When we are talking about business printing, there are basically three printing processes to choose from; Letterpress, Offset and Digital. Yes Web, Flexography, Screen printing are all viable printing processes but for the average business person, the prior will be the common choices. I included letterpress in the list because over the last few years, it has been making somewhat of a comeback. Letterpress of course, is the process of running inked rollers over lead type or dies and then in a clamshell type method pressing the image onto the paper. This lends itself to a very unique “look” and that look is becoming popular with certain designers. It is especially popular in the invitation market. Letterpress can also be used for other things such as foil stamping, die cutting, numbering and scoring. However, I consider Letterpress a specialty market so I’ll spend the rest of this time comparing Offset and Digital.
The Offset printing process is pretty straight forward. A “plate” is created with a positive image on it. That plate is loaded onto the press where ink is placed on the image. The image is then transferred to a rubber “blanket”. Finally, the paper is passed between the blanket cylinder and the “impression” cylinder and the image is transferred to the paper. Originally, the plates were created from a photo negative with the image being “burned” onto the plate. Today, most printers create their plates digitally eliminating the need for a negative.
Digital printing is exactly that, a digital file is processed through a Raster Image Processor (RIP) and then sent to what looks and functions like a big copy machine. Digital printing uses toner not ink. However, these are not just color copiers. The higher end machines can produce images that are better than even the best Offset presses. These machines have options that allow them to created completed books, do folding and numbering, score, 3 hole drill, perforate and stitch all online.
The biggest difference in the two processes is without a doubt, make-ready and cleanup. With Offset, make-ready and cleanup are very time consuming and expensive and the problem is, it doesn’t matter how many, or few pieces you order, you are going to incur the full costs. This isn’t bad if you are doing large quantities the because MR costs are spread out over the job and the cost per piece comes down. But on small jobs the cost per piece is much higher. This is why you get “price breaks” for higher quantities. In the digital world, there is little to no make-ready however the run costs per piece are higher than Offset and those costs remain the same regardless of quantity, so the shorter the run, the better the price for Digital.
As stated earlier, many digital machines feature complete finishing inline. This can again reduce the cost of Digital over offset. Most Offset finishing is done off-line where you will again incur setup costs. But, in-line finishing also slows down the Digital machine therefore increasing the per piece price.
What about quality? Having run Offset presses for the majority of my life I would like to tell you that Offset quality is always better, but that’s just not true. Based on my experience in both the Offset and Digital worlds, I can say that in the majority of jobs, you can’t tell the difference. On the other hand, there are still a large number of jobs that can only be run properly on Offset. And conversely there are jobs where Digital excels. The biggest factor that affects the quality is the paper. While Offset presses can run just about any paper known to man, Digital has limitations especially in weight and texture.
So what is the best process for you? I can say definitively… it depends. If price is important to you, go Digital for small quantities and Offset for large. If you are using exotic paper go Offset. If your job requires a lot of finishing, think Digital.
Most importantly, find a printer you trust and ask him.