing, including making film (film is rapidly becoming a thing of the past with most new presses being CTP – computer to plate) and making plates. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that digital print is the same as running copies from your PC to a laser or inkjet printer, the digital print presses used by printers are much more sophisticated than that!
Advantages of Digital Printing
- 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 customisable 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, personalised 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 Lithography Printing
- 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.
Not Sure Which is Right?
Obviously we will help select the right method for you based on the project, but use the following checklist to help you decide which is for you
- 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.
- Colour. Digital presses mostly use four-color process printing. If you need only black ink or one or two ink colours or special metallic inks, offset printing may offer a more cost-effective solution. If you need four-color printing, digital may offer advantages in lower up-front costs. 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 colour using a four-color matching process, so some digital printers may offer less accurate colour matching on projects. That said many top end digital presses already have colour matching systems to match special ink colours and no doubt will continue to improve.
- 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 colour proofing for offset printing can be expensive as it involves making plates and preparing the press, to create what we call a ‘wet’ proof.
- Customisation. Without question, digital printing offers the most affordable way to customise marketing materials, direct mail pieces, letters etc.