Printing – what you need to know

July 2018

Understanding the basics of Plastic Card printing can make you a more informed consumer. For this reason, we have provided the following introduction to card printing, explaining the basics of the standard technologies available.

Digital card printing, is a one step process in which text, graphics and pictures are physically printed on a card directly from a computer system without any user intervention. These cards are usually the same size as a standard credit card and made of a plastic called Poly Vinyl Chloride otherwise known as PVC. Plastic cards can be printed in monochrome or full colour, front side only or on both sides.

Compared to the traditional method of producing cards, which requires a multi-step photo capture, data print then lamination of paper stock, digital card printing offers a different take on card printing. The technology found in digital card printing offers not only a high quality image and increased security, but a significant cut in the amount of labour and effort required to produce a necessary document.


While there are various methods that can be used for card printing, two of the most common processes are Retransfer and Direct to Card Printing.

Retransfer Printing

Retransfer Printing is one of the latest trends in PVC Card Printing. Printers such as those found with Javelin, Datacard and Fargo offers superior quality imaging and higher level security.


Among the many benefits of this process is the look of the card itself. Vivid colour, photographic detail and full “over the edge printing” brings the card design to life.


Retransfer technology creates a long lasting card, especially ideal for Smart Card personalization. The printer prints the image using dye sublimation onto a Retransfer film. This film is then laminated onto the card surface. Additional overlays adhered to bonding film improve security, as well as increase durability. Custom secure holographic overlays are also available.

Cost savings

With Retransfer printing, cost savings will be realised in several different ways.

  • Firstly, there is an increased yield, especially with cards used for access control. Direct to Card process requires an absolutely flat print surface in order to achieve high quality images. Card handling errors can also contaminate the surface, providing a less than perfect surface. With Retransfer Printing, the image is printed on the reverse side of a clear film, which is laminated to the card. Variations in the surface of the card are no longer an issue.
  • Compared to many of its Direct to Card competitors, Retransfer technology offers a higher per minute print volume. Simply put, time is money.
  • Lastly, Retransfer printing offers reduced repair costs. The film that the print head comes into contact with is a standard thickness, removing the need for the print head to have to move to accommodate thickness variations in the cards. This reduction in wear increases the life of the print head, and decreases the need to pay for replacement parts.

Retransfer printers have two consumable components:
The first is the Printer Ribbon: This ribbon comes in YMCK (Yellow, Magenta, Cyan and Black Resin) format and is used to print all of the images on your card by mixing these colors in a Dye Sublimation process.

The Second component is the Transfer Film. Rather than printing directly on the card itself, the Retransfer printer prints a reverse image on the laminate transfer film and then bonds this material to the face of the card. Since the Retransfer Film is slightly larger than the size of a standard CR-80 card, it is possible to print over the entire surface area of the PVC card without the pesky white border that is required on all other dye sublimation printers.

Direct to Card Printers

Direct to Card Printers are commonly used for mid to entry level security. Printers such as the Javelin Series, Datacard printer rage, and Fargo provide quality on-demand card printing solutions for a variety of card types. Using Direct to Card printers, you can personalize and laminate virtually every type of media including, blank and pre-printed PVC cards, magnetic stripe, proximity, and smart cards and specialty key tags.

How It Works

All direct to card printers feature the same basic printing operations; dye sublimation and/or thermal transfer printing. Both techniques involve a ribbon being heated as it passes under a thermal print head.

The difference is that thermal transfer ribbons heat up and transfer ink onto the plastic card, and dye sublimation ribbons heat up and undergo a chemical change process that turns the ink into a gaseous state which then permeates the plastic card.

The ribbon used in colour dye sublimation printing is divided into three separate colour panels: Yellow, Magenta, and Cyan. This configuration is referred to as YMC. The three colours are the primary colours used in printing to produce all other colours including black.

The dye from the ribbon is applied to the plastic card via a multi-pass operation. This means the card will pass under the print head once for each of the three coloured ribbon panels – applying each colour separately.

The term Dye Sublimation is also referred to as Dye Diffusion. When the Dye on the ribbon is heated by the print head it is transformed from a solid to a gas and diffused onto the plastic card (the card is specially coated to absorb the colour dye). The hotter the elements in the print head, the more dye is converted to a gas and absorbed into the plastic card. At 300dpi, the picture quality and continuous colour tones produced by a dye sublimation printer outperform most laser or ink jet printers with higher resolutions.

The advantage of dye sublimation is the millions of colours that can be created. The colours result from a combination of the panels on the ribbon. By combining these colours and varying the intensity of the heat, providing various shades of each colour, you are virtually unlimited in your colour selection.

Thermal Transfer differs from Dye Sublimation in that Thermal Transfer uses Ink rather than Dye. Both Dye Sublimation and Thermal Ink (sometimes referred to as Resin) can be combined in one ribbon. This ribbon is referred to as an YMCK Ribbon. The letter “K” is the designator for the colour black in the printing industry.

Why do you need a separate black panel, when you can create black by mixing the three basic YMC colours together?

The answer to this question is simple. When black is created by mixing the YMC colours together it creates what is referred to as “Composite Black” Composite Black typically looks muddy or has a greyish tint when compared to Thermal Transfer (TT or resin) black. Composite Black is not recommended for printing bar codes since combining the three colours together does not produce the sharp edge many scanners require (this is invisible to the naked eye but can be observed under magnification).

Composite Black is also invisible to IR scanners since there is no carbon in the dye. Since you may not know what type of scanner will be used, the rule is to always use TT (resin) black to print bar codes.

All printers are capable of printing in monochrome using a single colour ribbon. These ribbons are less expensive than full colour multi-panel ribbons and can be either dye or ink (thermal transfer). The most commonly used monochrome ribbon is “Black” but there are several other colours available including; Red, Green, Blue, and Yellow.


Dye Sublimation ribbons are preferred when you are printing pictures, since they can produce many shades of grey for a smoother look and a better picture quality. A resin black picture normally uses a dithered grey scale (grey made from a combination of pixels which limits the number of shades), producing a coarser, grainy look to the image.

Thermal Transfer (resin) ribbons should be used to print text, bar codes or single colour graphics such as simple logos. Black monochrome ribbons are represented by the letter “K” followed by a lower case “r or d”, (Kr or Kd). The “r” designates a Thermal Transfer ribbon with resin ink. The “d” designates a dye sublimation ribbon.

  • 6 Panel ribbon (YMCKOK) is ideal for printing a full colour card on one side and monochrome on the back.
  • 5 Panel ribbon (YMCKO) is designed for full colour printing on one or two sides.
  • 5 Panel ribbon (YMCKK) laminates with protection from a laminate patch. A clear protective overcoat (O) panel is not necessary because the laminate patch provides sufficient protection.
  • 4 Panel ribbon (YMCK) laminators with protection from a laminate patch. A clear protective overcoat (O) panel is not necessary because the laminate patch provides sufficient protection.
  • 3 Panel ribbon (YMC) is designed for printing full colour on one station; clear protective overcoats or laminates can be applied at the second station.
  • 2 Panel black dye-sublimation ribbon (K dye + O) is one panel each of black and one panel of clear protective overcoat. This ribbon is optimal for printing photo quality, black and white images.
  • 2 Panel black resin ribbon (K resin + O) is one panel each of black and one panel of clear protective overcoat. This ribbon provides the least expensive way to print high quality, monochrome badges with bar codes.

Varnish Overlay and Laminate Ribbons and Laminate Patches

All printed plastic cards containing any useful information are subject to counterfeiting, alteration, duplication and forgery. Varnish overlays and laminates are designed to help eliminate these threats. Card applications subject to these types of card threats should use laminate or varnish overlay to protect the card image.

Protection of a card with varnish overlays and lamination will prolong the life of the card by shielding the printed image from UV light (fading of image), preventing dye-migration, reducing normal wear from handling, and reducing wear to the card image caused by frequent swiping of card through magnetic stripe readers.

This type of media consists of clear and holographic varnish overlays and laminate patches that are specially formulated for exceptional quality in card protection for a projected card life span of 2 to 7 years.