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What is digital printing?

The lines are beginning to blur between traditional offset print shops and digital print shops, here's a breakdown of what digital printing both is and isn't.


Digital printing is a relative newcomer to the commercial printing scene. At Searles Graphics, we put our first digital press in about 7 years ago, and we’re actually in the process of purchasing another one right now.

A digital press is basically a larger, higher-quality, more complicated version of the printer you have in your office. They use toner just like your printer, and they can print files straight from your computer. So why would you go to a commercial printer instead of just printing the same job on your own printer in your office?

Simple: Price and performance. From a price standpoint, it’s an economies of scale issue. We buy A LOT more paper and A LOT more toner than you do at your home or business. Because of that we get much better pricing on those items than you do from your supplier.

This is an important distinction. I’ve had a number of customers tell me they were going to just print something on their own printer after getting a quote, only to show them the math on what they pay for those items and watch as they are taken aback by what their raw costs are. Toner and printer paper are accepted and expected office expenses, so another couple reams of paper and some extra toner doesn’t get noticed at a high-level. But when you break it down to see what it really costs you to operate for larger print jobs, it’s quite a big expense.

Performance-wise, there are huge improvements in just about every category when it comes to digital presses vs a standard office printer. First, the overall print quality is far superior to what you’d get from your office printer, especially when you have a lot of coverage on the sheet or colors that need to be matched as close as possible. These machines are made for commercial print shops and were designed and built to compete with offset presses, so quality was a huge factor for companies like Xerox and Canon to be able to enter that market.

Speed is another factor; where your office printer can typically run about 20-30 pages-per-minute (ppm), even an entry-level digital press can run 70-80 ppm.

Our digital press even allows us to do some finishing inline when it would be cost-prohibitive for us to bring your print job into our bindery for finishing. Our digital press gives us the ability to saddle-stitch inline, and other options like perfect binding are standard modules for digital presses that aren’t available on your office printer.

So what does this all really mean? In general, digital printing provides faster turnaround times and lower costs for smaller volume jobs. Where running 200 flyers would be very expensive on an offset press, it’s quite economical to run that job on a digital press. With the built-in finishing options, producing something like 200 68-page 4-color books is an option that won’t break the bank anymore. The finished product comes right off the press and goes straight into a box, rather than moving from printing press to folder to saddle-stitcher. The former requires a digital press and an operator; the latter requires a press and a pressman, a folder and a folder-operator, and a saddle-stitcher and 2 operators – great for high volume work, but overkill for small jobs.

Digital printing has one other huge advantage over offset printing: Variable data. I’ll go into variable data printing in a lot more detail in the future, but the gist is that it allows you to customize each printed piece to the recipient, providing massive amounts of value to smart and creative marketers.


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