Offset vs. Digital Printing: Do You Know the Difference?

Offset vs. Digital Printing: Do You Know the Difference - pel hughes print marketing new orleans la

You’re an organization that needs brochures and postcards, or you’re a firm that needs logos and marketing materials. When it comes to having prototypes created and the final product produced, printing is printing, right? Well, not exactly. Knowing the difference between offset and digital printing can save you time, money, and for the environmentally conscious, even reduce your carbon footprint.

Although there are myriad differences in printing techniques and options that professional printing companies should be aware of, companies that use printing (which is virtually all of them) should also be aware of their options in this area. This article discusses the major differences offset and digital printing, as well as advantages of each to help you make the right choice. 


Core Technology Used

The core difference between offset and digital printing lays in the technology used in each respective method: plates and drums. 

The core technology used in offset printing is called a “plate”. A plate is an etched metal surface, and one plate for each color being used needs to be created. Once the specific plate is created, it’s then used to transfer a specific image onto a rubber sheet. This rubber sheet is then rolled onto paper, vinyl or some similar surface. The term “offset” is used because the ink is not transferred to the surface directly. 

Once the initial plate is constructed and set up, the press must be run for a few minutes until the plates are properly inked and the press is running correctly. However, once this warmup is complete and the press running correctly, this method can be very efficient and provides accurate color reproduction with crisp, clean end-products.

In contrast, digital printing utilizes the more modern electrostatic roller – called a “drum”. Similar to offset printing, one drum is used per color printed, and the drum is used to apply toner (or liquid ink for larger digital printers) onto the paper using an electrostatic charge. The toner is then applied to a sheet and fused onto the paper to produce the end-product. This process allows for easy printing of small jobs, and unlike offset presses, require minimal setup. 


Time, Money and Size 

Aside from the core technology behind offset and digital printing, the main differences between the two methods center around the type of print job required. Because of the long setup time that comes with etching and changing plates, offset printing can take longer and cost more. However, for those needing large quantities or larger size prints, offset printing offers superior color representation and sharper prints. 

For example, printing Pantone colors on an offset printer is more precise because they actually use Pantone ink (as opposed to toner). And once the plate is developed for this color scheme, the press can run large quantities without sacrificing quality. Moreover, as offset presses typically run 29” and 40” sheets, larger organizations that can afford print jobs requiring color consistency on large materials, such as banners, will find offset printing worth the extra cost. 

On the other hand, although digital printing may not offer the precise color quality (and the difference in quality can often be undiscernible to the untrained eye), the significantly shorter setup time means a faster turnaround time, at a lower cost. This is especially helpful for those requiring several different printing jobs. Digital printers can also be quickly modified and tailored to fit specific requirements. This just isn’t possible with offset printing which would require multiple plates and time to properly set the ink plates. 

In the end, the difference between offset and digital printing comes down to the size of print job you require, the need for color precision, the desired turnaround time, and budget. At the core of these choices is the technology used in each method. If you need a set of 500 posters using Pantone color that will be the face of your organization at a large trade show, and its in your budget, offset plates are the way to go. However, if you need 100 brochures that still produce high-quality color with a short turnaround time, look to digital.