People often ask which printing process is superior: digital or offset?
If we could answer that question in a single sentence, this would be a very short blog post. The reality is that both digital and offset printing have their pros and cons. There are those who might argue that offset is on its way out the proverbial door–and in some cases, this might be true.
As time goes by and digital printing technology gets more advanced, one day it might fully surpass offset. But for now, there are clear lines drawn in the sand and neither process is backing down. Before we compare and contrast the two, let’s look at exactly what digital and offset printing are:
In offset printing, images are transferred (“offset”) from a plate to a rubber blanket to a sheet of paper where ink will be applied. The inks used can be a combination of Pantone (SPOT) colors or a four-color process (CMYK).
The plate contains the printed image and was created using computer-to-plate technology. Plates are separated according to colors. If the job calls for a 4 color CMYK press, four plates are created – one for each color.
Due to the amount of manual labor involved, offset printing is usually reserved for big jobs that have longer turnaround times. This process would not be used to print 250 business cards that are needed in a day.
With digital printing, the text and images are transferred to paper using lasers or dry toner. Sometimes a positive/negative static charge and dry toner or liquid suspended toner particle process will be used. There are several different types of digital printers on the market. Special software and powerful computers are used to control the printing process.
Digital printing is a much faster process than offset printing and it can meet the demands of short turnaround times. If you order 250 business cards and need them by tomorrow, a digital printer will be used to run the print job.
Benefits of Offset Printing
As time goes by, the technological advances that power digital printing is rapidly closing the gap from offset. There are however several key benefits that offset currently provides:
- Better image quality (slightly) – This is one of the areas where the gap between digital and offset is closing quickly. Currently, offset has a slight advantage to quality – although in some cases you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference.
- Diverse media ability – Some offset printing presses can print on such materials as cardboard, plastic, metal, leather, and even wood.
- Cost – For jobs that require a high volume of printed materials, offset is the way to go. Costs will start to incur (via the setup process) before the print job has started. Once the print job is underway, those initial costs will be outweighed by the savings from the large print run.
- Size – On certain larger presses, it is possible to have a larger sheet size.
Benefits of Digital Printing
Digital printing affords certain printing advantages that can help businesses succeed in today’s competitive environment.
- Speed – Digital printing is fast. There is no manual labor required to set up the printers. Just click a button on a computer and the printer starts printing. This is great for a rush and tight deadline jobs.
- Proofs – Proofs on an offset printer are very expensive due to the labor involved in creating them. Proofing on a digital printer is much less expensive. A single sheet is printed in a matter of seconds and can be proofed immediately.
- Variable Data – With variable data printing, you can customize the materials being printed. Data that is variable can be printed in the same print run.
- Customization – Need to make a quick change to a file? Not a problem! With digital printing, simply send a file to the printer and the change can be made instantly.
What Does the Future Hold?
Aside from the immediate pros and cons of digital vs. offset, there is an ongoing debate in the industry as to when (or if) digital will fully surpass offset printing. Currently, technology (and to some extent the market itself) limits digital printing to its current confines. As technology progresses, and digital finds a foothold in new markets, perhaps it will one day relegate offset printing presses to the Smithsonian Museum. Until that day comes, offset printing will still have its place in printing large-run jobs.