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What does it take to make a card?

Elements of an advanced card production system

BY JOSEPH DIDIER
CONTRIBUTING EDITOR

“Across the board, advanced card production systems are more durable, quicker, smaller, more modular in design and can be purchased for less than ever before.“ Kevin Gillick, Head of Corporate Marketing, Datacard Group

It’s been more than a decade since the “one card” concept emerged in higher education. With this concept, the card production system has become all the more important. The heart of the card systems on campus, it is the means to create cards, and in most cases, share information back and forth to the campus Student Information System.

Card production technology has greatly improved in recent years. Production time has drastically decreased to a point where most campuses now create finished cards in less than 2 minutes. Not only have card production systems become faster, they have become portable. Now it is realistic to carry card production equipment in a duffle bag. In short, the technology has advanced, there are more options available, prices have dropped, and lower end solutions have entered the market.

Let’s take a quick look at the main components of the traditional card production system.

Card Production System
Campuses have long recognized the importance of matching data from the card production system with information contained in the student information system (SIS). This synchronization helps ensure that only eligible people are issued cards and it expedites the card production process by pre-populating the database thus minimizing the need to enter data during issuance. In the early campus card days, periodic downloads from the SIS were manually imported into the card production system. Advancements led to the automating of this export/import process. Today more-and-more campuses use real-time sharing of data between the card production system and the SIS from Datatel, Peoplesoft, SCT, or others.

The de facto standardization around ODBC compliant database packages has enabled nearly all card production systems to share data with nearly any SIS. It is strongly recommend that you consider using a campus supported relational database if you will have more than 5,000 records in your database.

Imaging Software
In a typical card production environment, cards are produced on-site in real time. The image capture software is what makes the personalization of the card possible. This imaging software is the connection between the capture equipment, printer, and the other system components in the carding process.

Today, imaging software offers ease of use with point-and-click simplicity and enhanced feature functionality like card design built directly into the software.

A range of imaging software packages are available from low-end to highly customizable solutions. Entry level off-the-shelf software may cost less but have limited capabilities andlimited expansion opportunities. Networking cap-abilities are minimal and upgrades and support will cost additional.

Higher end solutions are more frequently selected by campus card office managers because they require database conversion from old or different systems, the connection of multiple capture stations and printers, and networking of equipment. The networkability is perhaps the greatest advantage of these higher end customizable solutions. You now can have a system server on your main campus that is linked to a workstation PCs with cameras at smaller satellite campuses. Cards can be printed remotely at the central site, minimizing the expense of software and card printers for the remote locations.

Image Capture Equipment
Camera quality has led to some of the most significant increases in the card production system im-provement. On the market today are cameras in all price ranges, and even the cheapest camera equipment can take a usable image. But low-end cameras and web cams aren’t optimal in the campus environment because they typically lack automatic focus capability and do not have flash attachments. Higher end cameras cost significantly more but produce dramatically higher quality images, have more features, and have the all-important flash capability.

The majority of the cameras being utilized today are electronic and portable–either a normal digital camera or a digital video camera. As long as the camera is TWAIN compliant, most imaging software packages will work with it. TWAIN is an industry recognized standard for accessing digital images from a peripheral device into an application. The digital camera connects directly to the Capture Station PC using serial, USB, flash card, or firewire.

In addition to the photo other elements can be captured and utilized on the card for identification and security purposes. A digitized signature, personal identification number, or even biometric can be captured and stored by the imaging software.

Card Printers
Older printers were known for the space they consumed. Manyrequired several components (e.g. the printer, the card hopper, an optional magnetic stripe encoder) that had to line up precisely to avoid card jams. Many new printers have all components included in a single unit and sit upright so they consume less space. Printer options vary greatly, with a whole new line of low-end printers costing less than $3,000 and providing similar quality and throughput as the high-end printers from years past. Certainly they may not have all the features and functionality of the current generation of high-end printers, but these low cost options are meeting the needs of many campuses. For the most part, all major printers have gotten smaller, faster, and improved in both reliability and image quality.

The main printer used in campus card offices uses a dye sublimation process to transfer ink from a ribbon to the card. Some offer duplex printing capabilities enabling both sides of the card to be printed in the same pass through the printer. It also has the ability to encode data onto the magnetic stripe during the card imaging process.

Some newer printers utilize reverse image technology–a process in which the print head never directly touches the card. Instead the image is printed on a clear film which is then applied to the surface of the card. This process results in fewer imperfections, minimizes wear on the print head, and creates a sharper image. “Reverse image printing is great for over-the-edge printing and printing on uneven surfaces as in the case of proximity cards,” says Jay Gaworecki, Manager of ID Systems at ColorID.

With all these options for imaging software, digital cameras, and card printers many campuses mix-and-match to meet their specific requirements and budgets. Entry-level systems–consisting of a single printer, camera, PC, and software license–range from $3,000 to $5,000. Mid range systems cost from $10,000 to $15,000. If you require additional feature functionality and networking capabilities, you should budget between $20,000 and $25,000 for a fully customizable solution. System integrators and vendors offer project management and customization services for a fee. When budgeting, don’t forget to include fees for extended warranties on software & hardware and on-going customer support if you desire such services.

In next month’s issue of CR80News, we will analyze imaging software packages in detail and evaluate key features.

Special thanks to the contributing companies: Access ID; DataCard Group; Ingenico; Fargo Electronics, Inc,; HDO Card Systems; ImageWare Systems, Inc.; InfinaCard Marketing; and Vision Database Systems (VDS).

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