What is the Difference Between Offset Printing and Digital Printing?

Printing might not be something that you think twice about. But depending on what kind of product you need to print, you will want to give your printing options a closer look. Is your project better suited for offset printing or digital printing? What even is the difference between the two? 

Find out what kind of printing you need. Learn about the difference between offset printing and digital printing:  

Offset printing

Offset printing is ideal for high volume printing projects (i.e. 2,000+ identical copies). During the offset printing process, etched metal plates and rubber rollers are used to apply ink to paper. (This is why it is called “offset,” because the image is not immediately transferred directly to the paper.)

How it works

  1. The image to be printed is etched onto metal plates. 
    • These plates are usually made from aluminum, and there is one plate for each color needed in the image. 
  2. The metal plates transfer the ink to rubber cylinders, called rollers.  
  3. The rollers then transfer the ink onto the paper.
    • Using the rollers as an intermediary step to transfer the image to the paper prevents the metal plates from becoming worn out. This, in turn, produces better quality images.

Paper size

Offset printing presses typically print on paper that is between 29” and 40”. 


  • Is more cost efficient for high volume projects 

For printing projects requiring 2,000 copies or more, the offset printing press is the most cost efficient option because it can print more copies more quickly than can competing printers. 

In fact, with an offset printing press, the more copies you print, the more affordable the paper and ink become. 

  • Prints on a variety of different kinds of paper, on different finishes, textures, or weights
  • Is compatible with custom inks, for example metallic or Pantone-color inks
  • Offers the best printing quality, for detail and color


  • Is only efficient for high volume projects

For printing projects requiring less than 2,000 copies, an offset printing press is neither time nor cost efficient. For every image, new metal plates must be etched. If too few copies are needed, it is not worth the time or money to etch a new metal plate. 

Digital printing

Digital printing is best suited for short-run printing  (i.e. printing projects of fewer than 2,000 copies). For industrial purposes, laser printing is the most common form of digital printing. 

How it works

  1. A laser draws the image to be printed onto electrostatic rollers, called drums.
    • There is one drum for each color used. 
  2. The drums use an electrostatic charge to attract and become coated with toner (powdered ink).
  3. The toner is transferred to the paper using an electrostatic charge. (But the toner particles only “sit” lightly on top of the paper’s surface.) 
  4. The toner is fused to the paper by passing through two hot rollers, the fuser unit.

Paper size 

Digital printing presses typically print on paper that is between 19” and 29”. 


  • Allows you to make more changes in your printing project.

Because new metal plates do not need to be etched for every new image (as in offset printing), it is easier and less expensive to make changes to your printing project with a digital printer.


  • Prints with lower quality color consistency and accuracy
  • Cannot print metallic or foil ink
  • Cannot print on a variety of different kinds of paper, on different finishes, textures, or weights
  • Prints with inferior quality

With a digital printer, the ink is not absorbed into the paper. Instead, it just sits on top of the paper. This makes the ink (and its image) more susceptible to cracking. 

When to use offset printing

So, when should you use offset printing?

When printing in high volumes

If you need to print a high-volume of copies (i.e. 2,000 or more copies), then offset printing is definitely your best choice. Offset printing presses will print with superior quality, and at a rate that is both time and cost efficient. 

Note: Before you begin your printing project, pay attention to the number of copies you will print, not the total number of pages. 

For example, you might be printing 500 copies of a catalog that is 100 pages long. That means you’re printing 50,000 pages, but only 100 copies. In other words, you’re printing a high volume of pages, but not a high volume of copies. In this circumstance, offset printing is not the most efficient option. 

When color quality matters

Printing equipment always interprets the application of colors slightly differently. The color controls in an offset printing press are usually superior to those of digital printers. 

Accurate color representation is especially important for large corporations where color consistency (for example, with a logo) is a concern. 

Offset printing permits not only broader color options (e.g. metallics, foils, etc.), but also greater color quality and consistency. 

Depending on what you need to print, there may be one kind of printing that suits your needs better than another. 

If your goal is to print a high volume of copies, look to offset printing. Offset printing lets you print a lot of copies quickly, efficiently, and, most importantly, with the highest quality. 

At APT, you can find your perfect printer among a wide selection of pre-owned offset presses

Contact us to ask a question or request a quote.

Enjoy the Perks of Being a Member

Interested in viewing instant quotes and obtaining access to our private auction list? Sign up today, it's FREE!

Join today!