Understanding The Difference Between ID Card Printing Technologies
When it comes to printing PVC plastic ID cards, there are several alternative technologies available, each with its own pros and cons. Here are the most commonly used print technologies for PVC plastic ID cards.
Keep in mind that on-demand card printing involves printing and personalizing individual cards one-by-one, which is quite different from bulk printing of large quantities of identical cards.
The highest quality printing available is offset printing, however this technology can only be used at the location where the PVC plastic cards are being manufactured. It is the technology used for pre-printing credit cards, gift cards, and in other similar high-volume card issuance situations. It is only appropriate for large runs of cards, where all data is available in advance, with minimum runs of several thousand cards.
Extremely clear and precise color definition and color matching
Durable, long-lasting print quality
Very low per-card cost
Only appropriate for printing where each card is the same
Direct-to-card (DTC) printing, as the name suggests, prints the design directly onto the surface of the PVC card using a thermal print head. This process transfers colored dye or resin-based ink onto the card. During the Direct-to-Card printing process, panels of color ink (generally Y-M-C-K, or Yellow-Magenta-Cyan-Black) are applied directly to the card surface.
Fast and efficient printing method
Suitable for low to medium volume printing
Allows for full-color printing, including photographs and complex designs, with each card being different
Generally more affordable compared to other printing methods
Lower print quality compared to other printing technologies
One or more thin white bands which are unprintable on card edges (not fully edge-to-edge)
Limited color accuracy and inability to reproduce complex gradients.
Prone to scratching and fading over time.
Retransfer Printing (also known as Reverse Transfer)
Reverse transfer printing involves printing the card design onto a clear film, which is then thermally bonded to the PVC card surface using heat and pressure. During the thermal retransfer printing process, panels of color ink are heat-sealed to the specialized substrate in reverse. This substrate then becomes the exterior layer of the card, with the ink sealed between the clear coating and the card body.
Provides exceptional print quality, sharpness, and color accuracy
Can print on various card colors and finishes, including textured cards or cards whose surface is not smooth (like Prox or RFID cards)
Allows for full-bleed printing, extending the design to the card edges
Offers excellent durability and resistance to wear and tear
Typically more expensive than other printing methods due to specialized equipment and consumables
Slower compared to direct-to-card printing
Requires additional steps for film lamination and card application, which can be error-prone and thus result in more re-prints required
Inkjet printing involves using inkjet technology to apply liquid ink droplets directly onto the PVC card surface. It typically utilizes pigment-based inks for improved durability. Special inks are required to adhere to the non-porous surface of the PVC card.
Relatively inexpensive compared to other printing methods
Excellent for variable data printing, such as names, serial numbers, or barcodes
Suitable for printing on different card colors and finishes
Lower print quality compared to other technologies, especially in terms of sharpness and color accuracy
Prone to smudging if not properly dried or sealed
Limited durability and susceptibility to fading and scratching
David Finkelstein is the founder and CEO of InstantCard. David has deep experience with smartcard technologies and NFC, as well as other auto-identification technologies. He has extensive international sales, marketing and Business Development experience.