Understanding how card printers work is essential to appreciate their capabilities and limitations. This guide provides an overview of the process and technology behind card printers, ensuring you can set realistic expectations for their performance.

Overview

Unlike conventional desktop printers that use liquid ink or toner to print on paper, card printers use a combination of heat and pressure to transfer ink from a ribbon into the card’s surface. Two primary technologies are involved in this process: Dye Sublimation and Thermal Printing.

Dye Sublimation Printing

Dye sublimation printing is the primary method used by card printers. This technology involves heat-sensitive ink that is coated onto a ribbon.
A print head heats the ink on the ribbon, causing it to turn into gas. Under pressure, this gas permeates the plastic card’s surface, effectively staining it with the ink’s color.
By adjusting the heat settings, the printer can control the amount of gas that permeates the card, creating various shades of the ink color. Combining different primary colors (cyan, yellow & magenta) through an additive process allows the printer to produce a wide range of colors and achieve high-quality, vibrant prints.

Thermal Printing

Thermal printing is another method used by card printers, particularly for specific colors and text.

This technique involves melting and fusing the ink on the ribbon onto the card surface using heat. It is commonly used for the black (“K”) panel of the ribbon and for printing spot colors like metallic gold and silver.

Unlike dye sublimation, thermal printing does not produce shades of color and is primarily used for text and simple graphics.

Protective Overlay

To protect the printed image, card printers apply a clear protective varnish known as the overlay or “O” panel.

This overlay seals the sublimated ink into the card surface, preventing it from sublimating out over time, which would cause the image to fade or disappear.

Key Considerations

Card Quality: The cleanliness and quality of the plastic cards used are crucial for achieving high-quality prints. Any dust or imperfections on the card can affect the final print.

Edge-to-Edge Printing: While many manufacturers claim their printers can print “edge to edge,” it is generally advisable to leave a small white or unprinted border around the card’s edge. This practice reduces the risk of ribbon cuts due to the “scissor action” between the print head and the card edge when the heated head passes over it. For true edge-to-edge printing, consider pre-printing the cards or using a re-transfer or indirect card printer.

By understanding these key aspects of card printer technology and operation, you can better manage your expectations and ensure optimal performance from your card printing equipment.

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