ID Badges & Cards: Understanding Printing Technology

By 2009/08/16ID Cards

ID Badge and Card Printers are easy to use devices, which compare well with consumer printers in their ability to be used straight out of the box. However, as most card printers work quite differently from ink-jet and laser printers, it’s worth understanding a bit about their technology.

Dye Sublimation

Dye sublimation or dye-sub, is the most common technology used.Thermal printing is used to place layers of dye into the ID badge surface. In dye sublimation printing, colors are not laid down as individual dots, as is done in inkjet printers. Dye sublimation makes photos in particular look more realistic.

Inside a dye sublimation printer is a roll of transparent film that resembles sheets of red, blue, yellow, and gray colored cellophane stuck together end to end. Embedded in this film are solid dyes corresponding to the four basic colors used in printing: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. The print head heats up as it passes over the film, causing the dyes to vaporize and permeate the glossy surface of the card before they return to solid form. The vaporized colors permeate the surface of the card, creating a gentle gradation at the edges of each pixel, instead of the conspicuous border between dye and card produced by inkjets. And because the color infuses the card, it is also less vulnerable to fading and distortion over time.


The printer creates the ID badges by placing layers of dye in the following order: Yellow: (Y) Magenta: (M) Cyan: (C) Black: (K) or Resin black Clear: (O) or Overcoat The colored image is a combination of the Y, M, & C layers which also produce a form of black. The K Resin layer allows very sharp defined black text, barcodes etc. to be added. The Overcoat layer acts as a protective film against wear and fading and can also carry a secure image, which cannot be photocopied – e.g. the Magicard Holokote security watermark.

Reverse Transfer With reverse transfer, the printer prints on the reverse of a transparent PVC re-transfer film, which is then laminated onto the ID Cards & Photo Badges. This protects the image from handling damage and produces a brilliant edge-to-edge image. The quality and durability of the finished card is similar to that achieved by an off-set printing process but with the advantage that every card can be different. Because the re-transfer film is laminated onto the face of the card, it is possible to print right to the edge, unlike dye sublimation printers which print almost to the edge leaving a small (less than 0.5mm) white border. Lamination ID badge and card lamination involves putting a clear layer of PVC over the card surface. Lamination is used to protect the card image, particularly where the card is regularly swiped through a magnetic stripe reader, where lamination will allow 10,000’s of swipes before any visible wear of the image occurs. ID card Lamination is either done at the same time as printing (with reverse transfer printers) or separately with a dedicated laminator. For added security, laminate films containing an optical security logo or hologram are available.