We've learned a lot from 20 years of installing Card Printers. Here's a brief look at the underbelly of the industry.
- Manufacturers don't make their own printheads. There are only a couple of printhead makers in the entire world. Everyone else is a buyer. In fact, these 2 companies make thermal printheads for a wide variety of industries. Manufacturers achieve product differentiation by programming the printhead to produce a particular quality set. In terms of actual hardware, there is little difference. Product differentiation is a result of marketing.
- Claims of colour range capabilities (read "What is a Colour Gamut?") are highly over-rated. Most printers overlap one another in terms of achieving a wide range of colour capabilities. Colour capability overlap is 98%. The other 2% is irrelevant.
- Firmware matters more than hardware. Firmware is the "software" loaded onto the motherboard and other control devices within a printer that precisely control the printers movements, temperatures, speed, pressure etc. All Card Printers use belts, rollers, motors and pulleys to move the card around inside. The difference lies in how precisely you can move the card, and position it for printhead contact and motion.
- Printhead warranties (usually) aren’t worth the paper they are written on. Much of the time, the manufacturer will claim "operator damage" rather than admitting a manufacturing defect. This varies considerably depending on your ID supplier's relationship with the manufacturer. We have built a lot of trust over the years with the manufacturers, who take our word when it comes to printhead failures. You need a strong advocate who can get a printhead replacement on your behalf without complications.
- Many "manufacturers" don’t actually make anything. There are lots of brands, and some cosmetic changes, but the guts are the same. The appearance of competition on the market has a significant impact, but brands like Javelin and Polaroid are nothing more than smoke screens. Remember, if you aren't the manufacturer, your ability to develop product enhancements is non-existant, and you can't support the product the way a manufacturer can.
- Printer manufacturers don't make their own YMCKO ribbons. They send their specifications to one of two factories in the world, and those ribbon makers develop formulas to give the printer manufacturers the qualities they need. A YMCKO ribbon that prints well on a Magicard would not necessarily print well on a Fargo (and vice versa) without significant print density adjustments.
- Printer manufacturers control the distribution of their ribbons using RFID tags that enable the ribbons to work ONLY on their own printers. The RFID tags are unique by geography as well. A ribbon purchased in North American will not work in Asia. One of the reasons for this is to keep profit margins high for their multi-layered dealer channels, many of whom add little value to the sales process.
An obvious question comes from these observations: with so little real product differentiation, how can I make an intelligent decision on my Card Printer purchase?
The most important thing is to take a look at the Company you plan to buy from: Do they understand your program requirements completely? Can they recommend the best printer based on your requirements? Can they integrate the correct components with your Card Printer? Will they support you? Do they advocate for you? Do they stand behind the solution they provide for you?