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What's the Difference Between Offset Printing and Digital Printing?

written by: •edited by: Daniel P. McGoldrick•updated: 12/13/2010

Offset printing and digital on-demand printing are two different technologies for getting a document printed. Each has its benefits and downsides, and each has its place in the printing world.

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    Offset Printing

    When a desktop publisher is ready to have a job printed, he or she has a choice to make. Should the job be produced using offset printing, or digital on-demand printing? It all depends on the job; each printing method has its place.

    Offset printing involves a fairly complicated process whereby plates are created, which are used to transfer an image onto a rubber blanket and then onto paper. A few years ago the quality of a good offset print job was superior to that of a digitally printed piece. That gap has narrowed considerably in recent years, although offset printing is still a better way of ensuring accurate reproduction of Pantone spot colors. Offset printing also enjoys an advantage over digital on-demand printing for large runs. The downside is that initial setup costs mean printing a single document (or a dozen) is as expensive as printing 500 or 1,000. In offset printing, as the number of pieces printed goes up, the per-unit cost per printed piece goes down.

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    Digital Printing

    Digital on-demand printing encompasses a variety of technologies that bypass the plate making process used in offset printing. Digital printing options range from toner based laser printers to large machines that use liquid inks. The economy of scale does not really apply to digital printing, which makes it great for low volume jobs. Since there are no plates and usually no set up fees, a small run is relatively inexpensive using digital printing compared to offset printing. The flip side of this is that, as volume increases, there is a cutoff point at which it begins to make more sense to run the job on an offset press. That cutoff point varies depending on the job and the printer.

    Another advantage of digital printing is that it can be used to individualize print pieces; for example different addresses or names can be printed on each piece, something that cannot be done using an offset press.

    Timing is also a factor. Digital printing means quick turnaround time; depending on the job, a printed piece can be ready for delivery in just a few hours. Offset printing, on the other hand, is not as quick. Set up takes time, and when the job is done, it has to dry properly before it can be folded, cut and handled. It usually takes several days for a job to be completed. To find out more, read about how to choose between offset and digital printing.