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How do plastic card printers work? | The ultimate guide

How do plastic ID card printers work?

How do plastic card printers work? If you need to create photo ID, print onto access control cards or create any form of printed plastic card, it’s a question you might be asking.

Also known as ID card printers, plastic card printers are specifically designed to print directly onto cards made from PVC, ABS and recycled material to name but a few. There are several different technologies on offer, and understanding how they all work can help you decide which type is best for you.

But let’s start with the basics.


How do plastic card printers work?

What are the main types of ID card printers?

There are three main categories of plastic card printers available in 2021. These include:

  • Direct-to-card plastic card printers (the most well-known method)
  • Retransfer plastic card printers (produces more durable cards)
  • Inkjet plastic card printers (a new technology for 2021)

The process they use differs from the regular paper printer sat on your desk. This is because the vast majority of them (except inkjet) use a printer ribbon instead of an ink cartridge.

These ID card printer ribbons are consumable item (similar to an ink cartridge) and contain different coloured panels that are capable of producing a full spectrum of colours. The most common printer ribbon is the YMCK ribbon. That means it includes Yellow (Y), Magenta (M), Cyan (C), Black (K). This is all that’s needed for your printer to create a vivid colour print. The ribbon prints colours one-by-one, with it running over the same card multiple times.


How do plastic card printers work?

The three different types of ID card printer use different techniques to create a printed plastic ID card. So let’s investigate.

DTC printers

Direct-to-card plastic card printers

Direct-to-card is the most well-known technology for creating printed ID. Once the printer is loaded with the print ribbon, it passes under a printhead that uses heat to warm the ribbon. Once the correct temperature is reached, it will deposit ink directly onto the card itself. The printer ribbon is controlled by two spools in the printer, allowing it to pass over the card multiple times until the design is fully printed onto the plastic card.

Once complete, the printed card will exit the printer. Most direct-to-card printers can produce more than 16.1 million colours, and most have a print quality of between 300dpi and 600dpi (dots-per-inch). It is a well-known and versatile method, and remains the most used technology in the card printing world, despite newer and more reliable technologies increasing in popularity.

Beware: Because the printhead comes into direct contact with the card, you cannot print onto access control cards such as HID and MIFARE products with a direct-to-card printer. You can read more about the pros and cons of these machines in our direct-to-card printers guide, but despite their shortcomings are still a good choice for creating simple, non-secure cards quickly and efficiently.

Retransfer printers

Retransfer plastic card printers

A retransfer plastic card printer still uses a printer ribbon, but it uses a laminate overlay method to create a more secure and durable ID compared to a direct-to-card machine. Like the printer ribbon, the laminate overlay is a consumable item that needs to be purchased.

The printhead in a retransfer machine uses the ribbon to print a design onto the laminate overlay. A combination of pressure and heat then securely adheres the printed overlay to the plastic card. Unlike direct-to-card printer machines, because the printhead does not come into contact with the card, they can print on to access control cards such as HID and MIFARE products. The way retransfer machines work means the quality of these cards are exceptional and are far better at dealing with wear and tear than direct-to-card-produced cards. They are the more expensive option though. You can read more about them in our full retransfer ID card printers guide.

Inkjet ID Card printer

Inkjet plastic card printers

Does using a printer ribbon sound complicated? Then you may be best opting for an inkjet plastic card printer. There aren’t many on the market at the moment, with the technology being a new addition for 2021. Put simply, inkjet card printers do away with ribbons and use a technology similar to an inkjet card printer.

That means they use a snap-in cartridge rather than a ribbon. It hasn’t been an option before because using inkjet tech for printing onto plastic used to be complicated. There was often a problem with the way the ink adhered to the card. However, recent developments mean this isn’t a problem anymore, with the Fargo INK1000 using a specially formulated alcohol-based ink. Its uniqueness sets it apart at the moment, but expect similar products to hit the market soon.

Sound interesting? Our inkjet ID card printing guide explains exactly how it all works.


Looking to purchase your first ID card printer?

We hope this guide has given you a solid introduction to how plastic card printers work. Need more info on which would be the best ID card printer type for you? Check out our post on the ones to have in 2021 here.

If you’re looking to purchase a printer, you can find our full range on our ID card printers page, including our bundles which have everything you need to kickstart your ID issuance system.