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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 technology.

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 course.

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 fabric.

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 and depth.
  • 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 of choice.

[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.]

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