Are there any design limitations on digital presses?

In a previous age — back when digital printing first emerged — around 1997, there were some considerable design limitations a designer needed to be aware of before having a job printed digitally. These limitations have all but disappeared, to the point where digital printing and traditional offset printing are more or less indistinguishable.

I read the following short article a few days ago.

The technology used to drive digital presses has, in the past, made for some limitations in graphic design. Some presses (especially older presses) have tighter registration than others, for example, which could be a challenge if you need to match hairlines across the fold. Digital presses have also been notorious for having difficulty with large areas of solid color and with vignettes and other subtle gradations.

With the newer generations of presses, however, this is far less of an issue that it used to be. In fact, there are many who would argue that these issues no longer exist. Newer presses have largely overcome traditional design limitations, and especially in publishing, the issues of registration and halftones have been remedied. Still, every press is different, and even if your digital printer is working with an older machine, its prepress and design staff can often help you overcome these challenges with workarounds.

Thus, as with print quality, these and other design limitations are really a non-issue in most cases. If you have settled on digital output for your next print job, talk to your service provider about any accommodation your designer might need to make, if any.

I can think of really only three limitations imposed by digital printing. The first is quantity. Digital printing is competitive up to around 1000 copies of a printed piece — and that could be a simple flyer, up to a multi-page book or booklet. The exact cut-off point varies, but we have found that digital printing is almost always the most competitive option up to 750 copies, and often the most competitive up to 1000 copies.

A second limitation is sheet size. Sheet fed digital presses are all limited to oversized A3, or slightly bigger (in the case of the Xerox iGen and Kodak NexPress). There are no A2 or A1 sheet fed digital presses, although that situation may change at the forthcoming Drupa in Germany (May 2012) — bear in mind, however, that such ‘announcements’ can take up to five years to become reality for the printer who wants to purchase the new machine.

The third limitation is paper weight. Digital presses struggle to print anything over around 350gsm. Offset presses as a rule can print heavier weights.

So, bearing in mind that three caveats above, our opinion is that there is no longer any reason to shy away from digital printing.