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Digital VS Offset Printing: The Ultimate Guide To Printing Methods

For most of your printing needs, offset or digital printing will be the most suitable. However, there is no single and simple answer to the question which of these printing technologies is better. It is true that the right choice of printing method for your project can save you time, money and stress.

Important Points

Offset printing is the traditional and conventional online printing method and has changed very little in the past century. Digital printing is a sector with rapidly evolving technology and new technical advancements every year. There is a constant growth of new options and features for commercial printing. It has also introduced some confusion for customers and graphic designers on what is possible, better or best practise. The correct printing method depends on the job you need, it is useful to understand the advantages and disadvantages. Chilliprinting will give you an overview of what you need to know to decide on digital vs offset.

To the untrained eye, a finished print product of either offset or digital printing can look very similar. Some say that offset printing will offer better quality, that is only true for some aspects. When you do one print run this month and another one month later and need both to look exactly identical. Rather than focusing on quality, the choice boils down to factors like material available, time, cost, finishing and custom options.

What is and how does offset printing work?

Offset printing derives its name from the fact that the printing technique is not direct. The image ink is then transferred (“offset”) from a printing plate to the rubber and only then transferred to the printing surface. The repulsion of oil and water is the so-called lithographic process: the image to be printing is burnt on a plate. 

The printing areas get colored with roller ink, while the areas that will not be printing attract a water-based filmAfter inking, the image is then transferred to sheets of paper or to a continuous paper roll or wheel.

cheap offset poster prints - chilliprinting
Always choose offset printing if your prints must be identical

Offset printing uses four-color printing with ink rollers, one for each specified ink: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. These four colors comprise the color space commonly known as CMYK. In addition, special colors such as Pantone or PMS colors can be apply as needed. Offset machines can also have one or two rollers for just one or two color prints and grayscale, or more than four to add special colors, such as gold or silver or even a special finishing, like a varnish or glossy coat.

Offset Printing Pros

  • High image quality: It takes time to set up an offset printing machine, but this in turn guarantees a continuous quality. You can expect the first and last sheet of an entire print run to look identical. With a professional offset printer, you can also do a follow-up print run and expect identical results under the same parameters.
  • In the past, offset printing required making a film from your design to create a printing plate. Today, most offset printers use a computer-to-plate system, which further speeds up the process and has increased quality even more.
  • Colors: Offset printing is able to print true colors. That means you can select a Pantone or HKS color from a color swatch and know exactly what the result will look like. This can be a must when working with clients that use special colors for their logo or branding which simply cannot be off by even a bit. In the last stage of offset printing, a special finish or varnish is applicable as a final step.
  • Offset printing works with a wide range of materials and printing surfaces, including paper, wood, cloth, metal, leather, rough paper, plastic and PVC as well as thick cardboard or super thin materials (“bible paper”). Offset printing can create products such as PVC business cards, scratch cards or even scratch’n’sniff cards.
  • In offset printing, the unit cost goes down as the quantity goes up, often dramatically. This is due to the initial setup of the machine and the requirement of plates. When you are using different colors, between print jobs you have to wash the machine.. A larger print run will allow for more cost-effectiveness. For large print runs, offset printing will generally beat the price of digital printing, especially for products such as business cards, flyers, cheap poster printing or promotional material.
  • In general, offset printers are well set up for the further processing of your print job. Such as trimming, collating, folding, binding, stamping or embossing your printed product.

Offset Printing Cons

  • Not suited for small print runs, unless you’re willing to assume a relatively high cost for the making of the plates and machine set up. Depending on the type of print product, a minimum number might be 500 or 1,000 (for products such a business cards or flyers). Fortunately, ChilliPrinting specializes in offset print runs of cheap posters from 100 units starting at just $99.
  • Due to setup and maintenance, the turnaround of offset print jobs may be longer than their digital counterpart. For urgent jobs, digital may be best, but if you have 24 hours, offset provides the highest quality results.

What Is Digital Printing And How Does It Work

Digital printing describes printing methods where digital images or data (your print file) are then processed by a computer and sent directly to the printer. This can be an inkjet or laser printer, or even a thermal printer with special paper or printing wax, which are sometimes used for photos.

Whereas inkjet and thermal printers directly print on the media, laser printers commonly use a transfer ribbon and static electricity to transfer the toner onto the paper, after which it is set using heat. The static electricity and heat are the reason sheets can leave the laser printer charged and slightly warped.

digital vs offset poster prints - Chilliprinting
Digital printing is best when each print needs to be uniquely customized

Digital printing does not require the numerous preparation steps of offset printing, as there are no plates.. Laser and inkjet printers use a four-color-matching process and the CMYK color space. Color laser printers typically have one toner cartridge per color, whereas high quality inkjet printers used for fine art prints often have a variety of nuances, for example light Cyan or photo black.

Fine Art Printing

Fine art printing is a noteworthy subset of digital printing. An image or file is directly transferred to an inkjekt printer. Machines are usually suited for large format and feed from a roll of material, though individual sheets are also possible. The materials for fine art printing include traditional and nontraditional media. It is possible to use fade-resistant, pigment-based or solvent-based inks and print in archival quality. Typical materials are various photo papers, watercolor paper, treated or untreated canvas, rice paper, substrate-based paper (containing metals), and cloth or fabric.

Digital Printing Pros

  • Shorter turnaround: Depending on the size of your print job, you can expect a finished product fairly quickly. Digital print professionals use high-volume laser printers, and walk-in places can offer you same-day service for a variety of products and print jobs. Digital printing considers any quantity less than 500 units suitable for products such as business cards or brochures. So are quantities below 10 units for poster printing.
  • Digital printing is the preferred method for on-demand printing, especially when a small quantity or a single unit of a product is still in need. To produce dummies before an offset run, use digital printing quickly. In the case of art prints, digital prints are easily producible and sold individually according to demand. An individual color correction for each piece becomes possible, as well as artists owning and operating their own inkjet printers.
  • Fine art printing offers artists new possibilities for mixed-media work. They print on materials such as canvas and further treat or work on the surface, making each print an “original.” Fine art printing also offers reproductions of “archival quality” or “museum quality.”
  • Cost: digital printing allows for cheaper low volume printing, both with laser or inkjet printers. Depending on volume, product and material, there are certain constellations where digital printing is able to offer a cheaper total cost than offset printing.
  • Time: compared to offset printing, the setup cost per print job is minimal. Digital printing is able to produce a first printed sheet within minutes and it is possible to make on-the-fly adjustments to correct colors.
  • Variable data: With digital printing, it becomes possible to customize each printed product. For example, you can insert successive numbers on tickets, print an address on letters, postcards or stickers and further customize print products. As a marketing tool you can use variable data printing, customer relationship management and advertising.

Digital Printing Cons

  • Cost: Digital printing generally has a higher cost per unit compared to offset printing. This is somewhat offset by the setup costs, and very often, by the time factor. Digital printing is a fast solution. In fine art inkjet printing, reproductions or prints are also more expensive on a per-print basis.
  • Limited Size: A digital laser printer can only accommodate individual sheets of about 19 inch by 13 inch. Large format inkjet printers commonly use rolls between 36 inches and 44 inches in width. Recently, industrial-sized inkjet machines can create prints up to 126in x 126in.
  • Material: because digital laser printing uses heat to fixate the toner on the paper, a certain warping effect can occur. Generally, this is more for the printer to worry about, but it introduces limitation on the material. The weight of paper can range between 60g/m² (.2oz/ft²) and 300g/m² (.98oz/ft²), while some machines are able to print on 350g/m² (1.15oz/ft²) or even 400g/m² (1.31oz/ft²) stock. Digital printing is not only limited to paper and can print on adhesives or some durable material, but the choice of options is more limited than for offset printing. For best results, laser printers require a smooth surface of the material.
  • In digital printing, not every print is the same. In large print runs, a difference or shift can occur, and results can vary depending on paper, machine calibration and even humidity. It requires a skilled printer to ensure quality and continuous results. It is also more difficult to produce two identical print runs on different machines or even the same machine. The varying factor often becomes apparent in large areas of a single color. With offset printing, you can expect a homogeneous single color, but digital printing often displays a certain cloudy effect.
Digital printing can only print grayscale or CMYK colors and is not able print true special colors such as Pantone, PMS Colors or HKS colors

Other Digital Cons

  • Colors: Digital printing can only print grayscale or CMYK colors. It is not able print true special colors such as Pantone, PMS Colors or HKS colors. A close match is possible, but digital printing is out of the question if a customer requires an absolute Pantone match, for example. Digital printing cannot print colors such as gold, silver, or even white. At the same time, the color of the material will definitely influence the final result. Which is especially true for laser printers. A yellow paper will give the final image a slight yellow tint, for example. It is therefore not possible to print on black or dark paper.
  • Lower quality: this is a debatable point, as high quality laser printers are able to achieve high quality results. The fact is that in digital printing, the print data has to pass through the RIP, the raster image processor, where it becomes a bitmap. With low quality printers, you will be able to see a pixelated effect, but high quality machines use dedicated RIPs for great results. However, there are limits regarding the minimum size of text or thickness of lines.
  • Further processing: digital printing can produce flyers or bindings just as well as offset printing. However, certain limitations might apply, depending on the material. When you fold a flyer many times, the print toner can break at the folds. Which can be unsightly, especially in large areas printed in a single color. Offset printing does not have this problem.

Digital VS Offset Printing: How To Choose Your Method

As you can see from the advantages and disadvantages, there is no single option that is best for all use cases. Instead, you will have to decide again each time which printing method is the most suitable for what you want to achieve.

You will have to weigh the many different factors, such as price, quantity, timing, size and material. As general advice, work backwards from the type of print product you want to create, taking your budget and timeline into account. Also involve your printer as early as possible so you can clarify any doubts regarding the necessary print files.

Your print professional and the following checklist will help you decide on the right method for your individual print job:

  • Quantity: How many units will you need? Offset printing offers lower unit costs with increasing quantities and will always be your choice for large runs of business cards, flyers or simply promotional material. Very short runs can be much more cost-effective with digital printing, while larger quantities are likely to have a lower unit cost with offset printing.
  • Material: Offset printing offers you more choices and flexibility. It is able to create some products or print on materials that digital print simply cannot achieve.
  • Color: If your needs can be realizing within the CMYK color space, digital printing is still in the race. If you must have special colors, offset printing becomes a necessity. On the other hand, if you only need a single color or two colors, offset printing might be more cost-effective.
  • Turnaround: Digital printing can offer fast delivery, while offset printers offer a 48-hour service for a surcharge.
  • Customization: Only digital printing is able to personalize each individual unit. It is a very affordable way to customize marketing materials, direct mail pieces, letters and postcards. Printers offer mixed solutions: a large run of thousands of postcards can be printing in offset and then digitally personalized, if necessary.