Friday, February 1, 2008

Retransfer is the new black

Although they do exactly what they are sold to do, my personal preference for beautifully printed photo ID cards is often left wanting when I see output from most "direct to card" printers. I am talking specifically about the "value" lines of printer from the big three manufacturers (Fargo, Zebra, Datacard) that we most often see in customers' security systems. Their price and speed are both very good in terms of value, but the color output is just not up to par for some designers/prepress artists. I remember a looooong conversation with with the staff card office of the University of North Carolina regarding the color blue. The Tarheels know their blue, and it absolutely has to be their blue, or nothing. After printing sample chips of colors on maybe 25-30 cards, we finally arrived at a suitable RGB color for their design. It was exhausting and expensive.
The whole time I was going back and forth with them I was thinking how nice it would be for a desktop card printer to represent the screen images correctly in the finished card. That was 10 years ago. Now, the product I was wishing for is in wide distribution and is coming down in price to a level that almost any user can afford.

Retransfer printers are a different breed than direct-to-card units in that they print on a piece of film (in reverse) and then that film is bonded to the surface of the card. This allows for images to be printed "off the edge" in full bleed. The colors that these retransfer units can achieve is remarkable in comparison to the direct units. Another advantage of the retransfer process is the fact that the card surface (the substrate) does not have to be totally smooth to render a clean image. Bumpy cards like Prox or Mifare are a problem for direct-to-card systems, but retransfer printers have no apparent problem. In terms of image quality, retransfer printers eat the direct-to-card printers for lunch.

The two downsides of using retransfer are cost and speed of production. These units are usually higher priced to the end user, and I think this is largely because the market share is just too small to justify lower prices to drive unit sales. It's a niche inside an already niche market. Fargo (Now known as HID Identity) has taken a pretty bold step in releasing their new lower priced retransfer unit at $3,995 MSRP, where their earlier models were upwards of $6K for a comparable feature set. Fargo's competitors (EdiSecure, Datacard Hi-FX, VDS) may need to follow suit soon.
The speed issue is easily seen when any retransfer printer is run side-by-side against a direct to card unit. The speed drop is largely because of the extra pass associated with retransfer process. Let's say a standard Direct to Card (DTC) printer uses a YMCK ribbon to print a full color 1-sided card. Each time the card passes over the printhead, the ribbon panel puts down one color, or "sublimates" that particular dye panel. A retransfer printer using a YMCK ribbon in conjunction with a retransfer ribbon will have to make the same amount of passes to print the same card, but there is an additional time lag for the transfer of the image to the card. This drags the output time out, and causes the retransfer printer to run about 20% slower than the DTC printer.
This has been combatted by printing in portrait mode (longer side of the card is the leading edge) on some retransfer printers. DIS's EdiSecure printer is a prime example of this. Instead of feeding paper (or cards, in this case) into the unit with the short side leading, they feed with the longer side leading. This cuts down the linear length of the print process, which leads to faster output. Brilliant. It's a patented process that only the VDS style of printer can use, and EdiSecure is one of the VDS printer types. It is the best incarnation of the VDS printer style in my opinion.
I would like to know when the other manufacturers are going to step up and drive a true competitive change in the retransfer printer market. Fargo is currently leading the apparent charge with their HDP5000 unit, and its modular design is pretty darn nice for the price. Zebra, I'm looking in your direction... where's that retransfer printer?
Travis Brewington can be reached via email or via (800) 438-8850, Ext. 111

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