Digital vs Offset Printing: What’s the Difference?

Printers are considered as essential computer peripherals. This has made it possible for anyone with a computer to print out materials like flyers, brochures, posters, and others. Traditional printing shops have also benefited from this development. With more people able to print things from their computers, they now realize that some things are better left to professionals.

Professional printing services use a variety of machines to service their clients’ printing needs. The range of services has also grown because more people are sending them printing jobs. These are jobs that go beyond the limitations of home printers in terms of quality, size, longevity, colors, printing materials and others.

Like most other industries which rely on machinery, printing is dependent on technology. From Chinese woodblocks and the Gutenberg printing press, technology has made it possible for more materials to get printed. Contemporary printing technology uses offset and digital printing for different kinds of jobs. These methods use different kinds of technologies and machines.

  • Offset Printing

Offset printing uses large machines to transfer an image on to paper using a plate and rollers. Large printing presses use plates and rubber rollers to transfer ink to paper. The design or an image of the page is etched onto aluminum plates. These plates are then placed on a roller. Using another roller a layer of ink is fed onto the aluminum plate. This ink layer is then passed to another roller, called the offset roller which passes on the ink on to paper. The most common offset printers use 4 colors, each of which are set on a separate plate and roller. Better color rendition is achieved by 6- or 8-color offset printers.

  • Digital Printing

Using the same technology of computer printers, digital printing is like a larger home printer. Instead of a desktop machine, digital printers are stand-alone units and wide. It uses a wide variety of inks for different types of papers and printing purposes. It uses inkjets and tanks, one for each color, the digital printer prints one page at a time, at an affordable cost for short-run productions.

  • Offset vs Digital Printing

The difference in methods and technologies also have their advantages and disadvantages. The following are the main features and advantages of both:

  • 1. Cost.

Digital printing is cost-effective for short-run publications. The cost per page is constant is the same for one page as it is for 100 pages.

The upfront cost of an offset printing includes the laser etching of the aluminum plate. This additional cost makes it expensive for prints less than a thousand. As the number of copies increase, the initial cost is divided among the volume printed. This makes the cost prohibitive for productions less than 500 copies. It starts to get even at 1000 copies, depending on the number of colors used. The more prints made, the cheaper the cost per page becomes.

  • 2. High fidelity color printing.

For printing color publications on offset printers, there are four, six or eight plates used depending on the machine, and the desired quality of color reproduction. Offset printing uses Pantone inks which are accurate color reproductions for spot printing. This results in the correct color for specific objects like logos. Four color CMYK would be used for the majority of the page, except for the color-specific items that would use a separate plate for spot processing.

Digital printers also use CMYK color reproduction, but for higher quality images, there are printers with 6 up to 11 nozzles. These extra colors provide better control of color printing resulting in more vibrant finishes. Colored image reproduction is significantly better with digital printing.

  • 3. Paper.

Offset printing was designed for paper in various textures and weights. Cardboards and heavy paper could be rolled through the printer without any problem. The paper is stacked on one end of the machine, where suction and air are used to separate one leaf from the next. This rolls down and imprinted with one color for each roller. After going through the printer, the paper goes through a light dusting of powder which helps to keep the papers separate and the ink from seeping through to the other pieces of paper.

Digital printing allows other materials besides paper, including plastic, vinyl, and canvas. Special wide format digital printers can be used to print tarpaulins for outdoor signages, as well as vinyl and acrylic.

  • 4. Volume Orders.

Short-run printing is relatively cheap with digital printing. You can print as few as 1 or more than a hundred. The client can also print on demand, with production started only as needed. Offset printing quantities are best in large numbers.

Offset printing is prohibitive for small-run productions. The minimum production order for offset printing is usually for 500 copies.

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  • 5. Quality.

Offset printing follows publication quality standards. The CMYK system used by offset printers uses an equal spacing of dots. Traditionally, newsprint has 85 lines per inch, which translates to 150 PPI. Due to advances in offset printing technology, high-quality magazines can go as high as 1200 PPI resolution. Eight-color offset printers have CMYK and an additional 4 colors for spot processing. Using Pantone colors, the spot colors would be an accurate rendition of the colors.

For digital printing, 300 dpi has been the standard resolution. This can go as high as 1800 dpi for high-quality images. Even with 6- or 11-color inkjet digital printing, these would still be overlapping the ink to produce the colors. It would still rely on CMYK printing with the additional colors for finer color rendition.

In terms of quality color reproduction, offset printing has long been considered as the standard. However, today’s digital printing technology has surpassed offset printing specially for image reproduction.

  • 6. Setup costs.

Offset printing is more expensive because it requires a higher setup cost. The page is first run through color separation. That means that the page is printed to reflect each of the CMYK colors. Each of these colors is equivalent to one plate. The more colors there are, the more expensive the initial cost becomes. The setup cost makes low volume production runs expensive.

In comparison, digital printing does not have any setup costs. The job can be printed directly once the page, flyer, or brochure has been laid out on the computer.

  • 7. Faster production.

Since digital printing does not need any other setup than the material to be printed, it can be printed immediately. The actual printing per page may be slow, but since it is going to be printed for less than 500 copies, or even 1000 copies, it can be done in a day or two.

Offset printing has additional setup steps that take time. Testing the output before the plates, and then producing a test run typically requires a couple of days to a week. For less than 1000 copies which are needed immediately, digital printing is recommended. For more than 1000 copies, offset printing can be faster.

  • 8. Variable data printing.

There will be instances when additional information is included in the printing. This may be for small batches of tens, or hundreds, or it may be for individual items. Offset printing cannot handle this type of job unless another printing is done afterward. This is considered as a separate project where the individual information is printed onto the offset printed paper.

Digital printing can handle this kind of job using a master document and database. Or individual design per page or material. This job is treated as if it was small batches or pages.

  • Conclusion

Offset printing and digital printing are not competitors in the sense that these technologies have their niches. For small run production or fast turnaround, digital printing is better. Offset printing works best with large volumes of printing and a relatively long setup. The cost of digital production is constant for the whole production run. While offset printing costs per page decreases with more volume. High fidelity color rendition is achieved by offset printing for spot color printing. However, digital printers are much better at high-quality pictures and images. These are some things to consider with every printing job.