Print explained: offset litho vs. digital

Whether you are printing a book, manual, catalog, or other multi-page document, you will likely have a choice between two commercial production methods: Offset Printing and Digital Printing.

Both methods are very popular, but there are distinct differences between the two. Understanding these differences will help you determine which is a better fit for your specific book project.

A Quick Overview of Offset Printing…

Offset, or conventional printing, has changed little since the original steam powered offset press was first developed in 1906. It involves a mechanical process of applying layers of ink to paper with a series of rollers. Each roller has its own specified ink – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black — or CMYK. As each of these rollers pass over the page, they transfer ink and build layers of colors, resulting in complete images and text on the page. Additionally, specialized colors called Pantones or PMS colors can be added to the layout if very specific colors are needed, for instance in a logo.

Digital printing eliminates the numerous steps involved in the offset printing process, such as creating films and plates for ink rollers. Most digital presses today apply ink in a single pass from a single ink head, similar to common inkjet printers found in homes and offices.

Many different considerations will determine which method is best, such as quantity, timing, and size of the printed piece. Offset printing is commonly used for higher quantity, larger format jobs while digital printing is best applied to smaller format, lesser quantity print runs. Delicious Design’s production department takes all these variables and more into consideration to determine the best possible printing method for each job.

Offset Printing Pros

  • Larger Runs A print quantity of over 500 units is typically well suited for offset printing.
  • Larger Format For instance, a 40″ press can accommodate a flat page size of approx. 25″ x 38″.
  • Specialized Colors & Techniques Offset presses can print PMS colors and utilize gloss/dull varnishes for added texture.  Additionally, multiple press “heads” allow for an infinite array of colors and printing techniques.

Offset Printing Cons

  • More costly and time consuming A typical offset press requires at least two pressmen to run a job, plus added maintenance, setup, printing plates and specialized inks, which result in higher print costs and increased turn around time.

Digital Printing Pros

  • Small Runs Any print quantity under 500 units is typically well suited for a digital press.
  • Variable Data Digital presses can print customized copy on each individual piece, such as names and addresses for postcards.
  • Cheap and Fast Less setup and maintenance (no films/plates) results in cheaper pricing and quicker turns.

Digital Printing Cons

  • Limited Size Most digital presses can only accommodate press sheets of up to 18″ x 12″.
  • No PMS Colors Digital presses cannot print Pantones, though in recent years, they have become much more apt at closely matching PMS colors.
  • Lower Quality The print quality from digital presses is not as refined as offset.

5 Factors that help determine which Production Method is better suited for your Book Printing Project…

1) Order Quantity: The number of books you need will generally dictate the production method. As a general rule, Digital printing will be the more cost-effective choice for short production runs, like 150 or 250 books. However, as the order quantity increases, Offset printing becomes the more cost-effective production method.

A Digital printing press has minimal set-up costs associated with a production run. Unlike an Offset printing press, a Digital press does not use printing plates. So there is no expense involved with plate creation when printing digitally. Also, preparing for a Digital press run requires very little “make-ready” time and few adjustments. Because the costs associated with set-up are minimal, short run books have a lower unit cost when produced on a Digital press.

Conversely, an Offset press requires printing plates, longer prep time and more preliminary adjustments to establish a smooth production run. These plate charges and higher set-up costs would inflate the book’s unit cost on a small production run because they cannot be effectively distributed over a limited number of books.

However, as the order quantity increases, to say 500 or 1,000 books, Offset printing is by far the more cost-effective production method. Even though the set-up costs of an Offset press run are greater than those associated with a Digital press run, a larger order allows these higher initial costs to be distributed across more books. And once an Offset press is running, the actual cost of applying ink to paper is substantially less than that of a Digital press. So with Offset printing, the book’s unit cost decreases as the order quantity increases.

2) Urgency: The Digital printing route will almost always enable your book order to be produced faster than the Offset route. In addition to the time saved by not having to create printing plates and prepare the press, the ink or toner used by a Digital press is instantly dry. Also, because Offset presses are used for longer print runs, there will likely be a somewhat longer wait for press time. So, if you need some books in a hurry then Digital production is your best option.

That said, let’s say you want to order a total of 2,000 books but only need 200 of them quickly. You could opt for Digital production of the 200, and then still enjoy the unit cost savings on the remaining 1,800 by having them produced on an Offset press.

3) Budget: The exact order volume that determines which of the two printing methods is more economical will vary from project to project. But, as a rule of thumb, when ordering books in smaller quantities, Digital printing will be the more economical choice. And when ordering books in larger quantities, Offset printing will be more economical.

Digital printing is a good fit for new ventures and start-ups. Offset printing is ideal for proven and more-established projects that necessitate the additional volume. Incidentally, just because the unit cost of a book decreases as the order quantity increases, it is still wise to consider which run size is optimal for your specific situation. A lower unit cost is great, but not if you’re ordering more books than you’ll ultimately need.

4) Dimensions: Offset Presses can print on larger sheet sizes than Digital presses. Fortunately, most of the common book sizes can be produced on either a Digital or Offset press. However there are some instances where the physical dimensions of a book may prevent it from being produced on a Digital press.

For example, let’s say you want to print a saddle-stitched book with a finished size of 11” wide x 8.5” high. This is actually a rather common format. Because a saddle-stitched book is constructed from folded sheets, the pages and cover of an 11” wide book will need to be printed on sheets measuring at least 22” in width.

Even though Digital presses are increasing in size, many are still in operation that have a maximum sheet size of 13” x 19”. So unless a print shop has a larger Digital press to accommodate the minimum 22” needed, this particular book project would have to be produced on an Offset press.

The real dilemma arises when someone only needs a short run of these 11” x 8.5” books, because an Offset press may make this project too cost prohibitive to proceed. The solution is to alter the size of the book to better fit the available Digital press or increase the order size to make the Offset production more cost-effective per unit.

5) Options: Books produced on an Offset press offer the most flexibility because they can be made with just about any design feature, paper thickness, or finishing option available. However, Digital printing has a few limitations compared to Offset printing.

Even though Digital presses and Offset presses both print CMYK, only an Offset press can print true PMS Spot Colors. A Digital press can only approximate a PMS color. So, if you need a true PMS Color on the cover or pages of your book, it will need to be produced on an Offset press. Also, most Digital presses use toner-based inks, which may be incompatible with certain laminate and coating applications.

In addition, many Digital presses will only print on coverstock thicknesses up to 14pt. While this will accommodate the needs of many book projects, if a heavier weight book cover is desired it will need to be printed on an Offset press.

It is always a good idea to consult with your printer early in the book creation process to discuss your plans and specifications. A few minutes spent with your printer at the beginning will translate to less headaches down the road.

Sprint Printing in delhi is always happy to answer your questions and discuss ways to save money on book printing. We offer both Digital and Offset printing, as well as all softcover binding styles, so we can assist with just about any book project you may have. Just give us a call at +919811868334.