Digital printing is a versatile and powerful printing method that can be used for many types of printing projects. But what is digital printing and how is it different from offset printing? Xerox Corporation provides this definition of digital printing:

“Digital printing is the process of printing digital-based images directly onto a variety of media substrates. There is no need for a printing plate, unlike with offset printing. Digital files such as PDFs or desktop publishing files can be sent directly to the digital printing press to print on paper, photo paper, canvas, fabric, synthetics, cardstock and other substrates.”

Conversely, offset printing involves transferring (or offsetting) an inked image to a printing plate, from which the image is then transferred to a rubber cylinder, from which it is finally transferred to paper (or other media substrate). Offset printing is commonly done by large web-fed presses in which the paper is fed from enormous rolls. Or, offset printing can be done on a sheet-fed press in which the paper is fed from stacks of large sheets. Overall, offset printing can be considered a more ‘analogue’ approach to printing.

This article will review how digital printing works, its pros and cons, the best uses for digital printing, and common problems to avoid in digital printing.


How Digital Printing Works

You’ve probably done digital printing in your home. In its simplest form, digital printing is when you print a file from your computer, phone, tablet or flash drive and send it straight to the printer. The only thing you need to do is make choices on print quality, number of copies, paper size, orientation, margins, and collation.

After making your choices and hitting “print”, your computer or other device sends the file to the printer along with instructions on how it should be printed. For this to work, your computer will need a printer driver for that printer. The driver is a piece of software that translates the data from your computer into a language the printer can understand. Each printer has its own unique driver that does this translation. The driver essentially converts your document into page description language, which is what the printer can read.

There are two basic types of digital printing: inkjet and laser.

  • Inkjet printers work by spraying tiny dots of ink onto the paper. Inkjet printers are capable of high-quality image reproduction but are much slower than laser printers. Inkjet printers are common for home use but are not used by commercial printers. As anyone who uses a home inkjet printer knows, inkjet printers themselves are inexpensive but the ink cartridges become quite costly over time. This article from Howstuffworks goes into detail about the mechanics of inkjet printing.
  • Laser printers, and copiers, use toner rather than ink. Toner is a dry powder. Laser printers work by using static electricity to create a pattern of your page on a photo-sensitive drum inside the printer. First, the static electricity attracts the toner particles onto the drum in the image of the page. Next, the image is rolled onto the paper. Finally, the toner particles are fused onto the paper by heated rollers. This sounds like it has a lot of steps but it is actually a very fast process. Laser printers are more expensive than inkjet printers but each cartridge of toner can print many pages making these printers very economical over time. This article from Howstuffworks delves into the mechanical details of how laser printing works.


Advantages of digital printing

Digital printing and offset printing each have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. In this section we will review the main advantages offered by digital printing.

Variable data and personalization – Digital printing makes it easy to handle variable printing of text and images, page by page. The way it works is that your designed piece will have references to a file that contains the variable data. Then, as the pages are printed, each page will contain the data from the data file, correctly inserted where the references indicate. It takes no additional time to print a personalized project vs. a non-personalized project.

For example, you might want to print a direct mail letter that is personalized with the recipient’s name, their special offer code, the product name, and a personalized url (a purl). You’ll need a data file (in something like Excel or Access) that has each recipient’s name, address, offer code, product name, and their purl. Your letter design will have placeholders which will reference each of the field names in your data file so that the printer knows which piece of information to place in which part of the letter.

This way, in one press run, you can get letters that are unique and personalized for each recipient. Images, colors and logos can also be treated as variable data. Variable data can be used on printed letters, postcards, labels, flyers, or brochures.

The value of variable data and personalization is that it has been proven to boost response rates. Research from McKinsey shows that 71% of consumers expect personalization and that companies that use personalization generate 40% more revenue from marketing than those that don’t. However, personalization needs to be executed carefully and accurately. Research by Sitecore demonstrates that slightly over 50% of consumers have experienced personalization that used incorrect data about the consumer, or made assumptions about consumers based on too little data. Read our section below on common digital printing errors for more on this topic.

Consistency – With digital printing, the printed results will be extremely consistent. The first piece that is printed will look exactly like the last piece. There is more chance for inconsistent results in an offset printing project because of variability in the mechanical processes of applying the ink and transferring it from the plates and rollers.

Great for smaller quantities – Digital printing does not require the use of plates, which is one of the biggest efficiency hurdles for offset printing. There is no prep or setup time needed for the digital press, you simply send your file and it is printed. It is as easy to print one piece as it is to print one thousand. This means that it will be more affordable to print small jobs on a digital press than on an offset press because of this lack of the need for prepping and plates.

Quick turnaround time – Digital printing is extremely quick in terms of getting a job ready to go. The lack of need for plates means that there is no minimum lead time for digital printing jobs. With an offset print job, all that prep time means that there will need to be lead time built into any offset printing job. However, for really large jobs, an offset press is actually faster once it’s up and running.

No minimum quantities – The fact that digital printing doesn’t require the creation of plates means that there is no minimum quantity needed for digital printing jobs. If all you need is one piece to be printed, so be it.

Ease of fixing errors – Because of the lack of setup time for plates, digital printing makes it easier to fix errors that are found at the last minute. All that needs to happen is for the errors to be fixed and fresh files sent to the printer.

Cost effectiveness – For smaller jobs, digital printing is much more affordable than offset printing. This is because of the lack of need for plates and setup time.

Built-in finishing capabilities – Professional digital presses have built-in finishing capabilities that will help your job get done quickly and correctly. Many digital presses will include finishing options such as these:

  • Collating
  • Stapling
  • Half-fold
  • Tri-fold
  • Hole-punching and ring binding
  • Saddle-stitching
  • Booklet making
  • Perfect binding
  • Envelope fusing


Disadvantages of digital printing

Expensive for large quantities – The minimum job size for most offset printers is 5,000 copies, and the prices get better as your quantities get larger. For digital printing, while there is not really any maximum job size, it will become more expensive on a per piece basis the larger your job gets.

Not as fast for large quantities – While digital printing is fast, it is not as fast for large quantities. For example, Susquehanna Printing’s digital press (Konica Minolta Bizhub Press C1060) has a speed of 60 ppm (pages per minute) while our offset Goss Universal 70 press can reach speeds of 1,100 ppm. So if you are printing a small quantity the digital press is certainly faster because of zero setup time, but once you get to a larger job the sheer speed of an offset press will make up for the setup time.

Lower color fidelity – Digital printing has excellent color reproduction, but it is not quite as perfect as what can be achieved with offset printing. Offset printers mix inks to custom create colors, which means that offset printing can match colors such as Pantone exactly.

Limited paper sizes – Most digital presses can only accommodate a maximum paper size of 18”x12”, while offset presses have more flexibility.

Limited paper types – Most digital presses can print on uncoated paper, coated paper, and card stock. An offset press, by contrast, can also print on other materials such as cloth, metal, leather, rough paper, and even plastic.


Ideal types of projects for digital printing

Marketing materials – Almost any type of marketing material is great for digital printing, especially when the power of variable data and variable images is harnessed to create a customized, personalized message for the recipient.

Direct mail letters and envelopes – Direct mail is an excellent use-case for digital printing. Your letter can include both the outbound and the return address, and can be designed for parts to show through an envelop window, if you are using that type of envelope. You can personalize the both the letter and the envelope with images that are relevant to your offer and/or to the recipient.

Booklets that need to be collated – If you need to print an annual report, or a merchandise catalogue, or a college course catalogue, digital printing can print and collate your project, and even bind it, all in one process. This can be incredibly efficient way to get your job done on time and on budget.

Handouts that need to be stapled – If you have handouts that need to be collated and stapled, a digital press can take care of both steps for you.

Postcards – Brightly colored postcards are an eye-catching way to get your products and services in front of home-owners. Postcards can also accommodate variable data in text and images.

D-cards – Also called a D.A.L. card, these are a special type of postcard that are printed to go with the mailing of a magazine. The D-card has the address of the magazine subscriber on one side, and has the advertisers marketing message on the other side. These are very cost effective way to reach consumers and, as with other marketing products.


Common Problems with Digital Printing and How to Avoid Them

Pixelated images – If the images in your file have resolution that is too low, the images may appear pixelated, or fuzzy, upon printing. For high-quality image reproduction you’ll need at least 300 ppi (pixels per inch) which will translate to 300 dpi (dots per inch) in the printed product. For some types of uses, such as reproducing fine art photography, you’ll want your images to be at least 600 ppi.

Incorrect variable data and personalization – If you cannot rely on your data, don’t use it for personalization. Examples of incorrect data can include the wrong customer information (e.g. Dear Sue instead of Dear Jane) or blank customer information (e.g. Dear ___). Another example might be copy that says “Here’s an offer because you love sandals” when the recipient has only purchased one pair of sandals once, five years ago. These types of personalization errors reflect badly on the company. Here are some common failings in variable data and personalization and how to avoid them:

  • Have your address file cleaned using USPS software to correct any wrong addresses. This process will correct address formatting, remove duplicates, and update the addresses of people who have moved. Susquehanna Printing in Lancaster County PA has a full-time US Postal Service clerk on site with full expertise in BCC Mail Manager™, the US Postal Service’s address standardization software package.
  • Ensure that you are using the most recent purchase information from your customers. Bob may have bought a pair of sandals five years ago, but maybe he’s been buying clogs ever since then.
  • If your file is small enough to be managed in Excel or Access, try sorting the file on the different fields and checking the values in the top and bottom rows. This is an easy way to catch problems such as empty values.
  • Have a default value prepared for empty fields. For example, if the first name field is empty in your data file, you can set a default value of “Dear Customer” to use in those cases.
  • Spot check records from your file. Your printer can provide you pdfs of your mailing using data from the nth records of your data file, so that you can see how the finished product looks before it is mailed. This can also help you catch any potential errors in the personalization.
  • Consider the source of your data and be especially careful if your customer data has been manually entered by your company’s staff members rather than entered by customers themselves. When company staff members enter customer data, there is a greater margin for error. There is also the possibility that your staff members have used customer data fields for notes, which looks especially bad if it goes out in a personalized mailing. A CRM (customer relationship management) system is more likely to have data entered by staff members, while a POS (point of sale) system is more likely to have data entered by customers themselves.
  • Consider the type of data you are using for personalization:
    • Personal or geographic data – Name and address are the key components and, as mentioned above, may be more or less accurate depending on the system and who entered the data. You may wish to use geographic data to personalize an offer letter based on the city, county or neighborhood where someone lives.
    • Demographic data – If this data was entered by the customer then it can be reliable to use. However, if you have purchased appended demographic data it is best not to display these values in your direct mail piece because appended data is not 100% accurate. You can still use this data to personalize offers (e.g. someone who is a home owner would want a different offer than someone who is a renter), but just don’t display “owner” or “renter” on piece or mention it in your copy.
    • Behavioral data – Real behavioral data on a customer’s purchases is extremely valuable in personalization, as it can help you tailer an offer to which the recipient is most likely to respond. However, as mentioned previously, make sure you are using the most recent and accurate behavioral data for this type of personalization.
    • Psychographic data – As with demographic data, this type of data is typically purchased from an outside vendor and appended to your customer data file. It is typically not that accurate and so should never be used in your copy or displayed on your printed piece. But, it can be useful if you are trying to tailor offers to different customer segments based on general trends in consumer interests.

In sum, digital printing is a fast, efficient, flexible solution type of printing. It is especially useful for personalization using variable data and images. Digital printing also shines for smaller jobs that need a fast turnaround time, great image reproduction, and affordable pricing.

Contact us for a quote for your digital printing job in Lancaster County PA, or in surrounding counties such as Berks, Lebanon, York and Chester Pennsylvania. We also happily serve businesses and individuals throughout our surrounding state area of Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Virginia, New York, Ohio, and New Jersey. We have our own fleet of delivery trucks to make sure your finished job gets to you on time and carefully handled. Call us at 717-291-8661 or fill out this form and we will be happy to get in touch with you right away.