Is offset printing still the preferred printing method for large quantities?

Answered by Stephen Beals, Digital Pre Press Manager and Writer

Please explain the term “digital printing.” Also, is offset printing still the preferred printing method for large quantities? How far off will we be from printing exclusively to a digital printer? Is an offset printer that does not use plates here or on the horizon?

Our small non profit is considering purchasing a direct-to-plate processor and we are wondering if the technology will change drastically enough to eliminate offset. Some of our runs are 30,000 or more.


Offset printing companies have saved themselves and their customers a lot of money over the past decade through digital processes. The main difference between offset and what is referred to as "digital" print" is the absence of the printing plate itself. Many printers have long since dispensed with film and produce their printing plates "digitally" through a computer-to-plate (CtP) process (the images are burned to the plate with a laser beam). There are also presses called "DI" (Digital imaging) presses that use on press laser technology developed by Presstek to image the plates directly on press. These are actually offset presses using the same plates and printing process as most offset printers are using today.

Of course printing plates (and processing them) are a significant part of the printing cost for short run jobs. But once you have paid for the plates, the offset printing process is generally less expensive than toner or ink jet based digital printers. But there may be a difference in quality. As much improvement as we have seen in digital printing engines, offset is still superior for some print applications. The thing that digital printers can do that offset presses will never be able to do is variable data printing.

There is a "sweet spot" in terms of balancing quality and cost. For very large print runs (and 30,000 is considered very large in the digital print world) offset is clearly less expensive than digital. But for 100 copies of a letterhead, digital toner-based systems offer significant savings. For one thing, there is little or no paper waste, while a conventional offset press will probably need 100 sheets of paper to get up to color. In between those quantities you really need to weigh what you really need to get out of the printed piece to figure what the best bang for your buck would be.

Kodak (and some others) has a vision that very high speed ink jet printers will one day replace a substantial portion of the offset printing market. There is some speculation that they will be showing some new technology at Graph Expo. But it's probably at least a decade away before any kind of purely digital print technology makes much of a dent in the offset market, and it will probably never completely replace offset (after all, my own printing company still runs three Heidelberg platen presses, though they're mostly used for die cutting and numbering).

Since you are thinking of a CtP device and/or a digital print engine, you might be in the market for a DI press, which affords the user what amounts to "the best of both worlds". Although you still have the cost of making plates, the make ready time is tiny compared with conventional offset. The ink keys are set automatically and the plates are already in register from the first press sheet. You can be up to color in 20 sheets or less, so waste is minimal. And the DI presses are comparably priced with high-end toner based solutions (they start at around $310,000). They are also good for short and medium length runs, so your 30,000 run job would not be a problem.

Since I gather you already have an offset printing press, the question then becomes how much of your work is 4-color process (the higher the percentage, the more cost-effective going to a DI solution would be). Also the age of your press and whether it has any automation features. How much would you save if your average press make-ready time and paper waste was cut by more than half?

Should you still think a CtP solution makes sense (and it very well could be the best solution for you), you might consider chemistry-free solutions which eliminate not only the chemistry, but the processing time and the cost of the processor.

Stephen Beals is a digital pre-press manager and has been writing for major print publications for many years. He is the author of A Practical Primer for Painless Print Production. He can be reached at

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