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March 4th, 2014

Digital vs. Offset Book Printing

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by David Rogers

Vintage Offset Press

Nearly every new book released today was created on one of two machines: a digital press or an offset press. Naturally this leads to questions concerning the difference between the two, and which is better.

As you may guess since both kinds of printing are still used, neither method holds a clear overall advantage over the other. The choice of which to use depends on a number of factors concerning your particular book project, including quantity, content and budget.

Offset Printing

Offset printing has been around for well-over 100 years and is still the most popular method for high volume commercial printing. Here’s a simplified version of how this type of printing works:

The image (and/or text) to be printed is burned onto a metal plate – these days this is procedure is typically done using computers. This plate is then installed on a cylindrical roller in the offset press (labeled “Plate cylinder” in the diagram below), then ink and water are added. The ink adheres to the portion of the plate with an image or text, while the water – which naturally separates from ink – covers the remainder of the roll and acts as a film preventing ink from being transferred to a second cylinder that is directly under this cylinder (labeled “Offset cylinder” below).

This second cylinder in the chain is covered with a rubber “blanket.” Ink is transferred from the plate on the top roller to this blanket. The paper is fed directly under the roller with the blanket, so ink is transferred once again from the blanket to the paper. This is probably most easily understood with a diagram:

Diagram of Offset Press

Each color used in the printing process has its own set of rollers. A four-color process, then, will have each color (cyan, magenta, yellow and black, or CMYK) added by a different set of rollers. The paper passes through all four sets of roller, receiving each ink color separately to make up the final image.

Offset printers also can use spot color. Instead of producing the final image with a combination of CMYK inks, the exact ink color is loaded into one set of rollers. Perhaps the most familiar spot colors are the Pantone Color Matching System. Spot colors are most often used for materials like company logo printing that require an exact color to be consistent across all materials.

Digital Printing

A digital press is a toner-based device. Instead of preparing a plate for every print job, computer files are sent to the press to trigger the print run. As you can imagine, this requires less setup time on the actual press, making digital printing more cost-effective for short run prints.

Quality Difference

Today there is little quality difference between the two types of printing. In the early days of digital, offset clearly had a leg up when it came to the best quantity print style. But as digital technology has advanced through the years, we are now at a point where the difference between the two is difficult to discern by the untrained eye.

Offset is still slightly preferred for certain types of printing – particularly jobs involving many photos or large areas of color. Again, however, the quality difference is hard to detect in most cases.

The most cost effective print method depends on your specific project, and the best choice between digital and offset depends on a number of factors. Here are a few advantages of both types of printing.

Advantages of Offset Printing

Cost effective for high quantity jobs. Because of the plates and other factors, the majority of cost for the offset printing comes in the form of setup costs. However, the unit price of each book you print then decreases rapidly. This makes offset printing the best choice for longer runs.

The threshold where offset printing becomes more cost effective depends on many factors of the book project, including binding type, number of pages and more. However, the point where it becomes more cost effective to print on an offset printer tends to be in the range of 500-1000 books for most projects.

More paper stock options. Digital presses are somewhat limited in the size, texture and weight of paper that can be run through them, while offset printers can handle a much wider variety.

Advantages of Digital Printing

Cost effective for low quantity jobs. Until the arrival of digital, it was extremely cost prohibitive to print just a few copies of a book. But with lower setup costs because no plates are required, digital printing has ushered in print on demand possibilities and contributed to the rise of short run printing.

However, the per unit cost doesn’t decrease as the run goes on, which is why at a certain point it becomes more cost effective to use an offset press.

Can be a faster process for smaller jobs. Depending on the particular job, digital printing can result in a faster turnaround than offset. This is primarily a result of the shorter setup time since there are no plates to be created. Additionally, there is no drying time required after printing.

On larger runs, however, offset printing is the faster option, as the faster print time of each sheet eventually makes up for the longer setup time. Additionally, since the binding and finishing processes take the same amount of time for digital and offset printing, there is typically little overall time difference between the two methods when it comes to book printing.

Which Type of Printing to Choose

As you’ve gathered, the answer to the question of which printing method is better is completely dependent on your individual project. However, answering the following questions will give you a better idea of which method will be the best option for your next book printing run.

That said, we’ll be glad to discuss the best method for your specific project; you can give us a call at 888-664-8166 or email us at bestbook@colorwise.com. We use whichever method is most quality- and cost-effective for your particular project. In fact, our free quote page automatically chooses the least expensive print method according to the specifications you enter.

How many books do you need?

As you’ve probably gathered up to this point, the quantity of your run is by far the most important factor in the digital vs. offset debate. On the majority of projects, the number of books you want to print will be the primary determining factor as to whether we run your book on an offset or a digital press.

Do you have unique size and/or paper requirements?

Offset printing offers more options concerning paper stock, paper weight, and paper size. While this doesn’t come into play as often with books as with other forms of printing, it can still be an issue if you have specific paper needs.

Do you need exact match colors?

This question is typically more relevant to commercial print services rather than book print customers. Offset printers have the option of using Pantone ink and the aforementioned Pantone Matching System for exact color matching.

However, this is primarily used for corporate identity materials such as logos and letterhead where color consistency among materials is an extremely high priority. Digital offers the ability to get extremely close color matching, and we calibrate both our digital presses and our screens to make sure the color you want is the color you get.

Image Source: Flickr