Digital printing refers to a printing method in which the image is printed directly from the digital form to the desired medium. The image is first previewed on a computer monitor, then sent to a digital press which is designed to interface directly with the computer. This differs from other printing methods which rely on additional steps (such as etching press plates) to transfer the image to the printed surface.
Typically, digital printing is done in two distinct ways, Inkjet and Laser printing. Inkjet Printing refers to a method in which droplets of ink are projected onto the printed surface in tiny dots that make up the final printed output. Laser Printing uses lasers to define the area of the image on an electrically charged cylindrical drum. Powdered ink, known as toner, is then selectively picked up by the drum and transferred to the printed surface.
One of the major benefits of digital printing is due to its minimal setup requirements, so it is able to offer fast turnaround times. It eliminates many of the time consuming configuration processes that can cause other printing methods to be costly and inefficient for small runs. This speed advantage is limited to small runs. A common use case for low volume prints would be a single box of full color business cards. They can be easily printed with a digital press, as opposed to an offset press, which would require a considerable amount of labor. However, as the volume increases, other print methods such as offset printing become faster and more efficient.
Another significant advantage of digital printing is that hard proofs can be can be printed easily. These proofs can be printed at a fraction of the cost of other, more traditional printing methods. Since setup and configuration costs are negligible, test prints are possible without much additional labor. By printing proofs, precise adjustments can be made to the color and resolution of the image. As a result, digital printing offers a high degree of control over the final printed output.
One of most common criticisms of digital printing is its lack of flexibility with regard to paper types. With the exception of certain specialized presses, most digital presses are designed to handle a relatively limited number of papers for optimal results. Aside from the paper type, the thickness of the paper is another limiting factor. Most digital presses today are not designed to print on cover stock exceeds #110lb in thickness. This can cause problems when the press is used to print items such as business cards.
Another drawback of digital printing is color consistency. This drawback can be attributed to the fact that nearly all digital presses use CMYK color exclusively. CMYK color is known for its lack of color consistency, regardless of the output device. However, digital printing is slightly more susceptible to color issues than other print methods. This is mainly because there are more variables that can affect the consistency of the press run. Factors such as humidity, media type, and electrical current, have a more pronounced effect on digital prints than other printing methods.
Digital printing is one of the most commonly used printing methods today because of its ability to print small volumes at a low cost. It is also significantly faster than any other print method for printing small quantities of prints.