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From Karen Saunders

Your Branding, Marketing & Self-Publishing Coach

What’s the Difference Between a Digital and Offset Printer?

“Digital printing” can be a confusing term because the word “digital” is often used in different ways. To clarify its use when printing your marketing materials, let me point out the difference between a digital and offset printer, a traditional offset press, and a direct imaging offset press. Take special note of the pricing examples below to help demystify beliefs about digital printing. Then decide for yourself which option is most cost-effective for your projects.

Traditional Offset Presses

Traditional offset printing uses a plate for each color on the press. Today, most plates are imaged from computer files, but in the past, they were made from film negatives or camera-ready artwork that was photographed using a large graphics camera.

The process of having a plate for each color is called color separation. Colors can be spot colors (found in the well-known PMS swatch book) or process colors (derived from a combination of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks, each having its own plate). If you want a wide spectrum of colors in your printed piece, you’d use process color.

Offset presses are generally more cost-effective than digital printers for long print runs (usually 1000 sheets or more). Printing only one color is the least expensive option; 2-color printing costs more than 1-color; 3-color printing costs more than 2-color, and so on.

With offset printing, you will incur set-up charges, including color proofs, plates, and “make-ready” pages. (Make-ready pages are the sheets of paper that first come off the press while it’s getting warmed up. From examining make-ready pages, the press operator can adjust the flow of separate colored inks and achieve the desired balance of color.)

Computer to Plate (CTP) Technology

Many printing companies now skip the step of producing negatives and go “direct to plate” by taking the computer file and imaging the plates on a platesetter. With this process, there’s no need to make negatives. This technology is referred to as “computer-to-plate” or CTP.

Direct Imaging Presses (Digital Offset)

Some newer offset presses are equipped to image plates on the press, and these include the Heidelberg DI, Adast DI and Presstek DI. These presses are a good fit for jobs between 500 and 5,000 sheets.

Eye popping tip for Difference Between a Digital and Offset PrinterEye-Popping Tip: A typical sheet size is 11″ x 17″, therefore you can print two 8.5″ x 11″ flyers on one sheet, doubling the quantity.

Full-Color Digital Printers

Digital printing equipment such as the Xerox DocuColor or HP Indigo do not require printing plates. Because these presses do not use make-readies, negatives, or plates, they are the most cost-effective option for short runs (usually less than 500 sheets per job).

Digital printers can also print variable data (for example, addresses from a postcard mailing list or consecutive numbers on gift certificates). Also, because they only print either CMYK or black ink, costs are generally the same whether you print one color or four colors.

Price Comparisons for the Difference Between a Digital and Offset Printer

Project: 8.5″ x 11″ flyer on 100-pound glossy text paper printed on one side, 1000 copies, with the following specifications:

4-color on Digital Printer $300–$375

1-color on Offset Press (Traditional or CTP) $200–$250

2-color on Offset Press (Traditional or CTP) $275–$325

3-color on Offset Press (Traditional or CTP) $375–$425

4-color on Offset Press (Traditional or CTP) $600–$800

4-color on Offset Press (Gang Printer) $300–$375

Please note: This is a general list of prices for comparison purposes only. Your printing company’s prices may be higher or lower, depending on many factors including turnaround time.