Digital vs. Offset: Terms of Art
It’s tricky to talk about digital vs. offset printing because the terminology is either imprecise or obscure. Virtually all printing begins with a “digital” file, and web-based messaging is also described as “digital.” Almost no one knows what “offset” even means. It’s more useful to think about what the printing file actually does.
Digital printing might better be called “direct” printing, as the file itself is sent to and drives the imaging device (laser or inkjet). In a simple setting the printer can be producing final product in less than five minutes. Even for a complex job the “getaway time” rarely exceeds fifteen minutes, and is a small component of the price.
Regrettably, after the jackrabbit start, digital presses run slowly and use expensive consumables (toner or inkjet ink). The low setup cost is followed by a stubborn cost-per-copy that does not decline significantly as the run length increases.
Offset printing adds an expensive step to save you money. The digital file is used to create printing plates that will be mounted on a series of press cylinders to transfer, or “offset,” the inked image to the paper. Creating, installing and aligning the plates, even in an automated environment, is time-consuming, but offset presses run at high speed and can handle a wide range of substrates and sizes.
Once an offset press is set up and running, during which time the digital press may have run three or four complete jobs, the productivity is astounding. It’s not unusual for press operators to move four tons of paper through the press in an eight hour shift.
Which is Better?
Both. Both are better; they’re just better at different things. At each end of the spectrum are simply unsuitable jobs. Barring very particular circumstances we would not run 250 business cards offset. By the same token, 4,000 two-sided color flyers would be prohibitively expensive run digital-direct. Somewhere in the range of 750 copies, depending on the job, the pricing curves cross over each other. That said, however, the job you need by tomorrow is probably digital-direct.
There Has Never Been a Better Time to Buy Printing!
It’s probably misleading to frame this as “One Versus the Other.” Even though offset is still seen as more reliable, direct-digital printing is a fully mature technology, with all major manufacturers on their third- or fourth-generation machines. Although the exact nature of the image may vary from one platform to the other, both are equally capable of delivering commercially great results. Maybe it’s better to consider overlapping spectra of usefulness, with the happy consumer able to evaluate which serves the need better. Lot’s of choices; good news for all of us!