Choosing the right printer is crucial to any print and mailing campaign, and selecting the proper service can be confusing.
First and foremost, neither method is inherently better than the other. Offset printing and Digital printing excel at different things, and the primary differentiation between the two is capability to effectively handle print volume.
Offset printing was invented in 1875, and got its name because ink is offset (transferred) from metal rollers onto a rubber roller, which then prints it onto the paper. Because all the printing is performed by a series of rollers, offset printing is capable of printing large amounts very quickly. In order to print faster, you just have to spin the rollers faster. This makes offset printing a very good fit for completing large run printing jobs quickly and cheaply.
The drawback to offset printing is that in order to make any changes to the printed pieces, physical parts of the printer have to be manually changed, and the mixture of ink and water must be balanced. This can be a time-consuming process and usually creates wasted pieces while balancing, which make offset printing a less economical option for small run printing.
For example, when creating a run of 100 pieces on an offset press, the first 15-30 may be ruined as the equipment is being calibrated. 15-30 pieces ruined out of 100 affects the per-unit cost significantly, however 15-30 pieces is a negligible loss when creating a run of 500,000.
Offset presses were originally developed to quickly copy artwork, and offer exceptional image quality. While digital presses have made great strides in recent years, the offset press still offers slightly better clarity. Finally, offset printing offers the ability to handle a larger selection of specialty papers.
Digital printing uses techniques such as ink jet and laser printing, which do not require manual setup prior to running. This makes digital printing ideal for small to medium-sized runs, in which a setup cost could significantly affect the cost per piece.
Digital printing usually offers shorter turnaround times, as well as more accurate prints (especially proofs, because a proof is simply a single printed piece) because the ink doesn’t have to be balanced during runs.
Another advantage of digital printing is the ability to print on demand. Since digital printing is quick, and a single piece has the same price per unit as a small run, pieces can be printed only when they are needed. This eliminates waste and lowers storage costs at the same time.
The greatest advantage offered by digital printing is that of variable data. With digital printing, the layout can be changed on the fly so each piece can be unique and personalized. This added personalization has been shown to increase response rates for direct mail and other types of advertising.
The most important factor in choosing between digital and offset printing is run size. If your job is a few thousand prints or less, digital is an excellent choice. However, if you need tens or hundreds of thousands of prints, offset is the better choice.