Offset vs. digital, make sure you know the difference says Colourtone Aries

The steep growth in digital printing offers significant technical advancements to business. Colourtone Aries, printing and packaging powerhouse in the Western Cape, advises that it is essential to make the right decision before opting for either. There is still some confusion when it comes to understanding the advantages and disadvantages of digital printing against traditional offset lithography.

Kai Neckel, Colourtone Aries’ director, says, “It is important to understand the different applications of the various printing processes to enable you to make the right choice. While digital is outstripping other technical advancements in the printing industry, offset lithography has made significant breakthroughs of its own, keeping pace with the demand for speed, quality and price.”

Offset lithography is still the most common technology when it comes to high volume printing. Colourtone Aries’ new investment in their Heidelberg Speedmaster XL105 5 colour + coater press proves that costs and quality are unmatched and that speed to market is in fact improving in this printing format.

In offset printing, the image is transferred digitally via laser onto a plate and then transferred, or offset, to rubber sheeting and finally onto the printing substrate. The lithographic printing process uses the scientific approach where oil repulses water and vice versa. The image that needs to be printed gets ink from ink rollers while the non-printing area attracts a film of water keeping the non-printable areas ink-free.

Digital printing eliminates some of the steps in the offset lithography process, doing away with the need for film, colour proofs, stripping and making of plates.

John highlights some of the advantages of digital and offset lithography, which may assist in selecting the right option for your project:


  • Vastly improved turnaround times.
  • More cost-effective costing for lower print runs, i.e. lower cost per unit for shorter print runs, but higher costs for larger runs.
  • Improved consistency and reduced waste, more accurate sheet counts and fewer quality variations, largely from an imbalance in ink and water consistency during print.
  • Customised digital printing, or variable data printing, allows for text or graphics to be changed on each printed sheet without affecting the printing process. This is ideal for direct marketing or personalised printing solutions.


  • Image quality is an advantage of offset lithography in larger runs.
  • Allows for printing on a much wider range of substrates providing far more flexibility and a larger range of end products.
  • Reduced unit costs with increase in volume, maximising cost effectiveness for high volume runs, unmatched in digital.
  • Digital is closing the gap in terms of quality and higher volumes, but it cannot compete yet with the volume capacities and cost effectiveness that the offset press can achieve.
  • Computer to plate technology has significantly improved speed to press doing away with the need for film, a time consuming process common in older offset technology.

Kai continues, “There are advantages to both processes, but it comes down to what your desired outcome is and, importantly, to the finished product you need to effectively convey your message and brand value to the end user.”

Some additional points to consider include:

  • Print run. Offset lithography has an up-front load cost resulting in higher per unit costs for short runs. As quantities increase, cost per unit reduces significantly and with vey high quantities, offset printing becomes more cost effective than digital. Short digital runs, on the other hand, are more viable than offset.
  • Colour. The advantage that offset lithography has over digital is that if you use the Pantone Colour System, offset printing will give you a precise colour match. Digital printing uses multicolour process printing technology resulting in, often, only a near match to the Pantone equivalent.
  • Proofing. Digital printers provide accurate proofs whereas printing of proofs on an offset lithographic press is costly.

Kai concludes, “It is important to decide on the output quality, print run volumes and accuracy required in terms of your brand demands/requirements before selecting any print options. While digital technology has changed the face of printing, it is yet to be the sole solution to all printing demands.”