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Selecting the ideal ID card printer for your issuance environment

This is only the beginning …

The vast majority of our readers know something about personalizing an ID card (some more than they would probably like to admit). In deference to the ubiquity of ID card production, CR80News is beginning a monthly feature called the Card Imaging Corner. Over the next year we will explore a variety of issues and topics related to the design, production, and management of the systems used to issue identification credentials.

Today our Imaging Corner begins with a fundamental question: How do I select a printer for my ID system. Future articles will cover important topics related to ID fraud, identification management, field viability of ID cards and much more. We thank Fargo for sponsoring this corner and supporting our pursuit of unbiased and objective reporting on those issues most important to our CR80News subscribers.

Selecting the ideal ID card printer for your issuance environment

Selecting a specific model of card printer from the host of options can be a daunting task. For campus card programs, this decision is frequently made by the system integrator or the selected provider of the overall campus card platform. But as we always stress in CR80News, as an educated buyer you can better plan and build a system that meets the needs of your specific environment. With this in mind, lets outline a process that can help you understand your options when it comes to ID card printers.

Nearly every printer manufacturer suggests that you ask yourself some key questions. Questions such as:

  • How many cards will you plan to issue?
  • How will the cards be used?
  • What technologies will be included on the card?

Because campus cards are among the most used and abused ID cards issued today, many of the basic questions can be answered globally. “Campus card programs need a printer that meet the following minimum standards:

  • It must produce a highly quality, 300 dots per inch (dpi) image in full color
  • It must produce a highly durable image that is resistant to abrasion and image deterioration caused by frequent usage
  • It must produce a finished card that will last for multiple years
  • It must produce a card in a reasonably rapid period of time (e.g. less than 120 seconds)
  • It must have magnetic stripe encoding capability built into the printer for single pass printing and encoding
  • It must have the capability to produce cards of the CR80 size (also referred to as ID-1 size)

Almost universally, a campus card program will require a printer that meets these criteria. So we can begin to narrow down the list of options from the pool of card printers. Because we need full-color, high quality imaging capability and magnetic stripe encoding, we can eliminate the very basic, highly inexpensive models that produce low dpi, monochrome images. And because we do not require the ability to produce thousands of IDs each day like credit card printers or other ultra high volume issuers, we can eliminate the high priced, high volume stations.

From this base level of requirements, your campuses specific environment and associated needs should be considered to further pinpoint one or more ideal printer models. By answering a series of more advanced questions, the additional functionality needed can be identified.

Do you need to print on both sides of the card at the point of issuance?
Many campuses have the back of their ID cards pre-printed offsite or preprint them onsite ahead of time. Typically, these campuses have static information on their card backs and do not need to customize the back for each individual. Other campuses, however, include unique data (e.g. digitized signature, barcode) on the back of the card. In these cases, a printer that is capable of dual sided printing in a single pass could prove advantageous. For others, it is likely an unnecessary feature.

Do you have technologies (e.g. proximity, smart card, contactless) on the card that need to be encoded/programmed at the time of issuance?
Because nearly every campus requires magnetic stripe encoding, that feature is included in the must-have list above. But many campuses use other technologies on their ID cards. Proximity technology is often used for access control. Often cards come pre-encoded with a unique number already stored in the proximity tag. In other cases, the number is encoded at issuance. The same can be true for contactless and smart card technologies. If any of these technologies is to be encoded at issuance, it may be desirable to have the encoding capability built-in to the printer.

Do you need the ability to print badges of sizes other than CR80?
CR80 or ID-1 is the common term for the standard, credit card sized ID. In some cases, the ability to print larger or smaller badge sizes for conference attendees, room keys, or other specialized needs is desired. For the vast majority, however, the ability to print sizes other than CR80 is not required and need not be a determining factor in the selection of a printer.

How important is ease of use and ease of maintenance to your office?
In recent years, some printer manufacturers have been working to make it easier for users to operate the printer and conduct routine operations and maintenance. LCDs that spell out error messages and maintenance instructions in plain English; cartridges that contain printer ribbons and need only be popped into place; print heads that can be replaced without special tools or training are just a few of examples of such innovations. Ask yourself who will be operating the printer on a day-to-day basis. What level of familiarity will the person or persons have and how comfortable are they performing this type of maintenance. This will help determine how important such ease-of-use qualities are to your environment.

What do you deem to be the acceptable level of service, maintenance, and repair related to the printers?

Take the time to evaluate how a specific printer will be serviced when maintenance or repairs are required. Is onsite service available? If it must be shipped to a service facility, is the location in your country or is it abroad? Will they provide a replacement unit so that you can produce cards in the interim? Have a plan and make sure that the printer you select fits into the plan.

What level of security do you wish to build into your system at the printer level?
Perhaps the most significant new development in the printers centers on the security of the system. With identity theft and card fraud on the rise, some printer manufacturers are adding security features to the printers. Physical locks can secure the hoppers that contain unprinted cards; password protection can keep unauthorized operators from using the printer; time-based access can further restrict when authorized users can print cards. These and other security features can help lock down your badging system and ensure only authorized operators print legitimate cards.

By evaluating these aspects, answering key questions, and finally comparing feature sets to printer costs, you will be well-equipped to select the right printer for your specific environment.

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