Wide Ranging Responses to Digital Print Quality: Who’s Right?

By on May 20th, 2014

Last Friday, I wrote a post on data in “The Digital Print Survey: 2014″ published by WTT / Unisource on the issue of print quality. I cited data that 61% of respondents indicated that quality was either “as good as” or actually better than offset. Yet high percentages of respondents cited print consistency, color matching, gradients, and solids as being significant challenges.

There weren’t a lot of comments here on Digital Nirvana, but I did share the post around LinkedIn, and comments were voluminous. What was interesting was the incredible range of responses I received. On one end of the spectrum, there were those saying that gradients, solids, and color gamut would always been issues because of the design of the presses themselves. But what does it matter? Quality is in the eye of the beholder. Then there were those responding that digital has the capability of surpassing offset and producing essentially museum-quality pieces. You just need to have the right substrate, a skilled operator, and commitment from the printer to regular maintenance and calibration on the press.

All of the comments were coming from knowledgeable folks, from technicians to academians to press operators and owners, so it was interesting how varied the responses were.

Here is a sampling of those comments. What do YOU think? Add your voice to the discussion!

“If an absolute quality comparison is made with offset lithography, the differences become more apparent. Banding and gradients will always be a problem. This is due to the reduced tonal steps used in digital devices in order to increase processing speed. The recordable tone steps in offset can easily exceed 200, whereas some digital devices are restricted to fewer than 50 – thus the banding issue. Some “work arounds” are used in digital, but the most effective ones use extra colors (e.g. light cyan, light magenta). These devices are called “photo quality” in the inkjet printer market.

“Even solids and the inability to reproduce special colors are also a problem with most digital devices. These restrictions are NOT a problem as long as the concept of market-segment quality classification is kept in mind. There are good reasons why newspapers are printed on newsprint and not on high-grade coated papers. Printing has a long history of making quality vs. economic tradeoffs (grade of materials, and productivity-driven sacrifices) according to what markets desire.”

— Gary Field, color printing scientist and printing industry consultant

“Another thing besides the gradient issue is low quality screen builds with some PMS colors. This has always been an issue even in offset, that is why there are so many 6- and 7-color offset presses out there. If you want an exact PMS match, print a PMS . . . since digital cannot and since the digital process even distorts the screen build process more than traditional offset, I see builds as a critical problem with digital. Digital photos, on the other hand, print better than offset separations in my experience.”

— Greg Kingston, print and mail services at VOLVO Construction Equipment

“I think digital print quality is still a major issue because . . . you need to choose the right materials for your presses. Allot of people that are purchasing the stock isn’t aware of the particulars this one variable brings to the table. There also need to be qualified people to ascertain the print quality problem and solve it. You can’t hire people off the street expecting them to find out why the print quality isn’t great for your biggest client. Especially when they don’t know the particulars on how this industry works.”

— Barbara Jones, production artist, variable data specialist and digital prepress technician at Miller Zell

“Stock is definitely trial and error. Papers that you think would be identical (Cougar vs Accent) don’t run quite the same.”

— Richard Sohanchyk, owner, OnPoint Image & Design

“Digital printing can be great — high quality blends, few streaks, etc. — if  the company has highly skilled operators and free reign to replace worn components and time to do the maintenance and calibrations. Often the gamuts are much larger than [GRACoL]. I hear time and again the lament from digital press operators that they are not allowed to do whats necessary to make the digital press perform. Anything can beat the image quality of an offset press has glazed, out of pressure rollers, blankets with smashes and haven’t been torqued in a year, and the image of the wrench embossed in the impression cylinder.”

— David Avery, seasoned technical trainer

“I think it is an assumption by most consumers that digital equipment isn’t capable of going up against some of the very best 4-color offset printed materials. I think the reality is, MOST of the time, digital is used for “quick print” work where quality is less of a concern so the perception is that that is all that digital is capable of. However, just like offset, if you pay attention to quality, use the workarounds, and use materials that give you the best outcome, you can create pieces that rival offset. I have seen some very nice pieces used in very high profile accounts that were printed digitally. All of the variables that should go in to creating a quality piece were accounted for and executed, even though it meant a premium price was paid for the product. I don’t see how that solution is any different that creating a quality piece from offset. Digital is very capable of creating quality pieces, I just think we have marginalized it’s potential in the marketplace by our position when selling it as “quick print”. Of course, when we need to use metallics or some other specialty inks that digital doesn’t always offer yet, then of course it can’t compete, but we aren’t exactly comparing apples to apples anymore.”

— Brady Manthe, central premedia specialist, Brown Printing Company

“One particular job: Essential criteria — digital and offset components have to match. The machines tasked with the job were a 40-inch Komori (5-colour) and a Xerox-PC700. Stock was an A2 Coated Matte. We failed. Couldn’t match the two. We had our excuses ready, but the customer was not as pedantic as we had been told and didn’t even notice. The offset quality was good, very good — couldn’t fault it — until we tried to match and found that the digital was so much superior that it made the offset product look dull and lifeless by comparison. That was four years ago on a digital press which has since been superseded.”

— Shotz High Performance Print

“You should not expect to match offset and digital (laser/toner). Digital has a wider color gamut, so there can be a color difference between the two. Paul’s point about ICC profiles, you can work to match the 2 processes (if you care to) and perhaps move the curve on the offset to make it less dull and lifeless. Ironically, some the of negative traits of the digital is not having as smooth tone in gradient tints, can be can be a plus, if you like the look of it being a little sharper than the original. As far as proofing, I always ask for a proof for digital to be made on the same digital machine, RIP and paper that will be used in production. The only variable then will be the calibration and repeatability of the machine. There is no sense in comparing to another process or type of proof.”

— Ronald Boyum, printing services specialist at the U.S. Government Printing Office

What is your experience? Chime in!

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    3 Responses to “Wide Ranging Responses to Digital Print Quality: Who’s Right?”

    1. Leo Jones Jr Says:

      Digital printing will never have the quality that offset printing does, simply because digital printing takes away 80% of the control of making adjustments.

    2. Don Piontek Says:

      Wow! What a great discussion. Reading these comments was like attending a class on digital vs. offset technology. And these came from experts in the field. I learned something new this morning!

    3. Heidi Tolliver-Walker Says:

      I actually incorporated a longer and more detailed version of this discussion in “The State of Digital Print Marketing: 2014,” which I just released today. It’s a 70-page “state of” report that some may find very useful for educating key customers, as well as their staff internally. Starting today, I am now extending the enterprise license to include external distribution to up to five customers. If you contact me directly, I’ll honor a 25% Digital Nirvana discount for anyone who is interested. http://www.digitalprintingreports.com/digitalprinting.html