Think Ink

Finding the perfect technology for your cards

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 different ways.

Pigment Inks

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 personalization.

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 important.

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

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 applications.

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, longer-term applications.

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.

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