What’s the Difference Between Digital and Offset Printing?

Digital printing has been the wave of the future for today’s printers, opening the door to a whole new way of doing business and giving businesses the unique opportunity to save money on their printing projects in a way they never have before. Digital isn’t the only way, however. As with all things, newer isn’t always better! Here’s a look at the difference between digital and offset printing, and what that means for your print job.

Offset Printing

There’s a reason we learn history when we’re in school. You have to understand what came before to appreciate everything that comes after! Offset printing set the bar for today’s printers, allowing them to create large volumes of very precise, high quality work by creating films or plates with your images (creating an “offset” image), transferring them to a rubber blanket then onto your printing surface using one simple, fundamental rule: Water and ink don’t mix. The plates are first coated in water, then in ink. The ink adheres to the image but shies away from the wet non-image area, allowing it to be smoothly transferred onto your medium.

How do we decide when to use offset printing as opposed to its digital counterpart? It’s important to note that the setup time required for offset printing processes makes it an inefficient choice for quantities under 1,000; however, for projects printing in quantities >1,000 it’s often faster and more economic (read: cost saving) than digital processes.

The other factor to weigh in when deciding between offset and digital printing is how time-specific the materials you’re printing happen to be. Because offset printing projects are printed in such high volume, you’re going to end up with materials left over (read: sitting in storage) if you don’t use the full quantity. This is fine for, say, business cards, which are valid for the life of your business, but if you’re, say, distributing a brochure for a limited-time special or advertising for a product that is likely to be innovated or upgraded in the near future, you could end up tossing thousands of pieces of marketing material into the recycling bin.

While not always available at every printer, offset printing also offers you a greater number of options when selecting your mediums. Offset printing will print on cloth, wood and virtually any type, size, weight or paper finish.

Digital Printing

Digital printing is a favorite in the printing industry because it makes printing small quantities of products more cost effective. It also opens the doorway to a process known as digital variable printing, which allows you to further personalize your projects. So you can insert names, individual addresses and other customer specific information with very little difficulty, time or added expense (including having to pick up a pen and do it yourself) because the computer takes care of the whole thing for you.

In digital printing, there are no plates or films required. The project goes directly from the computer to a high quality commercial printer in much the same way you would print documents from your computer at home. The printer reads the digital information in the file, then uses what is known as a four color process to create your final image from toner rather than ink. (Click here to learn more about four color process and what it means for your print job.) The image on the first page appears in under a minute, drastically reducing the amount of time needed to “prep” for your job.

The other reason people love digital printing, aside from the obvious advantages offered by being able to order your print projects in quantities <1,000, is the ease with which you can proof your colors directly from a digital file.

The decision to use offset or digital printing processes will be made on a case-by-case basis using the above information by the capable hands of your commercial printing team.