Deciphering the choices: matching applications to printers

Friday, August 1, 2003

In today’s environment of more security now, dealer customers need identification cards - for access control, employee photo ID badges, driver’s licenses, government identification programs, loyalty cards or myriad of other applications - immediately. Cards must be available on the spot, printed at the source, ready to use at once. And, most cards will be used for more than one application, regardless of their original goal, migrating to or from a security role, a great opportunity for dealers to achieve a recurring revenue stream.

Whatever the application, there are a variety of card enhancements that dealers can promote to achieve objectives and the corresponding digital card printers that will most economically produce the finished product. To determine which printer to choose, decide what is needed on the finished card, how many are needed and how it will be used. In broad categories, these items need to be established: color or monochrome printing, single- or dual-sided printing, encoding of magnetic stripes or smart card chips, volume – the number of cards needed per day or year, and how rugged or durable the finished cards must be and tamper-resistance considerations.

So what types of considerations are there when shopping for a card printer?

Versatility in printers

Every year, Cheryl Passmore, computer support specialist at Cleveland Hill Union Free School District in Cheektowaga, N.Y., prints up to 1,700 personalized color plastic badges with photo, barcode and an identifier for any major medical problems, such as seizures. Badges are printed for all teachers, staff and students, and even issued to temporary workers, including construction people. The rule at Cleveland Hill is simple – no badge, you don’t belong here. Besides teacher and staff access control to all authorized doors in the district, the badges are also used to administer breakfast and lunch programs as well as library services.

For Rite Aid, whose Mid-Atlantic distribution center serves about 760 stores, is about 1 million square feet and houses 1,400 employees, each badge has a picture on the front and a barcode on the back. With a standing order of 20 to 30 new hires each week and the re-issuing of lost cards or those in need of repair, Rite Aid produces 150 to 200 badges per month.

Rite Aid prefers creating its own cards, using them for applications beyond security. An identification number, access control number and time punch number are printed on each card. With the cards, Rite Aid can track all swipes and tell exactly what an employee has done within the past eight hours. Records are kept, detailing an employee’s work the entire time they’ve been with Rite Aid.

Color or monochrome

In many instances, an organization is provided pre-printed cards that only need one color (usually black) text and/or graphic highlights. Perhaps they need the name of the recipient, a bar code and/or an identifying number. Note, even though this is monochrome printing, one’s imagination is not limited. The issuer could include a signature or a fingerprint.

Other cards may need to be printed from blank plastic card stock or be color coded for different identification needs. Rite Aid might make the border for one temporary agency in yellow and another in green. Maybe you would want to highlight cards so guards can quickly determine who is allowed where. Of course, pictures of employees really need to be in color. The need for color requires a different printer than one that only prints a single color.

Single/dual-sided printing

The real basic issue on this feature is time. Many companies needing only a few cards a day use a single-sided printer and run each card through twice. In fact, the single-sided digital printer is the workhorse of the industry.

Encoding magnetic stripes or smart card chips

If the application calls for magnetic stripes or smart card chips, they have to be encoded with data that relates to the visual (printed) personalization. It makes no sense to print the card on demand and then encode as a separate process because of the risk of encoding personalization data that may not correlate with the visual data personalization. On-demand card printers provide optional magnetic stripe encoders and many printers have optional smart card contact stations.

Card printing volume

There are several volume breaks – based on the number of cards printed per year – that help companies determine which printer will be best. These breaks typically fall at less than 12,000 cards, between 12,000 to 30,000 cards, and over 30,000 cards. A top of the line printer that prints on both sides and includes a dual-sided laminating station can run 120 cards per hour.

A card can take about 300 swipes through a magnetic stripe reader before it is scratched. After laminating, the same card can withstand 50,000 swipes.

Therefore, many printers have the capability to apply protective overlay varnish with or without holograms. This application is adequate for cards that need to last less than two years.


To prevent counterfeiting, alteration or duplication, there are some techniques companies can use with digital printers. They can deploy multiple security images or holograms. One security image alone increases the difficulty of counterfeiting; two makes it at least twice as hard. Multiple screenings of the same photograph increase integrity. Unique graphic identifiers, such as allowing only the red-bordered cardholders to access the airport’s tarmac, help differentiate security levels.

New capabilities

There are also new intelligent card printers that employ RFID technology to automatically detect printer compatibility, determine ribbon cartridge type, provide automatic driver configuration and show the number of panels remaining.

From a security standpoint, intelligent printers deploying RFID technology and ribbons can stop counterfeiting. It will be virtually impossible for unauthorized personnel or thieves to print illegal cards because the printer’s intelligent control feature will operate only when a specific RFID-tagged ribbon is detected. Other new features include a passcode system that foils unauthorized use and disables the printer if the user is not authorized.

In determining which printer is correct for your application, translate what you are attempting to achieve with your new card system into the variables discussed. Don’t forget to brainstorm with your customer what some new additional applications could be. Almost all card programs tend to migrate. Discuss how sophisticated their card needs to be and how much time they will have to print the cards they need on demand.

Jennifer A. Sylvestre is marketing communications manager at Zebra’s Eltron Card Printer Products. With the company since 1992, she manages partner communications.