A customer’s card printer needs depend on a variety of factors, including printing volume and size of the organization.

When selling a card printer, security companies might be integrating an entire ID badging program, and possibly systems that would include integrated access control, time and attendance, employee IDs and visitor management. Determining the right card printer for a specific application starts with assessing the customer’s needs and budget.

Three features customers ask for are security, reliability and ease-of-use when it comes to card printers, says Andy Vander Woude, director of product marketing at Fargo Electronics Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn.

Another sought-after option that is gaining popularity is Ethernet capability, which allows card printers to be placed on a network. “We have seen a huge increase in Ethernet-based printers,” says Bob Anderson, director of worldwide marketing at Zebra Technologies, Camarillo, Calif. “IT departments want to standardize everything through the Ethernet. In some instances they want to share a printer with different workstations. We are seeing more and more interest in that.”

A typical card management system includes software, camera, computer, printer and lighting, if necessary.


When assessing a customer’s card printing needs, dealers should determine what printing technology will work for the application. Two main types of printing technology available are direct-to-card and reverse transfer or retransfer printing. According to manufacturers, direct-to-card is by far the most widely sold type of card printer, though reverse transfer use is increasing as smart card use in the United States continues to grow.

Direct-to-card printing means the card printer prints directly onto the card’s surface. Ideal cards would be PVC, composite, magnetic stripe and barcode cards. “The dye goes underneath the surface of the card,” explains Anderson. Standard plastic cards, called PVC, and composite cards are the most widely used materials for direct-to-card printers. However, Deborah Olson, general manager at Ultra Electronics Card Systems – Magicard, Redmond, Wash., warns that PVC cards risk warping during lamination. Therefore, if dealers find their customers want laminated cards, they can recommend composite cards, which include PVC and other layers, and tend to withstand lamination better, Olson says.

Reverse transfer printers are more expensive than direct-to-card printers. To simplify the process, reverse transfer printers print onto a clear film, which then is adhered to the actual card. “[Reverse transfer] is perfect for smart card applications because the surface of smart cards is not always perfectly flat, and the print head of direct-to-card printers is completely rigid,” Olson says. The surface inconsistencies of smart cards can leave variations in color after printing from a direct-to-card printer, manufacturers say. Therefore, customers using smart cards and requiring a detailed, flawless print job may be likely candidates for reverse transfer printers. The biggest markets right now for the higher-end reverse transfer printers are government and airports, Olson says. Vander Woude explains that Fargo currently is finding the Middle East and Australia to be the biggest markets for its version of reverse transfer printers.

“The decision comes down to the technology level of the card,” Vander Woude says. “If it’s a card that is going to be used as a contact or contactless smart chip, that will dictate your printing technology.”


Card printers traditionally run on Windows drivers, making them compatible with most outside vendor software. “Although we sell a small basics software for smaller applications, most of our printer sales are used with other vendor software,” Olson says. “And most applications will be tied with access control systems.”

Once the dealer decides what type of printing technology the customer wants and the type of cards being used, this will determine encoding options on the printer. Printers are available to encode different technology cards including smart cards and multiple technology cards.

“You can get multiple encoding options on a card printer. So you can encode your old magstripe as well as your new smart cards on the same printer,” Anderson notes.

Other options include automatic feeders for large-volume printing, double-side or oversized card printers, laminators, and a variety of security options preprinted on the card or directly from the printer. Oversized cards typically are used for sporting events or other large social events, Anderson relates. Double-sided printing is a trend that Anderson predicts will continue to increase. “A value-class double-sided printer is so much less expensive than it was two years ago. If you are looking at security, you can print a bigger photo on the front and information on the back. Or you can print the same information on both sides in case the card flips over,” he says.

Security features are available for printer software, and the card printer itself, to thwart unauthorized users and counterfeit cards.


Most manufacturers offer training and technical support for the dealer or integrator installing a card printer. Typically, end users have direct access to the manufacturer of the card printer for technical support or troubleshooting, as well. “There are dealers out there that offer cleaning and maintenance. It depends on the installer’s business plan,” Olson says.

Anderson says that with high-security and mission-critical applications, dealers should be prepared to offer support that includes hot swapping printers when necessary. “In these cases you would automatically replace the printer while fixing the other one,” he explains.

However, Olson stresses that while dealers should know how to troubleshoot via phone for customers, or come out and change a cartridge or ribbon if needed, it is equally important for dealers to educate their customer on the importance of regularly cleaning their card printers. “Cleaning is the main important activity on a printer. The properties of PVC attract dust and dirt like a magnet,” Olson adds.

“We have found that regimenting cleaning the printer dramatically enhances the reliability of the product, so much so that our customers want us to have the printer stop working when it needs cleaning as a reminder,” Anderson says. Keeping the printer clean not only allows it to function at its optimal level, but also extends the life of the card printer.

Sidebar: Just Ask

Dealers and integrators need to ask their customers the right questions to determine the card printer and identity management system for each unique application. Here are questions and tips that manufacturers suggest for finding the right card printer for the application.
  1. Understand the application itself. What type of usage pattern will the customer need the card printer for? Will they print 20 cards each day, every day for a year, or a large volume at one time during the year? Is the customer focused on reliability or performance? How many operators will be connected to the printer, and what volume of information do they plan to use?
  2. What is the level of distribution needed for the application? Does the customer have one or two offices, or 20 offices in 10 states?
  3. Will this be a new card program for the company or will they be upgrading? For a new card program, initially badging an entire population of people and then just badging a turnover or maintenance population later can require different equipment.
  4. What type of printing technology will the customer need? The type of card the customer will be printing on and the budget will determine if the customer wants a direct-to-card printer or a reverse image transfer or retransfer printer.
  5. What is the amount of security the customer needs on the card? Does the customer need security features printed onto the card, preprinted cards with holograms, or laminated cards?
  6. What are the customer’s risk concerns as far as access to the printer and unauthorized usage of the printer? Does the end-user need software and physical security options for the printer?
  7. What type of card longevity is the customer looking for? How long does the customer want the cards to last?
  8. What type of card technology will the customer be using? Do they need smart card encoding capability? Will they be using magnetic stripe or barcode cards, or disposable visitor badges? Does the customer need double-sided printing capabilities?
  9. What are the customer’s expectations of the manufacturer, and the dealer or integrator after the sale? How much does the customer want to spend on maintenance and supplies in the future?

Sidebar: Add-on Security

When assessing your customers’ security needs for an ID badging program, dealers and integrators need to know their options. Add-on security features can help dealers and integrators meet their customers’ needs as well as bring in more revenue. Security options, such as logging users and card information, can be stored within the software of the customer’s badging system. “Most card printers are based on an open architecture to be used with a variety of software,” says Andy Vander Woude, director of product marketing at Fargo Electronics Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn.

“We use standard Windows drivers and most manufacturers do,” says Bob Anderson director of worldwide marketing at Zebra Technologies, Camarillo, Calif. “There are a few exceptions where, in a particular vertical market, a card printer manufacturer might have their own application and the printer is limited to their application only,” cautions Anderson. Dealers can integrate a card printing program with a customer’s access control, or time-and-attendance programs, for a seamless application.

Many card printers today are available with network connectivity, allowing the customer’s IT department to keep track of the card printer just like any office printer. “Software can tell IT that a card is being produced after hours or on the weekend, and keep an online audit trail of usage,” Vander Woude says.

In addition to tracking and logging features through software, tangible security options are available for card printers, as well. “Simple standard security is allowing the printer to be bolted down on a surface,” Vander Woude relates. Many card printers have lockable compartments to store cards and keep them out of unauthorized hands.

“The idea is that regardless of how good your card is, if the issuance of the card is not protected, then the integrity of the whole card program is lost,” he adds. Dealers and integrators can educate their customers on the value of protecting not only the printer, but supplies as well.

Security features are also available preprinted on the card or printed onto the card by the card printer. “Laminating printers help reduce ‘tamperability’ and also extend the life of the card,” Anderson believes. Other options include: Micro text, small text that can be read with a magnifying glass; UV ink and similar inks, which are visible under ultraviolet light; overcoats and watermarks; Guilloche, which is a fine-detail printing of complex images such as those on U.S. dollar bills; and other variations. While most holograms are preprinted on a card before it goes through a card printer, Magicard offers a watermark technology that it calls HoloKote, which can be customized and printed directly on the card during the badge-making process. “Customers get a HoloKote key like a flashcard key in a camera, and it is plugged into a special port on the printer,” says Deborah Olson, general manager at Ultra Electronics Card Systems – Magicard, Redmond, Wash. The key is removable and can be locked up for extra security and to help prevent unauthorized cards from being printed. Magicard’s HoloKote is only compatible with its direct-to-card printers.