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The future of offset printing

Offset technology is evolving to meet the growing demand for efficient, automated printing solutions

June 7, 2024  By Jack Kazmierski

Print runs of 200 sheets is possible on offset machines due to efficiencies and automation in newly built sheetfed presses. Photo © Heidelberg

Offset printing has come a long way since this printing technique was developed in the early 1900s. More than a century later, we may wonder whether offset printing has a future in our modern digital world, especially with the advent and growing popularity of digital printing.

According to German Sacristan, group director, Digital Printing Production Services at Keypoint Intelligence, the printing industry is definitely seeing a transition from offset to digital technologies.

“In the ever-evolving print production landscape, digital printing continues to expand—driven by the ongoing transition from offset to digital technologies,” Sacristan recently wrote in an article published on the company’s website,


He added: “This shift is propelled by various factors, including the escalating costs associated with offset printing (such as plates and paper waste), challenges in labour operator availability, as well as the growing demand for short runs and personalized print products.”

Despite these challenges, Sacristan explained offset printing is here to stay.

“It is evident offset printing is not on the verge of obsolescence,” he said. “Offset printing remains strong and relevant due to its lower ink costs and higher printing speeds, compared to digital printing alternatives.”

Digital vs. offset

While it’s clear that offset printing is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, there are definite areas of the industry where one printing technology may be preferred over the other, and where either digital or offset makes more economic sense.

“I think it definitely depends on the segment of the industry,” explains Clarence Penge, executive VP of sales, product management and marketing for Heidelberg USA. “If you think of the packaging segment, for example, you would have to admit that there’s hardly any digital printing. If you’re in the commercial space, you really need both, because the two complement each other in many ways.”

Penge says the choice between digital and offset also comes down to the size of the product and the run length. “It’s all about the best way to maximize efficiency in your production,” he adds. “Sometimes that means sending the work to the digital machine, and other times it means sending work to the offset machine. And when you have both, you have the opportunity to maximize efficiency for both product lines.”

The breaking point

One of the key reasons for choosing one printing technology over the other is the print run, as Sacristan explained. According to Harold Hoff, VP of sales and service for Heidelberg Canada, that print run number is not as high as it once used to be.

“It’s moving downward, year after year, and that’s really just because of the efficiencies and automation in sheetfed presses,” Hoff says. “Ten years ago, when we looked at the make-ready time, and the like, we often talked about 1,500 or even 2,000 sheets to go to digital. But that’s now much lower. We’re hearing that some customers in Europe, believe it or not, are making that transition at about 200 sheets. If it’s less than 200 they go digital, and if it’s greater than 200 they go offset.”

While that low of a number is likely to raise eyebrows, Hoff explains that it’s only possible if a print service provider running a tight ship. “A company like that is very fine-tuned with colour management, their processes are all in place, and they’re using a very automated press,” he explains. “But this illustrates where we are today: We can be that efficient on an offset press.”

The Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 106 offers production speeds of 18,000 sheets per hour. Photo © Heidelberg

Technology matters

Penge warns that you can’t expect to have a cutoff line as low as 200 if you’re still running older equipment. The quality of the equipment matters, and it makes a big difference. The modernization of the offset printing process makes all the difference.

“If you were to look at a 20-year-old offset machine, the crossover point to digital would be much higher—probably 5,000,” Penge adds. “That’s because the make-readies were 40 minutes long. Today, there’s more of an on-demand approach, and you can have make-readies done in two to three minutes, with very few waste sheets.”

Additionally, Penge says, we have higher running speeds on sheetfed machines, and the ink costs are lower. All these factors add up, and collectively, they make a big difference.

Another key differentiator is the intelligence of today’s equipment, thanks in part to advanced software, as well as artificial intelligence (AI).

“You don’t want a machine operator stopping to think and make decisions about what to turn on next when running a press because that’s a waste of time,” Penge says. “So today, we have software driving the setup of the press and AI making decisions for the operator to the point where the screens are changing automatically on them, and they don’t have to manually make selections or turn things on.”

These newer software-driven presses do all of the thinking, and they can continue through all the jobs lined up in a queue, one after another, until the operator manually stops the press.

Best practices

While we don’t know what the future holds, and how far digital and offset printing technologies will advance in the next decade or so, it’s clear that there’s room for both technologies today. Companies specializing in printing for a particular niche clientele may be able to get away with offering only one option, if that’s all their customer base ever needs. However, companies that want to cater to the printing needs of a broader customer base will likely have to invest in both digital and offset printing technologies, so that they have both options available, which will allow them to use the best technology for the job at hand.

“The best practice is to analyze the print buyer’s needs and have both solutions available to offer the best product in terms of cost and speed to market,” Penge concludes. “They really do complement each other today.”

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of PrintAction.

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