What is the difference between digital print and litho print, and why should I care?

images.005Digital printing has taken tremendous leaps and bounds in the last 20 years from its infancy as merely poor quality color copies, or black ink 2-sided manuals, to being in the forefront of printed products.  As use of personalized and customized print gains a larger market share, the digital press manufacturers have stepped up their game, creating printing presses that can rival and sometimes even surpass litho quality.  And before any of my die-hard litho press operators and sales reps laugh at that statement, just look at some digitally printed pieces that have been generated from high quality printers in your area.  Some of these pieces are winning competitions, such as the PIA Benny Awards, or various paper mill awards, like Sappi or Neenah.  The quality is there, the price per unit is lower, the make ready and run costs are lower, which have become more enticing for print buyers.  There are differences between the two, but in the long run, with the high-end devices, there is almost not perceptible difference between litho and digital.  However, since this post is meant to be educational, let’s look at the differences.


The offset or litho print process


LITHO – the litho process uses ink that is transferred through a series of rollers onto the printing plate, which has laser-etched with the image.  The ink from plate is transferred in reverse to a rubber “blanket” which then transfers the image to the sheet.  This is done in-line and at very high speed, sometimes around 10K to 15K sheets PER HOUR!  However, with this method you have the ink cost, the plate costs (for each plate), what is called the “make-ready” costs (basically prepping each print unit with the plate and ink and running sheets through the press to get to color), and the wash-up costs.  Added to that is what is usually the standard of 100 sheets of paper per plate per side.  So, if you have a piece that is 4-color 2 sides, you have 8 plates, 8 make-readies, 4-wash-ups and 800 sheets of paper just to set it all up.  As you can see, that can cost a lot right at the start even before the job is going to be run.  The advantages are the ability for color to be adjusted to specific areas of the sheet and only on one side of the sheet, and solids, blends and gradients (or vignettes) tend to run best on litho.


The paper path and imaging process in a Xerox 700

DIGITAL – the digital process involves the file being electrostatically imaged to drums and then transferred to the sheet, which is the passed through a roller that lays down a thin layer of oil, and then run under a roller that that is set at high temperatures – often 300 or 400 degrees – which “fuses” the image to the paper.  If the sheet is printed two sided, you can run it through the press on the same pass.  When the sheet is printed and stacked at the delivery end of the press it is ready for any finishing that needs to be done.  There is no make ready (ok, so maybe 10 sheets), no ink to load up, no 100 sheets of paper per color per side, and with digital you can do variable data, customization, mailing, as well as static pieces like brochures, cards, business cards, booklets, and even short-run packaging, that is the fraction of the cost of running it litho.  There are disadvantages, though, in that the price per “click” or the number of sheets and sides printed and delivered at the end of the press, does not “slide” down as much as it does in litho.  You may find that to print 10K 8.5 x 11″ flyers on a digital press costs less than it would on the litho, but to do 10K 11×17″ brochures that fold to 8.5×11″ might cost less on the litho press.  Digital presses, such as the high-end Kodak Nexpress 3300, the Xerox iGEn4, or the HP Indigo, can print such high quality that even experienced press operators might have difficulty in telling the difference.   Other disadvantages are in that the heat of the fuser can cause the paper to become brittle, so any heavy coverage or solids might crack unless they are Rollem scored, or preferably, die-scored.  Also, heavy solids or gradients built in just black have a tendency to run a bit mottled.  It’s always best to contact your print services provider and have them review your files to make sure you are prepping them for the best method of imaging.


Personalized print has a higher rate of viewship

20 years ago marketing departments would create their marketing plan and order 20K or 30K or 100K brochures, which they’d place in an inventory pack ‘n’ ship distribution center, and then get the lower price-per-unit on the materials.  They’d then have the distribution center handle the orders and get the materials into the field.  However, if the branding message needed to be revised, there could be a couple of thousands of dollars in inventory that would have to be discarded or recycled, so that a new brand message could be produced.  Digital eliminated that need by allowing marketers to create succinct brand messages that could target specific audiences in small markets, printing only 2K or 5K, and then if they needed to re-brand or change the message, they could do so quickly and easily.  They found they could personalize the message, which targeted it even more to the intended recipient.  Instead of a shotgun-style approach with a generic message, they could really market more effectively.  In many cases printers have become Market Services Providers, blending a small team of marketing experts in-house, with the digital and litho capabilities that they had.  Or, marketers will add digital in house in order to offer this highly targeted method of delivering the brand message.  Now marketing teams can constantly analyze the ROI, and revise the message accordingly.



First off – and I believe this very strongly – DON’T UNDERSELL DIGITAL!  The phrase “it’s near litho quality” or “almost as good as litho”, or “it’s a different process”, creates in the mind of the buyer that digital print is, well, different.  Yes, you know it’s different, and deep down inside, so by selling the solution, and all it’s facets, you can end up selling so much more than if you regard digital as the poor stepchild to litho.  After all, that’s what we REALLY want to do, isn’t it?  Sell the solution, not just a commodity. does the buyer (unless they really are not print buyers and so don’t really know the difference).  So we, as print services providers need to remove any objection to the buyer that digital print is inferior to litho.  My preference is to not tell the client which method we may print something.  Instead, SELL THE ADVANTAGES OF EACH.  For example, if in listening to the client you sense that they are looking for more short run solutions so they can keep their brand messaging fresh and respond to the market, you can SELL digital as a means of doing that.  You can tell them that they can print maybe only 2000 pieces, or do a short mailing, and after getting back the responses, determine if they need to change the message to reach a more targeted audience.  You are NOT selling on the disadvantage of digital, but on the advantage of digital.  You can apply the same approach to their needs if it is obvious that litho, and its lower cost-per-unit advantage on longer runs.  You can then meld the points of printing 20K pieces and placing them into inventory for clients to order through an online storefront – that you just happen to have.  

The goal is not undersell digital, but create in the client’s mindset that it is an option, and that each option has their distinct advantages.  Give the client solutions, and regardless of the imaging method, you’ll be successful in providing them what they really need – a positive marketing experience that ends up being profitable for them and you.

Connect with John on Google+Twitter and LinkedIn.


About John Prothero

John Prothero is a print professional with over 30 years experience in the print industry. Starting out as a driver delivering jobs, he worked in bindery, proofing, plating, traditional prepress (camera and stripping), scheduling, job planning, job management, account management and digital job production. His skills also run in the area of blog authorship, social media management, and lead generation and qualification of prospective clients. John is also a contributor to Rhode Island Creative Magazine, a digital publication that highlights the creative spirit of the state of Rhode Island. You can read their online issues at www.ricreativemag.com
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2 Responses to What is the difference between digital print and litho print, and why should I care?

  1. Pingback: Designing for print: Tip 1 of 2 | The Prothero Press

  2. Pingback: Designing for print: Tip 2 of 2 | The Prothero Press

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