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Choosing the right printing method: offset vs. digital printing

21 Nov, 2023

You’ve spent countless hours crafting the perfect copy, taking beautiful images, and creating an eye-catching and memorable design for your important document. Now you just need your print supplier to “click print”.

Simple, right?

It should be—but an important decision is what method of printing will really make your document sing.

At Rawson Print & Packaging we typically use two highly effective methods of printing: offset printing or digital printing. Which you choose depends on factors such as your budget, print quantity, document format and delivery deadlines.

Let’s explore the differences between offset and digital printing and how your choice impacts the quality, cost and efficiency of your job—so you can make an informed decision when it’s time to print.


What is offset printing?

Offset printing, also known as lithography, is a more traditional printing method that’s been the industry standard in commercial printing for over a century. It involves transferring ink from an etched metal plate to a rubber sheet and then onto the printing surface.

How offset printing works:

  • Digital file preparation: Your design is created on a computer and sent digitally to your print supplier.
  • Plate preparation: Your design, including images and text, is etched onto metal plates via a chemical process. Each colour and different page requires a separate plate.
  • Ink application: Ink is applied to the plates, adhering only to text and image areas.
  • Offsetting: The inked area is transferred to a rubber blanket or sheet, then rolled onto the printing surface (e.g. paper).
  • Drying: The printed material is left to dry. Special powders may be used on each sheet to let the ink set.

Many modern offset presses like ours at Rawson now use computer-to-plate (CTP) technology, which involves fewer steps, chemicals and water to prepare plates than older computer-to-film processes. This has helped make offset printing more eco-friendly while retaining its high-quality results.


What is digital printing?

Digital printing is a more modern printing method that developed from the rise of photocopying. It’s often referred to as “on-demand” or “short-run” printing, and means we print your digital files directly onto various printing surfaces, without plates and with minimal setup costs and waste.

How digital printing works:

  • Digital file preparation: Your design is created on a computer and sent digitally to your print supplier.
  • Printing: The file is sent to the digital printer, where ink or toner is applied directly to the printing surface (e.g. paper).
  • Drying: The ink or toner typically dries instantly inside the printer through heat or other methods.


Pros and cons of offset vs. digital printing

Offset and digital printing are both highly effective printing methods with their own pros and cons—many of which come down to suiting some print jobs and not others.


Print quality and versatility

Offset printing is known for its high quality, accurately reproducing fine details and small text, and Pantone colour matching. It also works well with a wide range of paper types and sizes, including larger page sizes. It’s not suitable for variable data printing (e.g. personalised letters/marketing) due to the use of plates.

Digital printing quality has improved significantly and, depending on the digital printer and print settings used, can match offset printing. At Rawson we use both toner-based digital printers and an HP Indigo 10000 Digital Press, which is widely regarded as the closest representation to offset printing because it uses liquid inks and prints with a flat finish. Standard toner-based digital machines can have a more shiny finish and in some instances may have lower image quality or may struggle with finer text or details. Digital printing can also use a vast range of specialty stocks and inks, again depending on the digital printer. It’s ideal for smaller quantities and smaller page sizes, such as customised stationery, business cards, brochures and variable data printing like personalised letters or marketing materials.


Cost considerations: offset vs. digital

Offset printing comes with higher setup costs. Plate preparation can be expensive, and the more pages and colours in your document, the more plates that are needed. If your job has last-minute edits, new plates may be needed. Once the plates are prepared the cost per printed piece decreases with higher quantities, making it more economical for larger quantities.

Digital printing benefits from minimal setup costs as it doesn’t require plate preparation, making it a cost-effective choice for short print runs, printing unique pieces or correcting last-minute mistakes. The cost per piece remains relatively constant, regardless of the quantity, making it cost-effective for smaller orders but not necessarily for larger ones.


Quantities, speed and turnaround time

Offset printing usually takes longer due to the plate setup process. Once it’s set up, however, it can produce high-quality prints at a rapid pace: ideal for efficient delivery of large print runs.

Digital printing offers faster turnaround times, making it suitable for smaller print runs and projects that require quick delivery.


Eco-friendliness: sustainability in printing

Offset printing traditionally involves more setup waste including test pages, chemicals, water and discarded plates. The introduction of soy and vegetable-based inks and CTP technology have reduced waste and the use of toxic products, making offset printing more eco-friendly.

Digital printing is often considered more eco-friendly, as it eliminates the need for plates and reduces setup waste, water consumption and chemical use.


Offset or digital printing: what choice should you make?

Start by chatting with your print supplier. Rawson Print & Packaging has the best commercial digital and offset printing services Sydney offers—and we can deliver Australia-wide. We’ll assess the specifics of your job, budget and deadlines and recommend the best option so you’re guaranteed a top-quality result.

We’re also one of just a few Sydney suppliers operating a B2 HP Indigo 10000 Digital Press, ideal for larger paper sheet sizes that suit presentation folders, A2 posters, wrapping paper and more. This is a great option to help for large-format, small-quantity jobs.

Get in touch today to discuss whether digital or offset printing is best for your job.

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