The Manufacturing of Credit and Debit Cards
Have you ever wondered about the manufacturing process for making plastic debit and credit cards? Originally they were made of cardboard or celluloid, with American Express introducing plastic cards in 1959. Today they consist of many plastic layers, laminated together. The cards are often first manufactured into large sheets that are subsequently cut into individual cards. The center of each card is commonly made from a plastic resin called polyvinyl chloride acetate (PVCA). This resin is then mixed with other materials, including dyes and plasticizers, to give it the desired appearance and feel. A variety of dyes and inks made especially for use with plastic, in various colors, are used in the manufacturing process.
For the swipe strip on the back, often called a magstripe, a magnetic ink is used. This ink is made by dispersing magnetic iron oxide particles in the appropriate solvents. Each magnetic particle is a tiny bar magnet. The magstripe is a film, which is very similar to a cassette tape. The magstripe can be “written” because the bar magnets can be magnetized in either a north or south pole direction. A magstripe reader understands the three tracks on the magstripe, which contains the encoded data, which is your personal banking information. If the magstripe is exposed to a magnet, such as on a refrigerator, the card’s information can be erased.
The first step in the manufacturing process is the compounding and molding of the plastic. To make the plastic for the core sheet, PVCA is combined and melted with other materials. This molten mix is then placed in the molding equipment, then flattened by passing it through rollers. The plastic sheet is then allowed to cool.
Each sheet is then engraved with text and graphics by a printing machine. Silk screening printing is often the process used. Each sheet of cards is then placed in a stamping machine, which stamps account numbers on the cards.
Now the magstripe is placed on the card, which could be done either by the process called hot stamping or magnetic ink printing. The next step is laminating both sides of the sheet, which strengthens and protects the card Then the sheet is cut into 63 individual credit or debit cards and could be embossed with additional numbers and other information. Since the magnetic particles must be on the surface to be read by a magstripe reader, the coding and decoding is done after lamination. Magnetic heads are used to code and decode the magnetic iron particles in the swipe strip.
The next generation of credit and debit cards is just beginning to be introduced in America. They will carry integrated computer chips that contain much information. It will make the cards more useful and secure.
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[Previously published on the Francois and Associates company blog]