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Offset Versus Digital Printing
What’s the difference between offset printing and digital printing?
With offset printing the full color image to be printed is separated into 4 layers with each layer representing one of the primary colors (cyan, magenta, yellow and black often called CMYK). A metal plate is then created with the image etched into it. The image on each plate is represented by a thousands of tiny dots. Each of the metal plates is then installed on one of 4 large rollers on the press. Each roller/plate will apply a specified ink (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow or Black) to the paper. As the paper passes through the press each ink color is transferred from the ink roller to a drum that is coated with a rubber blanket. The ink is then transferred (or “offset”) to the paper. Once the paper has passed through all four color rollers/plates the complete image can be seen on the paper.
Most offset presses require a significant amount of what’s called “make ready” time to prepare the press before printing actually begins. And there is a fair amount of paper waste as the press must typically run a hundred sheets or more through the press in order to get the press “up to color”. Proofing on an offset press can be more challenging than digital printing since it’s not economical to prepare an offset press for just one printed proof. Instead other, more economical devices are used to simulate what the final product will look like. An important consideration in deciding whether offset printing is appropriate for your project is that offset printing has a large front-end loaded cost structure (plates, make ready, paper waste.) which means short runs (low quantities) may have a high per-unit cost. But as quantities increase, the unit cost goes down significantly. Very short runs can be produced more cost effective on a digital press. If you are unfamiliar with many of the terms used here you can download the Influence Graphics printing guide book that explains in more depth a lot of the printing industry terminology. And be sure to visit our helpful printing tips for helpful information on setting up your print files.
In contrast, digital presses use a laser beam to “write” a static charge on a rotating drum which then attracts the ink (or toner on some presses) to the drum, applying a different color ink with each rotation. Digital presses don’t require the “make ready” that offset presses do and usually the first print out of a digital press is of high quality and therefore have little/no paper waste. Digital printing eliminates the numerous and time consuming steps involved in the offset printing process. Proofing on a digital press is typically more accurate since the proof is printed using the exact process as will be used on the final press run. If you need it fast, digital usually offers a much faster turnaround.
Many different considerations will determine which method of printing is best for your particular project, such as quantity, timing, and the physical size of the printed piece. Offset printing is commonly used for higher volume, larger sheet size jobs while digital printing is best applied to smaller format, lesser quantity print runs. While one printing method might give you a slightly different “look” than the other, both printing methods can give you excellent results.
Offset Printing Pros
- More economical on larger runs
- Larger Formats available (typical sheet size is 40”)
- Wider range of paper stocks available
- More durable, less prone to scratching or scoffing
Digital Printing Pros
- Very economical for small runs
- Very fast turnaround times
- Variable Data (each individual printed sheet can be unique)
- Very accurate proofs
Offset Printing Cons
- More costly for small runs
- Longer lead time required
- Large amount of waste
Digital Printing Cons
- Not competitive on longer runs
- More susceptible to scratching or scoffing
- Smaller Sheet Size (typically 13”x19”)