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When should I use digital printing versus traditional offset?

Digital or Traditional?

When it comes to print these days we are often faced with an early decision. Should I print this digitally or should this go on a traditional offset printing press? I have found there are several factors to take into consideration, and that even drive the decision making process.

Run Length. Generally speaking, print runs under the 500 quantity would be good candidates for the digital process. But, the finished size of the piece has to be considered here. Most Xerox type printers have a maximum sheet size of about 12 x 18 inches. So if your postcard announcing your upcoming event is 8.5 x 5.5 or smaller you could run 4 or more on a press sheet. It really is the number of press sheets that makes the biggest impact. Why? Because digital presses generally bill out at a static “click” rate and there is no economy of scale as volume increases.

Quality / Appearance. As of this writing, many digital print devices produce what I call “pleasing color”, in other words, most untrained eyes cannot tell the difference between a Xerox color copy and a traditionally printed page. However, to the disconcerting eye there are vast differences. Most digital presses use toner, a polymer that is fused to the paper with heat, leaving the appearance of plastic sitting on top of the paper. Traditional offset printing uses soy based inks which are pressed into the paper with pressure, the ink actually impregnates the paper, and once dry the surface appears flat with the surface of the paper.

Turn Around / Deadline. Generally speaking turn around times are much quicker in the digital realm. This is because there is little to no make ready, no plates to make and mount, etc. I often have requests with 24 – 48 hour turns that simply have to go on the digital press or the deadline could not be met. If quality is really important to you, and in particular if the run length exceeds 500 – 1000 a little pre planning will yield you a far superior result at less expense.

Finished Size. As I mentioned above, most digital print devices are limited to 12 x 18 inches, although I have heard about a new device in the market that prints 23 x 29, however I have been unable to locate such a device in my local market to date. So, if your item is larger that 12 x 18 then you must print on the traditional device no matter what the run length is.

Personalization. One of the most fascinating features of digital printing is the ability to customize each individual piece, information such as names or locations, as well as the ability to swap images appropriate to your target demographic make digital printing very attractive to marketers. Personalization on direct mail using the traditional print process is done post press and adds expense.

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