Everything you need to know about making ID cards - in 10 min or less!

September 99 Access Control & Identity Management

People have been creating and using identification cards since before the turn of the century. Prior to the early 1990s, the most common method of producing an ID card was known as the composite or film-based method. This simply involved taking a persons' photo, cutting it out and laminating it to a card sized piece of paper containing the persons name, ID number and any other personal information.

Although the initial investment for a film-based system was relatively low, the time, labour, and individual cost per card was high. More importantly perhaps, these cards were easily counterfeited. As a result, a new method called digital printing began to arise during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The new way to make ID cards

Today, digital printing has become the technology of choice for the majority of organisations issuing identification cards - and with good reason. Digital ID card systems are growing increasingly affordable, are easy to use and offer a host of benefits including:

p Ultra-fast production times (complete, full-colour photo ID badges in as fast as 17 s).

p Low cost per card.

p Single-step, high definition printing or direct-to-card printing.

p Unlimited card design possibilities .

p Unlimited colour options.

p Automatic magnetic stripe, bar code or proximity/smartcard options (for access control, time and attendance, etc).

p Powerful database options (for employee, student or membership records or reporting).

p Highly durable cards.

p Difficult to counterfeit.

p Faster, easier badge replacement.

p Far less labour.

The list goes on and on. But to truly understand the benefits of digital printing you should understand how it works. It is surprisingly simple.

How a digital ID card system works

Digital ID card systems are made up of basically four components, namely the processing computer, the software application, a digital camera and a digital printer.

The software allows you to create an ID card design and enter all the information you would like to appear on the ID card. The digital camera captures a person's photo and automatically loads it into the software application. The digital printer takes all the text, photos, and images from the application and prints them directly onto a plastic ID card. And lastly, the computer ties the system together.

Digital printing really is a fast, efficient and easy way to produce ID cards. And the results are outstanding as the following list of typical features of digital ID cards attests. Digital ID cards boast:

p Clear continuous tone photos.

p Full colour graphics and logos.

p Edge to edge printing.

p Sharp 300 dpi text.

p Unique photographic backgrounds.

p Holographic security features.

p Bar codes.

p Smart chips.

p Magnetic stripes.

p 2-D bar codes.

p Automatic front and back side printing.

How digital ID card printers work

If you are among the truly curious, you may wonder how digital ID card printers, such as Fargo's, actually get those ID images onto plastic cards. Well, this is easier than you might expect. Fargo ID card printers utilise two different, yet similar, technologies called high definition printing (HDP) and direct-to-card printing.

High definition printing (HDP)

Unlike direct-to-card printing, Fargo's high definition printing technology prints images onto a special HDP film which is then fused into the surface of a card through heat and pressure (see diagram). Because the graphics and text are printed on the underside of the HDP film, the image is essentially sandwiched between the highly durable film and the card. The advantages to high definition printing are exceptional print quality, extreme durability and the ability to print on virtually any card size or type.

Printed image, HDP film, blank card - film and card are fused together forming a virtually tamper-proof bond

Direct-to-card printing

With traditional direct-to-card technology, the image prints directly onto the surface of the card. While this is not as durable as HDP technology, an overlaminate may be applied for additional card protection. During the direct-to-card printing process, a blank card is fed into the printer and passed beneath a ribbon containing hundreds of thermal elements. The elements are heated by the printhead then transferred to the hard surface of the card to create the image.

There are two ways in which both HDP and direct-to-card printers are able to print onto cards. These are called dye-sublimation and resin thermal transfer.


Dye-sublimation is the process Fargo printers use to print smooth, continuous-tone images that look truly photographic. This process uses a dye-based ribbon roll that is partitioned by a number of consecutive colour panels. The panels are grouped in a repeating series of the three process colours - yellow, magenta and cyan (YMC) - along the entire length of the ribbon.

During printing, a blank card is fed into the printer and passed beneath a printhead containing hundreds of thermal elements. These elements heat the dyes on the ribbon which then vaporise and diffuse into the surface of the card. The card makes a separate pass for each of the three colour panels on the ribbon. By combining the colours of each panel and by varying the heat used to transfer these colours, the printer is able to produce up to 16,7 million, photorealistic colours.

Resin thermal transfer

Resin thermal transfer is the process Fargo Printers use to print sharp black text and crisp bar codes which can be read by both infrared and visible-light bar code scanners. It is also the process used to print ultra-fast, one-colour ID cards. Like dye-sublimation, this process uses the same thermal printhead to transfer colour from the ribbon roll to the card. The difference, however, is that solid dots of colour are transferred in the form of a resin-based ink which fuses to the surface of the card when heated. This produces very durable, single-colour images.

Resin black panels are included on Fargo's full-colour dye-sublimation ribbons so that you can automatically print both dye-sublimation and resin images on the same card. This gives cards the benefits of both technologies. Resin-only ribbons are also available in black, or in a variety of other colours, for printing economical one-colour cards in as fast as 5 s. These ribbons consist of a continuous roll of a single resin colour and can produce up to 1000 cards.

Do you need ID cards?

Once you understand how digital ID cards are made, you may still find yourself wondering, "Does my organisation or school really need ID cards?" This is an important question and one that can be answered only by you and your colleagues. There are, however, a few things to consider which may help you make your decision.

The most basic reason for ID cards is simply to identify people. So, ask yourself why you need to identify people. Most schools or organisations identify people for safety or security reasons. ID cards identify which people are authorised to be in or around your facility and which people are not.

Unauthorised visitors can be a nuisance, a distraction or even a threat to your employees, students, members or customers. They can also be costly if they are using your equipment or services without permission or without paying the necessary fee.

"In this regard, the question simply becomes do you have people, equipment, or services you would like to protect? If the answer is yes, ID cards can be an extremely effective solution."

Another primary reason for ID cards is convenience and efficiency. Today's digital ID cards can include bar codes, magnetic stripes, or even small computer chips called smart chips. These extra features provide a host of automated applications you may not have even considered. For example, ID cards can be used for controlling access to restricted areas such as rooms, buildings or parking lots. They can also be used for controlling access to equipment such as computers, copy machines or fax machines.

If your facility has (or is) a cafeteria or store, ID cards can provide credit and debit programs for students, employees or customers. Today's ID cards can even be used for phone cards, for checking time and attendance or for regulating admission to sporting events, theme parks, resorts, clubs and much more.

Today's organisations save time, money and hassle through the effective use of digital ID card features. And they don't necessarily all start with the most feature laden options available. If you don't have a need for such features right away, your digital ID cards can easily be upgraded at any time to include one or all of the more advanced options.

For details contact Teltron Digital on tel: (011) 887 1600 or fax: (011) 887 5552.

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