Print production used to be a relatively slow process. Even the simplest flyer or brochure required considerable lead-time to produce. The dominant printing technology, offset lithography, required that your layout be transferred to one or more metal “plates”, which would then be used in the printing process to transfer an inked version of the image to a flexible rubber surface, which would in turn be used to transfer the image to paper.
The designer of the publication would be required to take a number of steps, called “prepress”, to ensure that the document could be transferred to the plates. In the case of a color job, a “proof” would be produced, and you would have to sign off on it before the print run could be started. Each of these steps would require some technical expertise, both on the part of the designer and the printer to accomplish, and would add to the overall cost of the print job.
Digital printing skips over many of these steps, allowing the printing press to be run directly from a computer. A correctly formatted image can be printed immediately. There is no need to make plates (digital printers don’t use them) and proofs can be made instantly. It’s possible to run a digital print job with different information on every page (personalized brochures, for instance) with no increase in cost.
In the same way that desktop publishing software changed the design process, digital printing has altered the print production landscape. While offset printing is still the most economical way to produce a large quantity of material, short runs can be completed on a digital press for less than the price of simply preparing plates for offset printing. Color printing adds considerably to the price of offset printing, as a separate impression (and set of plates) needs to be made for each color. With digital printing, all color jobs use process color – a mix of four basic colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black), which can produce millions of separate colors. While the accuracy of colors produced this way are not as sure as those that can be made by an offset press, they are most times adequate for the purpose.
Offset printing can still produce a better image, and for a large run is more economical. The gap, however is narrowing. Digital printing gets better all the time, and the cost of equipment, supplies, and labor needed to run the press is getting lower. For many jobs, digital has become the printing technology of choice.