Choosing Between Offset and Digital Printing for Packaging: A Comprehensive Guide

Navigating the intricacies of printing and packaging requires a deeper exploration of the distinctions between offset and digital printing. As we delve further into this realm, backed by detailed figures and facts, business owners, designers, and marketers can make even more informed decisions that align with their specific needs.

Understanding Digital and Offset Printing:

Offset Printing: Offset printing, a stalwart in the industry, utilizes metal plates to rapidly layer color onto sheets before stamping it onto paperboard. According to industry research, offset printing remains the preferred choice for high-volume print runs, constituting a significant portion of the printing market. Its dominance in the newspaper and magazine sector is evident, showcasing its efficiency in handling large quantities.

Offset printing also facilitates additional processes, such as spot UV and foil stamping, enhancing the visual appeal of packaging. Despite being costlier for low-volume projects, offset printing’s superior image quality and efficiency for large-scale production make it a staple for certain packaging needs.

Digital Printing: In contrast, digital printing, responsible for 16.4 percent of global print and packaging in terms of value, excels in low-volume jobs and offers quick turnaround times. It is particularly suited for the ever-growing e-commerce sector, providing an agile solution for smaller runs and simpler designs. The flexibility of digital printing presses allows for variable data print runs, catering to personalized packaging trends.

According to the latest data from Smithers Pira, digital printing accounts for only 3.9 percent of the print industry’s volume, highlighting its specialization in catering to specific needs rather than large-scale production. This niche focus positions digital printing as an ideal choice for those seeking quality in smaller quantities.

Considerations for Offset Printing:

Quality and Time Efficiency: While offset printing might take longer for set-up and production, the investment pays off in terms of image quality. Industry studies indicate that offset printing consistently outperforms digital printing in brightness and color depth, providing the clean and attractive output commonly seen in retail stores.

Coating Options: In addition to its color prowess, offset printing boasts a wider range of coating options compared to digital printing. Matte and gloss laminate, UV coatings, soft-touch finishes, and AQ coatings contribute to the versatility of offset printing, allowing for creative and visually appealing packaging solutions.

Considerations for Digital Printing:

Cost-Effective Solutions for Small Runs: The cost-effectiveness of digital printing for smaller runs, especially in the realm of corrugated packaging, is underscored by its ability to deliver quality within budget constraints. Businesses aiming for agility and customization in their packaging can benefit from the efficiency of digital printing.

Which Method for Which Package:

Rigid Packaging: Figures from market research show that rigid packaging, often associated with luxury items, is best suited for offset printing. The high setup costs are justified by the impeccable quality that offset printing brings to such packaging, ensuring that the product presentation aligns with the premium nature of the content.

Corrugated Packaging: For corrugated packaging, the versatility of both digital and offset printing is evident. Figures suggest that digital printing becomes the preferred choice for smaller runs, offering cost-effective solutions, while offset printing becomes economically viable and ensures better quality for larger quantities exceeding 1000-2000 pieces.

Paperboard Packaging: In industries such as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and small retail, offset printing is the preferred choice for paperboard packaging due to its capability to deliver a clearer and more vibrant printing output, especially beneficial for smaller texts and intricate designs. However, it’s important to note that for small order quantities and instances where lower printing quality is acceptable, digital printing can also be a viable option. Clear and concise information on packaging remains crucial for effectively communicating important details to consumers.

Comparing Color Depth and Coating Options:

Precision in Color Reproduction: Figures from printing industry reports emphasize that offset printing’s use of the Pantone Matching Color System enables precise color reproduction, surpassing the capabilities of digital printing in this aspect. The ability to print white ink on kraft paper further expands the color possibilities, a feat not achievable with digital printing.

Coating Options and Market Trends: Market trends indicate that the availability of various coatings in offset printing, such as matte and gloss laminate, UV, soft-touch, and AQ coatings, aligns with the evolving demands of consumers for visually appealing and tactile packaging. This variety ensures that brands can stay innovative in their packaging strategies.

Prototyping with Digital and Offset:

Cost and Time Investment in Prototyping: While prototyping with offset printing is possible, it is essential to consider the associated time and cost. Industry experts recommend a strategic approach where digital printing is utilized for creating prototypes, allowing for cost-effective testing of designs, before opting for offset printing in the production phase.

Complementary Roles in Prototyping: Research findings suggest that offset and digital printing can complement each other in most packaging orders. Leveraging digital printing for prototypes ensures quick iterations and cost-effective testing, while reserving offset printing for the production phase maintains the highest quality standards.

Optimal Order Quantities:

Economies of Scale: For folding cartons and rigid boxes, figures from industry analyses emphasize that, regardless of quantity, offset printing is recommended due to the economies of scale it offers. The per-unit cost decreases significantly with larger orders, making it the preferred choice for high-volume production.

Digital Printing for Corrugated Packaging: For corrugated as well as paper board packaging, the figures suggest that orders lower than 1000 pieces should consider digital printing for cost efficiency. However, for larger quantities exceeding 2000 pieces, offset printing usually becomes the optimal choice, balancing quality and cost optimization.


Strategic Decision-Making: In conclusion, the decision between offset and digital printing for packaging should be a strategic one, aligning with the unique requirements of each project. By considering the intricacies of each printing method and leveraging industry figures and trends, businesses can navigate the complexities of the printing landscape, ensuring that their packaging not only meets but exceeds consumer expectations. In a dynamic market, staying informed is key to making packaging choices that elevate brand visibility and consumer satisfaction.

Published by Sebastian Tillen