Is Offset Printing Dead?

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Offset Printing Press

Digital printing now fulfils the needs of many small print jobs, and has reduced the need for commercial offset printing. You might have read some hysterical print industry reports about digital printing advances being the death of offset. But if you’re a large company that requires serious quantities of print, will digital printing get the job done?

Is offset printing dead? No. Commercial entities need traditional offset printing for large volume, static jobs. And digital printing cannot come close to the quality needed for retail print orders. The demand for quality offset printing remains very high, as there are several advantages with offset printing.

So offset printing is most definitely alive, for now. Read on to find out where it may be headed in the future, and when you should use offset printing as compared to digital printing.

Digital Printing vs. Offset Printing

Each printing medium has its place in the commercial world. And digital printing is more convenient and cheaper for quick, short-run print jobs. Still, offset print has several advantages that digital printing cannot match.

You probably use a form of digital printing every day, to print memos, emails, letters, and other office communications. It’s great for one-off prints at a moment’s notice. Digital printing has advanced from there, to handle small print jobs under a set number of copies.

In contrast, high volume, high-quality print jobs remain the domain of large offset printing presses. Jobs like magazines, catalogues, brochures, and books, all benefit significantly from offset printing.

It is easy to dismiss anything that isn’t digital in today’s world, and for many purposes, digital is the wave of the future. And as digital printing becomes almost indistinguishable from offset printing, it may one day replace it as the go-to print source. But for now, offset printing remains an important printing process.

Benefits of Digital and Offset Printing

Let’s take a look at each method and what benefits they provide. 

The benefits of digital printing include the following:

  • Low volume orders are cheaper than offset printing, up to a certain number of copies.
  • There is a faster turnaround time because there are no plates to switch or etch, with every image or colour change.
  • Variable data printing makes it possible to print variations, making each copy slightly different. Fields like Names, Addresses and other data can be merged and printed directly from digital files.

Now, let’s look at the benefits of offset printing, which can be costlier in some ways, yet cheaper in others, especially at high volumes.

  • Custom colours can make your product pop in ways that digital printing cannot. Some presses are capable of printing 5, 8, even 10 colours, rather than just 4, CMYK.
  • For larger print jobs, the cost per copy drops significantly.
  • Offset printing creates a clean, crisp copy, without streaks or spots.
  • Larger sheets of paper can be used with offset printing, which obviously makes printing anything in bulk more efficient.

Differences in quality are not as apparent today as they used to be. And only by comparing a digitally printed document with an offset printed document can one see the differences.

Offset printing presses create more precise colours in comparison to digital printing. Although the end quality of each is barely distinguishable, they are still there. For professional prints, whether that’s books, magazines or brochures, offset printing is the best option.

Digital printing should be used for small jobs that don’t require exact precision or colour, especially if you need the job done at short notice.

Is Offset Printing Superior to Digital Printing?

Offset printing allows for specialist colours in your project, like metallics or fluorescents. So offset is great for flashy or show-stopping pieces.

It also creates sharper print, with crisp, clean lines you would expect from professional printing presses. Not only that, but the image quality is better, and the colour balance is spot on.

While digital printing has come a long way towards matching offset’s print quality, it often misses the mark in colouring, which can make or break your project.

Digital printing’s claim to fame is that it is cheaper for smaller jobs, since the artwork files are transferred digitally by computer. That removes the plate-making stage, which your offset printer’s Pre-Press department would handle. It’s an expensive process which digital printers cut away.

The cost works out cheaper per copy when running smaller quantity jobs. Which makes digital printers great for test runs of books, magazines, or other “test content.”

It also opens the door to ‘variable data printing’. With no expensive plate changes, digital printers are great for printing personalised material. You might be addressing individual customers by name, for example. Digital printing is ideal for merging that information from your database into a design and printing variations.

Offset printing is far superior for high-volume print jobs, where you have exactly the same content printed in bulk. It isn’t suited to printing unique, one-off versions. In large batches, the cost per copy becomes significantly cheaper than producing the same job with digital printing.

Offset printing presses are also fast. Very fast. Speed obviously varies depending on the machinery and equipment available to your printer. But offset presses can vastly out-produce digital printers.

‘Web offset’ presses are designed for huge volumes, and paper is fed through the press on giant reels. Think of a popular magazine or a textbook used by millions and this is most likely the process used to print them. Web offset machines can run at speeds of over 20,000 cut-offs per hour.

Web Offset Printing Press

Sheet-fed offset’ presses are probably the printing press you would most recognise. These run large cut sheets of paper, like those you see stacked on palettes at your printers. This process is used to print substantial quantities, and these presses fulfil the needs of most businesses. A modern sheet-fed offset printing press can run speeds of 18,000 sheets per hour, or 300 sheets per minute.

Sheet-Fed Offset Printing Press

Presses capable of handling large sheet sizes can have a printable area exceeding 70 x 100 cms. That means you’ll usually have several parts of your job run on one sheet simultaneously. If printing a catalogue or booklet for example, multiple spreads (pages) will fit onto each sheet. Your print company works this out based on the sheet size and dimensions of your specific job. Their goal is always the most efficient production method, matching their machinery with your project specs.

By comparison, some digital printers can manage anything from 60 to 300 IPMs (images per minute) or 100 to 200 pages per minute (PPM). Impressive for a print-on-demand technology, but far slower than the speeds offset printing presses are capable of.

When Should You Use Offset Printing?

If you have a large number of copies to print, typically 1,000 pieces or more, offset printing is the more cost-effective process. Due to changing the plates with each sheet printed, using this method can be costly and time-consuming for small batches. When completing large jobs, however, the cost per copy is significantly lower. With offset printing being geared towards bulk production, there are savings across the board when it comes to time, ink, and raw materials.

UK Leaflet Designers

You should use this method when the job requires the following:

  • Your print job needs to be high-quality, with crisp, clean colours and clear images. 
  • You need thousands of copies. 
  • Your project requires a professional touch, such as books, or corporate marketing material.
  • If you know you’re going to repeat a specific print job several times, and you need those same plates, offset printing is cheaper.
  • Your project requires specialist colours, finishes, or materials. Digital printing cannot print metallic colours, for example, while offset printing excels at this.

For smaller print jobs or those that need constant change, offset printing is more costly and time-consuming. The reason for this is that each metal plate can only print one colour, making it more expensive to run several plates for a print job. Digital printing, on the other hand, doesn’t have that pre-press stage of the process.

If you have static content that doesn’t change very often, offset printing may be the best option for you. But if your content needs change frequently, digital printing may work better.

The Future of Offset Printing

In the future, we can expect to see advancements in offset printing machinery that makes plate changing ever more efficient.

We’ve already seen this with the introduction of CTP, computer-to-plate technologies. Computer-to-plate (CTP) is an imaging technology used in modern printing processes. It enables an image created in a Desktop Publishing (DTP) application to be output directly to a printing plate.

This made the older computer-to-film (CTF) process redundant, whereby the computer file (image) was output onto a photographic film. This film was then used to make a printing plate, in a similar manner to a contact proof in darkroom photography.

Conclusion

Technological advancements will continue and offset printing will become an increasingly streamlined process.

While digital technology, such as tablets and smartphones, reduced the need for printed pieces of information, there is still a need for printing presses.

Digital printers have advanced to a stage where they are a viable solution for commercial printing in smaller quantities. They now produce respectable results and are getting better all the time.

Yet we don’t buy into one technology ever replacing the other. We see the advantages of using both digital and offset processes, as they each have their niche.

Technology has simply given us more tools and it’s easier than ever to use the right tool for the job. Whether you need a personalised direct mail for your small business, or you need to publish booklets in their millions, now have the tech to deliver.

There are signs that offset printing has a place in the economy for years to come, due to how it is used.  Additionally, profit margins for the print industry are somewhere between 3 and 5% and have been stable for the past five years. Offset printing is still a big business for many commercial enterprises, which is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Offset still has significant print quality advantages. And digital print technology cannot handle the sheer volume that many enterprises demand. So offset printing will have its place in the print world and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

For these reasons, offset printing is alive and well and will continue into the foreseeable future. It certainly isn’t the endangered species many digital proponents would have you believe.

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Haskins Design is based in South-West England. We bridge the chasm between freelance designers and big-budget agencies, to bring you a more sensible, agile, and efficient set of creative services.