Digital vs. Offset Printing for Packaging: Which one to choose?

Often times, especially if you are new to printing & packaging, you expect a certain color or quality to be matched exactly to what is on a screen.

The fact of the matter is, printing output cannot 100% match from what we see on the monitor based on the RGB vs CMYK color output theory. 

Yes, the quality of the output can be calibrated to mimic closely to how it should appear but it will depend on the technique and technology that you choose to used.

This is where many business owners, designers, and marketers tend make mistakes and risk the quality appeal of your brand.

Keep in mind that this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to choose more costly options. There are many ways to make cost effective decisions for quality results.

Here we’ll look at how to effectively choose the right printing methods for your custom packaging project.

Having a good understanding of the differences in output based on artwork objectives, costs and capabilities is essential to making the right choice to optimize on your branding opportunities.

Digital vs Offset Print

The two main printing methods you can use for your packaging is offset lithographic printing or digital printing.

A diagram which compares digital and offset print

Offset Print

Offset print uses metal plates layering color onto sheets in rapid succession and stamped onto paperboard.

This is also how newspapers and magazines are typically made.

It offers superior image quality and cost efficiency for large-volume print runs, but is too expensive for most low-volume projects and takes extra time to complete.

Digital Print

Digital print, on the other hand, is how your home office laser or inkjet printer works.

It offers quick turnaround times and makes low-volume jobs affordable.

It’s also easier to create variable data print runs using a digital printing press.

However, digital printers can’t quite match the color fidelity and material flexibility that offset printing offers.

According to Smithers Pira, digital printing accounts for 16.4 percent of global print and packaging in terms of value, but only 3.9 percent of the print industry’s volume.

This seems to reinforce the idea that digital printing is the best low-volume print choice. But there is more to the question than just comparing print volume.

Keep your estimated print volume in mind and choose the right printing method for your packaging material.

So What Do You Choose?

Material

Rigid packaging typically requires offset printing. If you’re going to print on luxury boxes, you might as well print in offset to get the best quality possible.

Rigid packaging is typically used for luxury goods or gifts and tends to be higher in price due to set up costs for production.

Corrugated packaging can benefit from either digital or offset.

Offset is preferable for designs that require additional processes such as spot UV and foil stamping and require a volume of over 1000 units.

example of printing on corrugated material
Source: Johns Byrne

For smaller runs and simpler designs on e-commerce packaging, digital is the way to go.

Paperboard packaging typically requires offset especially for cosmetic, pharmaceutical and small retail packaging.

Why? Offset provides a clearer and more vivid printing output for smaller texts and designs. Maintaining clear and concise information on your packaging is crucial for communicating important information with consumers.

Turnaround Time

For small runs in corrugated, digital is the best choice in terms of turnaround time.

While offset printing is typically more effective for larger volume runs this doesn’t mean the turnaround time takes longer.

Quality Color Depth

Although offset printing can be more expensive, it does outperform digital printing when it comes to brightness and color depth.

example of offset printing
Source: The Dieline

Offset printers have the ability to use the Pantone Matching Color System to perfectly match inks, whereas digital printers can only approximate these colors using color calibration.

Offset can also print white ink on kraft paper while digital cannot.

Offset produces the clean, crisp, attractive color output that you see in retail stores while digital produces great quality for simpler designs (perfect for e-commerce packaging).

Types of Coating

Offset printing also allows for a greater variety of coating options including; 

These options are unfortunately not available in digital printing.

Overview of different coatings for packaging
Source: Pakfactory

Prototyping

These two printing methods can complement one another in most packaging orders.

Using digital printing to create packaging prototypes and then opt for offset printing for the production process is a cost effective way to maintain quality printing opportunities

It is recommended to request a physical CTP proof to verify printing instead.

Prototyping in offset is possible but requires more time and cost.

Quantity

For folding carton and rigid box, no matter what quantity, offset is preferred.

However, if you are producing in corrugated, any orders lower than 500 pieces should consider digital for cost efficiency and offset for pieces larger than 1000-2000 pieces due to better quality and cost optimization.

Not sure where to start? Contact PakFactory for help from our packaging specialists!

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5 comments
  1. Both are the effective ways for printing. In my view before choosing any method for printing you need to know what is your need and company goals and you need to know the printing medium, check the color, check proofing, and know which one allows more customization.
    Thanks for sharing!!

  2. Thank you, Mark Velarga , for putting together everything in digital vs offset printing. I think you have covered all the major points in this article, I will share this with my network as well. Keep it up!

  3. It’s great that you elaborate on how offset printing can be used for packaging. I want to start a business that will require a lot of custom packages, so I’m thinking about using an offset printing service. I’m going to search for a good offset printing service in my area that I can use.

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