Digital and offset printing are the two main printing methods used to created printed materials. While they essentially achieve the same end result, the methods that they both use to create said product is vastly different. Offset printing has a long history spanning over 100 years. Printed materials are created using metal plates which have ink applied to them with rubber rollers that is then transferred to impression blankets and finally applied onto paper. Digital printing is a relatively new method of printing that deposits the ink directly onto the paper in the printing machine. Due to recent advances in the digital printing space, it is difficult for an untrained eye to spot the difference between an offset printed piece and a digital one. So why choose one over the other?
The Offset Printing Process
As mentioned above, offset printing requires custom metal plates to be created for each new print job. And not just one, if they need the standard four process colours of CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key [Black]), they need to create a metal plate for each colour ink. This is why you will often see one-colour or two-colour printing options with offset printing as they require less upfront costs in terms of plate manufacturing. This method of colour mixing gives offset a higher degree of control over the colour output, especially when you start to add PMS (Pantone matching system) colours into the mix. Pantone colours are special inks that allow printers to print colours that are outside the CMYK colour gamut, to read more about this check out our colour in printing article.
The creation of these metal plates takes time, and once created they cannot be altered without significant extra cost. For this reason, offset printing is mostly used for long run print jobs where each sheet is printed at least 1500 times (usually more). The more copies of a single artwork produced, the cheaper the cost is per page of that artwork. For this reason, offset printing is not recommended for short run print jobs or jobs that have variable data like invitations or personalised letters.
Pros of Offset Printing
- Accurate colour fidelity – especially important for high-net-worth clients that have specific colours in their branding
- Can print on almost any material
- Better value for long run print jobs
- Crisp image quality
- Larger range of paper coatings after print run
Cons of Offset Printing
- Large initial set up cost with metal plate creation
- Very expensive to make last minute changes
- Long timeline of printing – cannot be done last minute
- Uses extra waste paper in set up – could impact companies environment policies
The Digital Printing Process
Digital printing has no upfront costs associated with production. Once the printer has the digital artwork file, they will proof the file and send it to the machine. Industrial digital printers are usually laser printers which use toner to print the artwork straight onto the paper. Because there is no upfront cost with plate creation, digital printing has a much faster turn around time compared to offset printing and is perfect for short run print jobs.
Traditionally, offset printing was superior to digital in terms of colour control, but this has changed in recent years. With the introduction of specialty metallic inks and fluorescent inks, digital printers can now produce a wider gamut of colour than ever before, rivalling the colour supremacy of offset printing. The cost in digital printing remains fairly consistent regardless of the quantity (not including any post-printing processes), in this way the cost increases at a fairly steady rate. For this reason, long run print jobs are usually better suited to offset printing which get cheaper per item printed in higher volumes.
Pros of Digital Printing
- Quick turnaround time
- Cheaper than offset for low volumes
- Can print variable information between pages (like names, barcodes, etc)
- Easier to create hardcopy proofs
Cons of Digital Printing
- Cost does not improve per piece as dramatically as offset for long print runs
- Less colour fidelity – cannot use true PMS colours, but CMYK versions that could vary the colour slightly (but is getting better with specialty inks)
- Not as many material options to print on compared to Offset
How to decide whether to use offset printing or digital printing
For print runs of 1500 or less, it is generally more economical to go digital over offset. For higher volume items, offset would usually be the better choice. There is a caveat to this in terms of printed items with high page counts like magazines or books. For these items, it may make more sense to print digitally as you would need to create a custom metal plate per page of the magazine which greatly increases the setup cost.
These days, the difference in quality between offset and digital is very marginal. The main areas in which offset does still outpace digital is when printing heavily solid blocks of colour and soft gradients. This is because the liquid ink can mix on the page to create smoother transitions between shades and can block out areas of a single colour.
As mentioned before, offset printing has for a long time offered high fidelity with colours in their printing, especially with the use of pantone colours. Digital printing is however catching up and can digital recreate more and more of the pantone colours with each new release of specialty inks released.
Offset is able to print on a higher variety of paper stocks compared to digital. Unlike Digital (especially laser printing), offset can print on highly textured stock like linen, laid, or felt. Because toner sits on top of the paper and is not absorbed, there may be small gaps of colour on textured stock where the toner ink didn’t manage to reach. However, on flat stocks like gloss, satin, and uncoated, digital sometimes even surpasses the quality of offset.
There is a greater variety of specialty finishes available with offset over digital. Foil stamping requires heat to make the transfer of foil which can interfere with the digital ink. There are however a growing number of alternatives available to digital printing like digital foiling and UV inks that can replicate the finishes of offset printing.
Here digital printing is king because it is simply not economical to do a similar thing with offset printing. The ability to even edit the artwork between print runs gives digital printing a huge edge over offset with its versatility.
If you need any printing done in a hurry, nothing can beat the speed of digital printing. For longer print runs however, offset can outpace digital printing because after the initial set up the offset press runs much faster than digital. However even here digital is also gaining ground with each new model of digital printer being faster than the last.
Final thought on digital printing and offset printing
Each print job has different requirements that could make it better suited to being an offset job or a digital one. In recent years the trend is for frequent use of short print runs to keep up with the fast pace of society. Digital printing has made huge strides to match the quality and speed of offset printing and is only set to get better. Talk to us today to see what option best suits your printing needs.