Direct-to-card vs. Retransfer technology

Written By John Fieldsend

Unsure of the difference between direct-to-card (or dye sublimation) and retransfer printing? It's all in the process of transferring the image onto the PVC card and whether it's printed directly to the card surface or via a thin, clear substrate first. But what are the advantages of using one technology versus the other?

Retransfer printing technology uses a two-step process by first printing the colour images onto a thin clear substrate, then heat transferring this substrate, complete with the printed YMCK image, onto the surface of a PVC, polycarbonate or composite card. Unlike direct-to-card technology, the printhead in a retransfer printer never makes contact with the surface of the card.
Although the dye sublimation used on the direct-to-card printers has advantages over other print methods, the retransfer process has still more – here are the top 5.

  1. Increased durability

With the colour being printed onto the underside of the retransfer film instead of directly on the card, the image is protected by that clear film from direct contact with ID card holders, wallets, magnetic stripe or contact chip machines. The card keeps its original colour and quality much longer than most direct-to-card prints.

  1. Print consistency

Because the retransfer film that is being printed onto is a known and controlled substrate, print quality is more consistent than direct-to-card technology where the variable surface of the PVC card or slightly raised areas such as an embedded contact chip can all impact on print performance.

  1. Designed for volume and long-life

The printhead used in a retransfer printer never touches the surface of the card, making it less likely to be damaged or to malfunction.

In direct-to-card printers, the printhead can be exposed to dust and dirt on the card surface or uneven/poorly constructed PVC cards. If these cards are used in a retransfer printer, they will not cause direct damage to the printhead and print quality will not be affected.

This is because all the printing takes place between the printhead and the retransfer film and the film is then heat transferred to the card surface as a secondary process.

Magicard therefore offers a lifetime warranty for the printhead on its retransfer printers*.

When the film is transferred on to the surface of a smart card with an embedded chip – the film only adheres to the plastic areas of the card surface – ensuring that the chip area is always neatly cut out from the overall print.

  1. Print over the edge of the card

With all direct-to-card printers it is nearly impossible to have a fully edge-to-edge print of a colour image. Magicard’s comprehensive printer driver enables you to make extensive adjustments to get closer than other direct-to-card printers, but there is still likely to be a tiny discernible margin. Retransfer technology uses a slightly larger film to use as a bleed margin – this extends beyond the edge of the card so when it is transferred to the card’s surface it leaves no white margin whatsoever.

  1. More security options

A breakthrough innovation from Magicard means the Helix is the first retransfer printer to offer even more security options than Magicard’s secure direct-to-card printers.

Using an evolution of Magicard’s famous HoloKote security feature, Helix can apply a secure watermark to each card during the retransfer process. This feature also exploits the wavelengths and lens effect of the retransfer film to fluoresce under UV lighting conditions.

Many retransfer printers are combined with an inline laminator to enable the addition of an overlay to the card surface. This further protects the card from wear and fading of the image, mainly for cards which are used frequently or in outdoor environments. Laminates can be overlays or patch. Patch provides a thick protection layer on the card but is not quite edge-to-edge. Overlay provides a thinner protection layer, but is fully edge-to-edge.

Both types of laminates can also be supplied with a customisable holographic security design. This is particularly suited to very high volume secure card printing.

*Available in Europe, North America and other selected territories.