Retransfer vs. Direct-to-Card Printers

The announcement of Evolis’s Avansia retransfer printer raises a key question: What is the difference between a retransfer printer and a direct-to-card printer?

Short answer? It’s all about how your design is applied to the printable ID card. One transfers an image that has first been printed onto a thin film; the other prints directly onto the surface of the card (I know! I was surprised too! 🙂 ).

I’ve broken this down into the 4 sub-questions I had when I was first investigating the difference. I really like to know how things work, but if you’re more interested in the differences than the inner-workings, feel free to skip the next section.

What are the methods and how do they work?

retransfer

Image via Ultra Magicard, maker of the Prima 4 retransfer printer.

With retransfer printers, your design (images and text) are printed onto clear film which is then thermally fused to a card, thus transferring your design to the card. This allows the entire image to be applied to the card at once.

On the other hand, direct-to-card printers place the images and text directly onto the card. This is done through a series of passes over the card, sequentially applying yellow, magenta, cyan and black ink (YMCK) to create virtually any color, followed by the application of a clear varnish overlay to protect the printed image.

What are the differences in results?

By laying the film over the card, a retransfer printer is capable of “over-the-edge” printing that maximizes the card’s surface area–if you want a background image that covers the entire card, this is how you get it. This film also acts as a protective barrier that renders the image slightly more durable.  A direct-to-card printer leaves a very thin border around edge, only 2mm or so wide. This is called “near-to-edge” printing, and if you are printing an ID for which the card color itself serves as the background color, this is more than sufficient for those needs.

HID Global, maker of the Fargo HDP5000, says that the retransfer printer creates a sharper, glossier image (a result of the gloss finish of the retransfer film; the clear varnish overlay applied by direct-to-card printers is a slightly matte finish). Plus, the retransfer process is more forgiving of slight imperfections in the card surface, which is important if you print proximity access cards, as there is often a slight “dimple” in the surface areas above and around the internal electronic components. This also is forgiving in situations where an inadvertent fingerprint might be on a card–laying the entire image down with the overlay will completely cover these slight imperfections.

A direct-to-card printer might not correctly render an image over a spot on the card in the desired color(s), or at all, should such imperfections exist. You can protect against some of the causes by ensuring that unused cards are handled carefully by the edges to prevent fingerprints on printable surfaces, and that they are stored in a clean and dry location to avoid dust and surface damage.

What are the similarities?

Both involve application of a full-card image via thermal print-ribbons to the card surface, the retransfer printer just includes an additional step.

Both create durable cards, but are still subject to wear—to get the maximum life out of your card, employ lamination options or protective badge sleeves or holders.

What materials are required?

Retransfer printers need clear retransfer film (on which the card design is printed then fused to the card) in addition to color or monochrome ribbons. Typical designations are: K, YMCK, YMCKK.

Direct-to-card printers use ribbons with an integrated varnish-overlay, applied as the last step in the print process, to protect the image from wear and fading in sunlight. Typically designations are: KO, YMCKO, YMCKO.

The Bottom Line

The retransfer printer helps you maximize your card’s surface, is a little more forgiving of imperfections, and are generally regarded as producing a better, glossier finished card. The direct-to-card printer removes the need for retransfer film and applies your design directly to the card, eliminating a step. Finally, retransfer printers frequently cost somewhat more than direct-to-card printers, so your budget will play a role in deciding which is right for your organization.

At the end of the day, which printer you need is always going to come down to what your own specific requirements are. Hopefully this will help you think through that process.

Questions? Concerns? Not sure what printer is best for you? Call our experts at +1-704-535-5200 or +1-888-485-4696.

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