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Digital Printing vs Offset Printing: Essentials and Differences

Digital printing was previously called ‘copying,’ but that term has become outdated. Today, instead of making copies of a hard copy original, the majority of digital printing is output directly from electronic files.

Digital printing is the fastest way to produce short runs. The quality of digital printing is now extremely close to offset printing. Although digital printing works well on most stocks, there are still some papers and projects where offset printing works better. 

Traditional offset printing is produced on a printing press using plates and ink. This type of printing takes longer to produce as there is more set up time and the final product must dry before finishing can begin. At the same time, offset printing traditionally produces the highest quality on the widest variety of stocks and offers the most control over color. Also, traditional offset printing is the most economical choice when a large quantity is needed.

In this article, we’ll review the differences between the two printing techniques and show the different benefits and drawbacks of each. We’ll also look at some examples so you can get the best sense of both digital and offset printing in action.

What is Digital Printing?

Digital printing doesn’t use plates, but instead uses toner (like in laser printers) or liquid ink in larger format printers. Digital printing works best when smaller quantities are needed. Another benefit of digital printing is its variable data capability. When each piece needs a unique code, name or address, digital is the only way to go. 

While offset printing is a fantastic way to produce great-looking print projects, many businesses or individuals do not need large runs, therefore the best solution is digital printing.

What is Offset Printing?

Offset printing uses plates, usually made from aluminum, which are used to transfer an image onto a rubber “blanket”, then rolling that image onto a sheet of paper. The term offset refers to the ink not being transferred directly onto the paper. Because offset presses run so efficiently once they are set up, offset printing is the best choice when larger quantities are needed. Traditional offset printing also provides the most accurate color reproduction, along with crisp, clean professional printing.

Digital Printing

Digital printing skips the proofs, plates and rubber rolls and applies a design directly to the stock or substrate, either with liquid ink or powdered toner.

Similar to the inkjet or laserjet you have at home, commercial printing companies have digital presses that are bigger, faster and more accurate.

The Benefits of Digital Printing:

  • Faster turnaround time.
  • Each print is identical. You risk fewer odd variations caused by imbalances in water and ink.
  • More cost effective for low quantity jobs. 
  • Ability to change information (variable data) within a single print job. 

The Drawbacks of Digital Printing:

  • Fewer material options.
  • Less color conformity is possible with digital printing due to digital jobs using CMYK toner or ink that cannot exactly match all colors. 
  • Higher cost for large quantity jobs.
  • Slightly lower quality, sharpness and crispness.

Offset Printing

Offset printing is the most common kind of printing for high volume commercial jobs. 

The process begins with the printer burning the design onto metal plates—one for each color. Typically, the four main colors of printing are used (cyan, magenta, yellow and black, abbreviated CMYK), but offset printing also allows for custom ink colors (most notably Pantone colors) to be used as well.

Next, the design is transferred from the plates onto rubber rolls. The rolls spread the different colors of ink and then the paper runs through all of the rolls, layering on the color, to get the final image.

The Benefits of Offset Printing

  • Superior image quality that is reliable. Offset printing offers clean, distinct type and images without streaks or spots.
  • Better color conformity, which refers to both the accuracy of the colors and their balance in the design. Because offset printing is able to mix custom color inks. It can get the colors spot-on.
  • Special Coatings can be applied to enhance or protect the printing such as:
  • Dull – UV, Aqueous or Varnish
  • Glitter – UV
  • Gloss – UV, Aqueous or Varnish
  • High Contrast – UV
  • Matte – UV, Aqueous or Varnish
  • Scratch Off – UV
  • Sandpaper Grit – UV
  • Satin – UV, Aqueous or Varnish
  • Soft-Touch – Aqueous
  • Strike-Through- UV, Aqueous or Varnish
  • Works well on almost any kind of stock or substrate.
  • Coated Paper
  • Board
  • Magnetic
  • Paperboard
  • Plastic
  • Recycled paper
  • Static cling vinyl
  • Synthetic
  • Uncoated Paper
  • For large volume jobs, it is the most cost effective way to go. Although it can cost more to start an offset job, once the investment in creating all of the necessary materials is made, you’ll actually spend less on big offset jobs than a digital print.

The Drawbacks of Offset Printing

  • High cost of low-volume jobs
  • Longer turnaround since plates need to be created
  • Worse fallout in case there’s an error. If you don’t catch a typo on a plate, it’s harder to fix and the process will need to start all over again.

How to Decide Between Digital vs. Offset Printing

If unsure whether to use digital vs. offset printing for your next project, use this list to decide which the right choice:

Volume: If the project is large enough, usually 1,000 pieces or more, offset printing is the best choice. The printing will look great and will likely cost less at a high enough quantity.

Time: If you’re in need of a quick turnaround, digital printing is the way to go. Offset printing just can’t be done last minute.

If you have time to spare or need a specialty ink match, that is definitely a job for offset printing. 

Material: Digital options are more flexible than ever before, but offset printing still has a leg up on its abilities to run a wider variety of stocks and substrates.

Color: If it’s black and white or just one or two colors (and the volume is high enough), offset printing may be the right choice. If you need basic four-color printing and a lower quantity, digital may be the best, most cost-effective solution.

However, if perfect color is absolutely essential (for example, if you need to use the Pantone® Matching System), use offset printing. The offset process uses actual Pantone® ink for a perfect match, whereas digital is only able to produce its best approximation of the color.

Custom work: There’s no doubt that digital printing is the easiest, cheapest way to customize your projects, even within the same printing. If specialty stock or ink is required, and the quantity is high enough, offset printing will be best.

Proofs: If you need to see a printed sample before taking the plunge, digital holds the advantage. To get a color proof for an offset project, you’ll need to execute the hardest parts of the project (plates and ink), which gets very expensive.

In conclusion

In general, offset printing is regarded as being of higher quality; however, digital printing has made strides in respect to quality and two copies of the same design – one via offset printing, the other via digital printing – may appear identical to the untrained eye.

Offset printing presses also allow you to print larger sheets and can print many pieces quicker than digital printing presses – again, generally speaking.

Outside of those relatively minor differences, the actual finished product associated with offset printing versus digital printing are remarkably similar. The difference, as it turns out, is rooted more deeply in price and budget than anything else; and even these numbers are contingent on your business needs.