Finding the perfect technology for your cards
- By Jeff Tingley
- Sep 01, 2012
As the number of applications that require visual authentication
and increased security grows, identification cards are commonly
taken as a cost-of-entry to ensure physical security and access. But
what most security executives often overlook is that the quality
of the card itself is just as important for protecting the data on it.
And much of this quality comes down to ink.
There are countless options for printing cards, but they differ significantly according
to lifespan, color and cost over the life of the card. Organizations need to
understand the difference in inks and, more importantly, how these differences can
work in their favor to produce cards that satisfy application-specific security needs.
The primary inks used in card personalization are pigment inks and dyesublimation
inks, both of which bring a diverse set of benefits to different applications.
Executives looking to upgrade their ID solutions will be able to find
value in the primary attributes of both types of ink and will need to evaluate the
advancements in printing technologies that leverage the features of these inks in
Pigment inks, the most durable ink option for card printing, bind firmly to substrate
materials to keep from degrading over time. More so than other inks, their
particles maintain color fidelity on a variety of card materials regardless of their
end-usage environment. Depending on the application, organizations can choose
from a variety of encoding technologies, such as magnetic stripe, contact or contactless,
and card materials such as PVC, PET and polycarbonate for printing and
Protected against color fading, pigment inks are UV-resistant for the entire lifetime
of the card and are not altered by contact with chemicals, which means they
are difficult to damage or ruin without destroying the card material itself. Environmental
factors such as light, moisture and the friction created by exposure to sand
or dust have less of a negative effect on pigment inks than others, so they do not
adversely impact the quality or longevity of the card. This durability is particularly
Most compelling about pigment inks is the sharp,
full-color picture they produce when combined with
unique printing technologies such as dot-by-dot.
While dye inks produce normal images that blur together
when placed under a loop, pigment inks can
be printed to display hundreds of thousands of individual
dots that come together to form an incredibly
detailed image. Only viewable under a loop, this technology
not only helps security staff instantly identify
the card as authentic, but it creates an extremely sharp
image that is not possible with other kinds of ink.
Dye inks are standard in many card printers. Dyesublimation
printing uses a process by which the ink
is transformed from a solid to a gas and diffused onto
the transfer film, so the ink is not as strong as pigment
inks. Accordingly, dye inks most often produce
a card well-suited to more temporary or short-term
Unlike pigment inks, dye inks are not UV-resistant
and fade more easily over time as they are exposed
to light. They also are sensitive to plasticizers and
other chemicals that lift off color images. While pigment
inks are strong enough to resist the effect of the
natural environment—sand and light—dye inks will
degrade in color fidelity and image quality when confronted
with these elements. For cards using these dye
inks, durability requirements must always be a consideration.
While pigment inks produce a vibrant color, dye
inks also offer a bright image and the ability to create
an incredibly vast range of colors. Both of these capabilities
may be beneficial for aesthetic reasons where
absolute color fidelity is not necessary, such as on a
photo ID or other highly personalized application.
For cards with a shorter lifespan or lower security
requirements, dye inks are often a cost-efficient alternative
to pigment options. While overall card quality
is ultimately less than when printing with pigment
inks, applications like loyalty cards or other non-photo
visitor ID cards that are not exposed to environmental
elements or do not require an extended longevity
may be a good fit for dye-sublimation printing.
The expense associated with frequent replacement
of cards negates cost efficiencies for higher-security,
Why 600 DPI?
The growing role of high-resolution printing to card production cannot be overestimated. While 300 dots
per inch (dpi) images have long been the standard for
identification and access control cards, organizations’
increasing physical and logical security requirements
are now demanding an unprecedented level of instant,
assured authentication—and lower-resolution
imagery is struggling to deliver.
Now 600 dpi printing technology is taking cards to
their most secure level ever, with high-resolution text,
logos and photos that record more precise detail for
a higher-quality card that is more difficult than ever
to counterfeit or duplicate. As corporations look to
add more personalized information to employee IDs,
access control cards and other applications, the need
for this kind of advanced security will only grow. Ultimately,
as every executive knows, the more information
put on the card, the more critical its security.
There are currently still limited options for 600 dpi
printing, but high-security printers are available with
600 dpi capabilities from a small number of high-end
vendors. Organizations with more sophisticated security
requirements should seriously consider a 600
dpi printer and should look at pigment inks to fully
exploit the value of high-resolution images.
Putting It All Together
So what does all of this really mean? How can the
choice of ink have a real impact on the security of
your cards and, ultimately, the sophisticated back-end
systems that depend on them?
Like security solutions themselves, quality cards
are the result of many factors. In order to leverage the
benefits of both varieties of ink, organizations have to
combine them with other advanced security technologies,
such as 600 dpi capabilities, laser engraving options,
encoding technology and even certain printing
methods. This means not only carefully considering
ink options but also evaluating the additional components
that play a role in ID card personalization.
Looking at print methods, for example, reveals retransfer
and direct-to-card printing as the two most
common methods used for personalization. Directto-
card printing, which prints images right onto the
surface of a card, is the more traditional technology
and is restricted to certain substrate materials. In direct-
to-card printing, the printer heats a special print
ribbon beneath a thermal print head to transfer color
from the ribbon directly to the blank card. Because
the print head directly touches the card, however,
cards with uneven surfaces or embedded electronics
are not ideal for this approach. The result can often
be a sloppier card of sub-par quality.
Conversely, retransfer printing—more commonly
known as high-definition printing—is a more advanced
technology that prints images onto a retransfer
film instead of the card itself. The film bonds thermally
to the card, so superior image quality is possible, especially
for smart cards or IDs on materials with small irregularities.
Retransfer printing also enables true edgeto-
edge printing and the creation of a tamper-resistant
seal for an increased level of visual authentication and
security against reproduction or alteration.
It is the combination of all of these components
that is so critical to achieving card security. Without
the correct ink, no method of printing will deliver
personalization that measures up to your security
need, just as the advanced technology of dot-by-dot
pigment ink printing will mean little without 600 dpi
resolution that allows for card authentication.
Ultimately, identification and other personalized
cards are a small piece of the security puzzle. But
when the entire solution comes together for each
employee, visitor, customer and other card owner
within your organization, no one can afford to
guess wrong. It’s time to think seriously
about the ink for your next
set of cards.
This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of Security Today.