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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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Custom Printing: Consider the Cost of Digital vs. Offset

I had a conversation today with the director of operations and the sales manager at a local printer. We discussed options for a digital print job for a print brokering client of mine.

A client had requested pricing for 500 copies of a full-color, 488-page print book. She had specifically asked for offset printing, assuming that the quality would be superior to that of the same job printed digitally on an HP Indigo press.

The director of operations at the printer had noted that he’d be pleased to take the (approximately) $30,000.00 (his “off-the-cuff” guess) required to print the job via offset lithography, but he wanted to remind me that the digital option was closer to $10,000.00 (again, his initial guess), and the quality of the final print book would be just as good.

A Momentary Discourse on Price

To be fair, this $30,000.00 price for offset printing is very high. It is only one price from one vendor, reflecting his particular equipment (sheetfed offset presses) and his print shop’s pricing structure. I had bid this job out to a number of other printers, some with web-fed offset presses and some with sheetfed offset presses. For shorter-run options, I had also requested prices for digital printing.

In various options addressed over almost a year’s time, the press run for this job ranged from 500 copies to 10,000 copies.

Pricing for offset-printed versions of the same job never came in below $18,000.00 for 1,000 copies. This low price was for a job printed via offset lithography on a full-size heatset web press. Pricing for sheetfed offset lithography was higher. And again, the “off-the-top-of-the-head” pricing from the director of operations noted above was high at $30,000.00. His presses were all sheetfed offset presses. So the overall collection of estimates from all printers did have a surprisingly large range.

(On another note, two of the web-fed offset vendors would not print fewer than 1,000 copies via offset lithography. But assuming the cost for the 1,000-copy range, and factoring in the percentage of the total cost that would be attributable to make-ready, I would assume no less than a $16,000.00 or $17,000.00 approximate price for 500 copies printed via web-fed offset lithography–from most other vendors. And, to reiterate, the greater portion of this amount would be for set-up costs.)

Why Is It So Expensive?

First of all, the issues related to this print book would be equally relevant if the job were a magazine, a booklet, or any other signature work (4, 8, 16, or 32 pages laid out on a press sheet, printed, and then folded and trimmed into a bindable stack of consecutive pages).

In this particular case what had driven the cost up was the “full-color throughout” specification. Each of the four plates (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) would be necessary for all 488 pages plus cover. Even if the book signatures were 16-page forms (with eight pages on either side of the press sheet), there would be more than 30 press runs comprising the 488 pages (actually 30 16-page signatures plus one 8-page signature, with four plates each).

This would involve a huge amount of plate-making and press wash-ups. That’s why the director of operations at the printer I spoke with had floated an initial ballpark estimate of $30,000.00. For a press run of 40,000 copies, this (or even more) might be worth it. (After all, the high price would be spread out over a substantially longer press run, yielding a lower cost per copy.) But for 500 copies, the price was staggering. And it was due to the plate-making and plate-handling expenses.

Options to Reduce the Price

During our phone conversation, the printer’s director of operations and sales manager suggested that we go back to the HP Indigo digital option with 4-color throughout the book. (To initially keep prices low, we had included only 60 pages of color. Many of the pages my client had designed to be black with a highlight color of blue had become black only.) My client liked the 4-color-throughout option, and she now had new funding for her project, which is why the budget for the print book had expanded.

The discussion with the printer’s director of operations and sales manager yielded the following options for me to share with my client:

  1. Printing the entire job via offset lithography with 4-color ink throughout
  2. Printing the entire job digitally on the HP Indigo with 4-color ink throughout
  3. Printing the cover via offset lithography and printing the text digitally

To this we would add an option for a soft-touch laminate on the cover. This would make the print book feel good in the reader’s hands, which is why someone would choose a print version rather than a digital version of this book in the first place.

I did, however, note that my client’s request for 4-color offset printing prices reflected her assumption that digital printing was of a lesser quality. So the printer offered to send me samples of the same job printed digitally on the HP Indigo and also via offset lithography on a traditional press. He believed this would convince my client that no quality would be lost in choosing the digital option.

(To put this in perspective, if the initial guess by the printer’s director of operations holds true, and the job estimate is for $10,000.00, the unit cost would be $20.00. Digital pricing from other vendors have ranged from $19.00 to $34.00 per book for a 500-copy press run. Ironically the highest price came from a popular online vendor. Again, ironically, another printer would charge closer to $26.00 per book for a digital version—and, based on this printer’s specific digital press, I think it would be of lower quality than the Indigo-printed job.)

How About Larger Offset Presses and Automated Plate Hanging?

Some printers do have much larger offset presses. This means that instead of 16-page press signatures, some printers can produce 32-page or larger signatures. This means a 488-page book can be produced with fewer press runs. In addition, newer offset presses have incorporated increased automation into the workflow. This includes automated, closed-loop color control and automated plate hanging. Such improvements have made short-run offset printing more competitive with digital printing.

What We Can Learn from this Case Study

This case study offers a wealth of information:

  1. Consider the press run when deciding on digital printing vs. offset printing. In this case a 500-copy, 488-page book was more appropriate for digital printing due to its short press run, high page count, and extensive 4-color ink coverage.
  2. Choose a printer who actively makes suggestions to give you the best product for the best price. This particular printer acted as a consultant and partner, making suggestions to help my client.
  3. Get samples. Nothing will convince my client that her print book will look just as good produced digitally as seeing a sample job printed both digitally and via offset lithography.
  4. Exploit the benefits of the technology you select. For instance, there will be an oversized, folded insert in the print book. In a digitally produced product, the insert can be placed anywhere (it will need to go between pages 18 and 19 to be ideally placed relative to the text). On an offset press it might not be possible to easily place an insert here. It might not fall between press signatures. More specifically, on an offset press you print 4-page, 8-page, 16-page, or 32-page signatures, but on a digital press you can print and bind in increments of only two pages. This is a benefit of digital printing. It’s wise to take advantage of it.
  5. Not all digital presses are of this high quality, but there are more and more out there. I used to only like the HP Indigo press. Now the Kodak NexPress and some other digital presses are matching or exceeding offset print quality. But to be safe, always request printed samples.
  6. Remember this approach is prudent for all signature work, including magazines, books, or any other multi-page job.
  7. There is a sweet spot (an ideal combination of color, page count, and press run) for economical and efficient digital, web-fed offset, and sheet-fed offset work. Ask your printer what he thinks would be appropriate for your particular job.
  8. New automation of offset presses is worth watching closely. This includes automated color control, automated plate hanging, etc. Such improvements will reduce costs (and probably also printing prices), making offset lithography more competitive with digital printing for shorter press-runs.

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