Digital Printing Options
As a topic of discussion, digital
printing is huge. Libraries, bookstores and the
Internet are full of books and/or information on this new
If you’re new to the subject,
where can you start your research, and why should you care?
First off, what is digital printing?
Digital printing includes printed
materials produced on an ink-jet printer, laser printer,
or dye sub printer — at any level of sophistication.
For example, your home office laser printer is a digital
press of sorts, and so is your ink-jet printer. But the
huge iGen xerographic press in your office copy room is
a digital press as well. And so is the large-format ink-jet
printer that produces printed strips of fabric sewn together
into large banners hung from the sides of buildings.
In short, digital printing
includes those digital processes that do not involve
the transfer of ink from a traditional offset printing plate
to a press blanket to paper (or that involve the digital
imaging of printing plates on press).
Basic issues to consider when
you are looking at this burgeoning technology involve the
following: variability of the final output, length of the
press run, size of the output, and quality.
If you are producing 50 copies
of a small dinner menu, for instance, black only
on a card stock, a digital press like the iGen is perfect.
As long as you do not print on multi-level panel card blanks
(to be used in this press, your substrate has to be flat),
your black-only text job with no bleeds will look fine.
And you won’t pay the huge set-up costs of offset.
This small job might cost $120.00. A comparable offset press
run might cost upwards of $400.00.
Since the iGen prints toner on paper
and fuses the toner to the paper with heat and pressure
(rather than laying down an ink film like an offset press),
you might want to stay away from heavy solids (which might
look uneven, streaked, or mottled). Your card can include
bleeds, however, because the press sheet can be trimmed
after it has been printed, for an additional charge, of
If you add color photos to
the job, your final printed images won’t have the
sharpness of detail or the color fidelity of an offset printed
piece, but, again, if the print run is low, you
might give up showcase quality for an inexpensive job. Or,
you might find a printer with a DI (direct imaging) press.
These (small-format) digital presses use real printing ink,
rather than liquid- or powder-based toner, like the iGen.
The maximum size of a job printed on a DI press is not as
large as many offset presses can provide (13.375”
x 18.125” maximum sheet size on a Heidelberg Quickmaster
DI, for example, vs. 28” x 40” on many traditional
offset presses), but for a brochure or small poster, the
quality is far superior to toner-based printing. In general,
the Quickmaster DI will give you the best quality and price
for small-format and short-run print jobs.
Regarding variability of output,
digital would be perfect if you are personalizing a reply
card, for instance. Let’s say you want each
reply card to have the name and address of the recipient
on one side and the address to which the recipient should
mail back the card on the other. An offset press prints
the same image many times. Therefore, it would be inappropriate
for this job. A digital press, on the other hand, can merge
the graphic art and type component of your reply card with
an address database, producing a slightly different reply
card for each operation of the digital press. In short,
you could produce a unique version of the reply card for
each recipient. This is quite a feat.
In another scenario, let’s
say you want to produce one fabric banner to hang on a storefront
wall. If you produced this job via traditional
offset technology, you could print either 500 copies or
one copy for almost the same price, because all of the work
you would pay for in setting up the press would be the same
for either one or 500 copies. With a digital press, however--in
this case a large-format ink-jet printer—you could
produce one copy easily. It could also be substantially
larger than an offset press product. And it could be on
Where do you go from here?
At this point you may have more questions than
answers, or perhaps you’re totally confused.
Consider these rules of thumb
as a starting point for your job:
- Digital is better for short runs
(of brochures, posters, or even books), and offset is
better for longer runs. With your input, your offset printer
can help you choose the most efficient and cost-effective
equipment for producing your job.
- Offset is better for showcase quality
images. Digital has improved dramatically in quality,
but nothing beats offset for color saturation and fidelity,
as well as sharpness of detail. It has an undeniable richness
- Digital is essential for variable
data printing (also known as VDP, or one-to-one marketing).
- If your job is huge, like a banner
(a one-off product), digital should be your technology
[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]