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Printing cards with embedded prox, contactless, and contact chips

Printing high-quality color images on ID cards has become a straightforward, basic function for card program staff. This is a testament to the high quality printers, supplies, and plastic cards available today. But what happens when a new identification technology is added to the mix? Must our comfortable printing processes change if a proximity, contactless, or contact chip is added to the card?

When an additional technology is embedded into a card, it is more difficult for the manufacturer to maintain a perfectly smooth surface on the plastic. Slight divots and protrusions tend to occur around the embedded objects (e.g. beneath the chip, above and below the antenna). Though often invisible to the human eye on the blank card, these imperfections can result in very visible problems with the image once the card is printed.

Different printers and processes provide different options

• Dye sublimation printing
Most ID cards that are printed onsite by the issuer use a printing process called dye sublimation. In this process, dye is transferred from a ribbon to the surface of the card via heat supplied by a component in the printer called the print head. When the print head encounters a divot or imperfection in the plastic surface, dye is not transferred to the plastic or is transferred incorrectly. This results in less-than-perfect image reproduction. It can also result in damage to the sensitive, and costly, print head.

According to Danny Smith, Executive Vice President, ColorID, “some ID offices have accepted the end result with direct-to-card (dye sub) printing. However, improved technology is now available to dramatically improve the quality of your Proximity cards.” It just depends on what quality and fall-out you are comfortable with.

• Re-transfer printing
An alternate printing process involves the transfer of the dye to a clear sheet of film that is then adhered to the plastic card such that the print head never touches the card itself. This method eliminates the image reproduction problems caused by surface imperfections. Explains Joe Wright, Director of Marketing, Fargo Electronics, “think of the film as a blanket that is laid across a bed. (The film) conforms to the bumps and imperfections on the card just like the blanket does on the mattress … the result is a smooth surface.”

According to Mr. Wright, the re-transfer process (what Fargo calls High Definition Printing or HDP), has three major benefits when printing on cards with embedded technologies. “It is improves the card’s image quality, it reduces the amount of fallout (wasted cards), and it reduces the potential damage to the printing system (that can occur with a dye sub print head on an imperfect card surface).”

This type of printer, says Mr. Wright, “costs about 40% more than comparable dye sub printers. Consumables cost about 20% more.” It is easy to see how this technology could quickly pay for itself through the reduction in wasted cards. Remember that prox, contactless, and chip cards are more costly than basic magnetic stripe cards, so each instance of fallout from an unacceptable quality print job adds up rapidly. Mr. Smith concurs, stating that “the decreased number of misprinted cards and better print quality will help pay for itself in the long run.”

• Ink jet printing
There is a third option for printing that can result in good quality images for technology-embedded cards. Inkjet printers for cards are available and they can be an acceptable solution for entry-level, low volume environments.

When preprinting makes sense …

Dennis Caulley, VP of Access ID, concurs that re-transfer printing is a good option for embedded technology printing but he stresses preprinting as well. “In many cases, the capital outlay for a new printer does not make sense for a client. By preprinting the majority of the card, you get a uniform consistent image on all cards.”

When the static images on a card (e.g. backgound graphics, reverse side text) are preprinted, only the small areas of personalized detail (e.g. photo, name, account number) are left to the onsite dye sub printer.


Can thicker cards help the printing process?

Though we are all conditioned to think “standards, standards, standards,” Mr. Caulley suggests that a slightly thicker card can alleviate some of the printing problems that arise when embedding technologies. Normal ISO standard cards are 30 mil in thickness. According to Mr. Caulley, this relatively thin number was set because of the need to emboss cards for financial purposes. 30 mil was a reasonable amount that embossers could handle.

“Moving to a 35 or 36 mil card,” he states, “is certainly helpful in terms of both printability and durability.” It seems that added mils help to even out the bumps and divots that occur when technologies are embedded between the layers of plastic. “It is all a surface profile issue,” he concludes.


How to proceed?

The most prudent path seems to involve a series of steps. First, investigate the different options available from your card manufacturer or other manufacturers. Next, consider purchasing a re-transfer style card printer evaluating not just the upfront costs but the amount it may save in the future. Evalutate preprinting costs and determine if this is a more cost-effective option for your program.

Finally, find a way to print some sample cards using the exact card types and printer types you are considering. You can do this in house your existing equipment and a small quantity of sample cards. You can also request your printer supplier to test a quantity of cards for your. Fargo, as well as other suppliers, offer this service free of charge.

Remember, thousands of card issuers around the world print on technology-embedded cards everyday. With a bit of research and planning, you will be able to attain high quality results for your program. A more advanced card does not need to compromise your image quality.


Additional resources:

ColorID developed a great write-up for CR80 focusing on challenges and solutions for printing on proximity cards. To read this article, click here.

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