You see them everywhere – in schools, hospitals, corporations and fitness clubs: ID cards ranging from simple name badges to fully functional access control cards, or, at an even higher level, drivers’ licenses and national identification cards. With an array of information including names and barcoded access codes printed onto plastic rectangles, the cards have become useful tools to enhance security and manage access to corporate sites and administrative buildings.

According to the market report “Smart Cards Market – Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Trends and Forecast 2014 – 2020” published by Transparency Market Research, the market was valued at 6.6 billion USD in 2013 and is expected to reach 11.9 billion USD by 2020. While the cards have proven to be useful in many environments, the printing process has to fit the desired functionality and layout of the card.

Choosing the right printing process wasn’t a concern to many companies until recently since outsourcing had been the only option when it came to most company’s ID card needs. As less expensive high quality printers became available in recent years, more and more organizations are printing in-house. This provides a way to improve existing ID card systems and have more control over production, making the process faster and more easily adjustable to temporary or urgent changes.


While there are many models available for lower volume use including Magicard Pronto, the Zebra ZXP series1, the Fargo C50 and the Evolis Zenius Expert, among others, some printers are better suited for single-sided and others for double-sided printing. A more advanced option is a reverse transfer printer that first prints card content onto a special film that is later applied to the card. This process is useful for printing cards with embedded electronics or other features that result in irregular shapes and surfaces.

Most ID card printers use dye sublimation printing, also known as direct-to-card (DTC) printing. These types of printers infuse the color from the printer ribbon into the card using heat from the printhead. One advantage is that the cards are dry and ready to go when they come out of the printer without the risk of smearing, as can be the case with inkjet or laser printers. Some dye sublimation printers have a monochrome re-writable mode, which can print on special re-writable cards without using any additional supplies. Re-writable cards are thermo-sensitive and can be printed, erased, and re-printed up to 500 times.

Most printers offer several security options as well. Magicard printers provide a hologram-like watermark called HoloKote that helps prevent unauthorized ID card duplication. Other printers offer lamination, which sometimes allows to embedd holograms to also help prevent fraud.

Even though layout, printing quality and protection are important features, the most crucial functionality is the ability to embed information. Here, cards rely on bar codes, magnetic stripes, proximity technologies and other smart card technologies, allowing cards to be used with existing programs for access control, memberships and even cashless payments. Most printers offer these options. For more advanced security needs, it is possible to combine smart cards with biometrics such as finger or retina prints and a pin code, thus providing three layers of security. As technologies especially for near-field communications and biometrics evolve, printed smart cards could become even more ubiquitous.