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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Brochure Printing: Is It Digital or Is It Offset?

A custom printing service I work with stepped up today and put quality above profit. Although I was not surprised, I was pleased. I had received samples of a single-page brochure printing job that would be a companion piece for a pocket-folder and step-down card package for a client.

The press run for the entire custom printing job was 250 copies. Normally, I would assume that such a small job would warrant digital printing. However, since the pocket folder (prior to folding and gluing) exceeded the largest press sheet size for the digital press (an HP Indigo), I knew the pocket folder had to be offset printed. That said, I had assumed the series of step-down cards had been digitally printed. After all, five masters and 250 copies of each seemed much too small a run for an offset press.

Offset vs. digital custom printing runs

At this point it is important to note that much of the cost of offset printing (relative to digital printing) goes into makeready: that is, all the procedures involved in preparing to put ink on paper. Because of this, the longer the press run, the better—for offset lithography. The closeness in the cost of a 5,000-; 7,000-; or 10,000-copy press run of a single-page brochure would probably surprise you. The longer the run, the less each copy of the custom printing job costs to produce.

Digital printing, on the other hand, is priced at a “per-click” rate: The unit cost of one brochure, 100 brochures, or 500 brochures is essentially the same (at least for the printing). Of course, the prepress work and postpress work (such as folding and binding) will add to the cost, but the printing cost itself is on a “per-click” basis.

This is why you might print 250 copies of a brochure on a digital press but 500 or 1,000 copies on an offset press. Up to the cut-off point, the makeready costs of offset drive the overall cost of the job above the cost of the 250 digital copies. This switches at approximately 500 copies, as the digital price starts creeping up on a linear basis, while the unit cost for offset becomes less and less.

Back to the samples: Look for the dot patterns in the custom printing job.

I received samples of the brochure from my printer. I checked the samples with my loupe (high-powered magnifier), and I saw rosettes (a halftone dot pattern created by all the process color screens being at slightly different angles from one another). Under the loupe, the orange highlight color of the brochure was composed of the circular, rosette dot patterns of an offset printed piece.

I understand that even a color laser print (which is what an HP Indigo press essentially is) has a dot pattern. Under a loupe, you can see varying sizes of dots from laser printer output that come close to what a rosette looks like, but the mathematical algorithm of dot placement is slightly different on a digital laser printer, so you usually just see overlapping, or non overlapping, colored dots in digital press output, not a rosette pattern.

When I brought this to the custom printing vendor’s attention, asking about the printing method not as a criticism but as a point of information for my own edification, he said that he had run the job offset to match the five inserts (5 x 250 of each) and the pocket folder.

From this I inferred that he had chosen offset over digital in the initial job so the inserts would match the pocket folder, and then he had chosen offset over digital for the additional brochure to make sure all components of the job looked alike.

Business printing providers hate losing money.

This was beyond generous, particularly since the owner of the custom printing shop would not have told me or my client had we not asked. The printer had charged a fair price for the five inserts (approximately $400.00), assuming all could have fit on one press sheet. But for the accompanying brochure printing run, he charged only $139.00—clearly the price a digital press run of 250 copies would have cost.

This is how I think he avoided losing money.

This particular custom printing provider has a digital press and a small-format offset press, as well as larger press equipment. Apparently he also does not like to use spot colors (because they require wash-ups of the press). In my mind, this means that by using a very small press (which costs less to buy, own, and operate than a larger press), and by constantly running 4-color jobs on this press (and using four-color builds to simulate PMS colors), he is able to keep prices remarkably low.

But it still means that this business printing vendor cared enough to scrape by for almost no profit in order to give a client a superior brochure printing job that would match the other elements of their marketing campaign.

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