Inkjet vs. Digital Toner: Which Press is Best for Commercial Print Needs

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The commercial print world has changed quite a bit in the last decade. The sheer variety of substrates, specialty inks, and finishes or embellishments available to designers today has opened new avenues of creativity to create more commercial print pieces. This evolution has, in some way, been driven by the continued development of inkjet press technology and the ability to print extremely high-quality projects quickly and more efficiently. 

Even so, many printers still maintain offset and digital toner presses as part of their fleet, and this can be confusing for designers in terms of specifying the right press for their project. 

“For many print providers, it is not a matter of inkjet or offset or toner: a provider may have all three,” writer Elizabeth Gooding and Mary Schilling, authors of The Designer’s Guide to Inkjet, 3rd Edition. “Even more interesting for designers is the potential to use all three in a single job.”  

Here, we’ll look at the capabilities of inkjet vs. digital toner presses to help designers better understand which is right for their commercial print needs. 

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What designers should know about digital toner presses for commercial print

Digital toner presses — also known as electrophotographic presses — use toner and a series of electrostatic charges to reproduce designs on a printed sheet. Digital toner presses commonly use either dry-toners or liquid toners in the printing of images or text. This process equips toner processes to produce a wide color gamut compared with digital inkjet presses, though toner presses generally print at a slower rate than inkjet, and this extended print time can result in cost increases. 

As you would expect, this makes toner presses less ideal for certain applications than others, particularly when it comes to print that requires a high level of versioning and personalization. The elevated production time and costs also makes toner presses a less valuable choice for small print runs. 

“While electrophotographic presses can fulfill these needs, most inkjet presses can produce output at a significantly lower price than toner equipment with much faster turnarounds,” write Gooding and Schilling. 

While optimizing cost and production time with toner presses can be a challenge, toner presses do offer more variety in terms of the substrate, particularly when using more specialty paper stocks that can give your print piece a little extra wow factor. Understanding the tradeoff between speed and efficiency versus versatility is an important point to keep in mind when deciding on the right press for your commercial print project. 

What designers should know about digital inkjet for commercial print

There was a time — before the technological evolution of digital inkjet — where print buyers would order large quantities of print material in order to achieve a lower cost-per-sheet. Even though this would achieve the right economies of scale, this approach would often result in waste in the form of excess copies that need to be warehoused. Digital inkjet has made it possible for commercial print buyers to print the exact number of copies needed without running into the issue of sunk cost from excess copies. 

“Now, most print buyers understand the full impact of obsolescence costs due to branding or program changes, storage expenses, shipping costs, and time lags to deliver from a warehouse to multiple locations,” explain Gooding and Schilling. “From an economic and risk management standpoint, inkjet is often the better platform choice.” 

Beyond decisions that are made from a dollars and cents perspective, designers are making design choices based on the characteristics of new production platforms. Printing your commercial print material on a digital inkjet press opens up a new world of potential to make your print pieces more dynamic, engaging, and cost-effective. 

Some of the ways in which digital inkjet can help designers level-up their commercial print pieces without sending costs through the roof or prolonging the print time include: 

  • The ability to use variable text and imagery to create personalized, highly-targeted pieces that speak in ways that are specifically tailored to your audience

  • A more streamlined process of embedding cross-media content via quick response (QR) codes to harness the power of digital integrations like augmented reality (AR)

  • Compatibility with new post-coating options to add shine, texture, or other embellishments to enhance the value and sensory or tactile nature of your piece

  • The ability to print smaller, more precise quantities to reduce waste and optimize your spend on commercial print materials

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While these are some of the stronger proof points for choosing digital inkjet over toner presses for commercial print, there’s still much more to know about how you can make the most of print for this specific application. Download The Designer’s Guide to Inkjet, 3rd Edition to learn more.