Commercial Headlines
News 29 September 2014
Security printing can be within your reach
By Bob Atkinson

In printing, as with any business, when the same products and services are offered by a lot of vendors the competition drives prices down over time. These offerings become commodities, sold on the lowest price and usually for the lowest profit. In a tight financial environment, it pays to offer products and services your competitors don’t. This time, let’s look at two types of specialty printing – one long-standing and one brand-new.

Security printing, designed to verify authenticity and offer protection from tampering or forgery, dates back to the earliest days of printing when papermakers introduced subtle watermarks to identify their products. Today, there are dozens of security methods used in printing. For example,Canadian paper currency is printed on a combination of restricted cotton-fibre paper stock and clear polymer plastic and uses over a dozen printed security measures.

While that level of protection is beyond what most print shops can realistically offer, there are all sorts of services you can add to your shop for secure printing of certificates, ID cards, cheques, receipts, packaging, tamper-evident labels, prescription pads and more. Let’s start with the paper. Many specialty papermakers offer custom watermarked stock—you choose the watermarked image, perhaps a client’s logo, and they deliver paper in bulk in the specified weight and finish style. As with all watermarks, these images are only visible when backlit.

While security features on Canadian money—including raised ink, large window transparencies, metallic portraits, transparent text and frosted maple leaf windows—exceed most printers' abilities, there are score more of much simple security services mosts shops can offer

Next, you can offer microprinting services using coated or smooth-surface paper. Typically, this is a repeating pattern of tiny text characters, numbers or complex line art printed in light ink along with the main image. Traditionally, microprinting required specialized equipment and techniques, like intaglio, mezzotint, etching or engraving. But with today’s highline screen presses (300+ lpi) and high-resolution digital presses you can now offer microprinting quite easily.

The most common way is to create a background image and specify it as a light process or spot colour. That image is laid out first, with the main print image elements laid above it. This background image can be very complex and subtle, but instantly distinguished from a forgery with a magnifying glass or loupe. The small size and pale colour also make it difficult to copy with typical scanners or photocopiers.

One variation of this is the void pantograph, a thin broken-dot pattern in a pale colour that the untrained eye would be hard pressed to see. But, when photocopied, the security image (typically the word ‘Void’) is revealed, thanks to the pattern breaks being filled in by toner.Colour-changing inks are another easy way to add security to your print jobs. Available from a number of suppliers, these inks use pearlescent pigments that appear to be different colours depending on the angle they’re observed from. There are quite a few types available—gold to green or lilac, and green to purple, for example. Handled as a spot colour, they can be used in the main image or as part of a microprint background.

Other specialty inks can be used for secure applications. For example, UV fluorescent spot-colour inks can be clear or one colour in normal light, but become visible or glow in a different colour under a UV lamp. Another approach is to use commercially available toner with magnetic properties, which can be recognized by a low-priced hand scanner. There are also thermochromic inks or toners, which change colour when rubbed with enough friction to heat up beyond their trigger temperatures, usually about 31C.

Security holograms are a highly secure feature for packaging or high-value print products. They’re not actually holograms, technically speaking, but they achieve a similar effect. If you can add foil stamps or clear plastic stamps, you can add this feature. The holograms are made with colourchange ink that switches from very light to dark, depending on the viewing angle.

Typically, you’ll use two or more images printed on separate layers with different colour-change inks. Often, the process uses a polyester metal foil printed with one of the inks as the background, followed by a second image in a different colour-change ink on a clear plastic stamped area above it.You can also use two clear plastic stamped areas on a white or light paper stock.

For example, a driver’s license or other high-security ID card might feature the holder’s photo from the front and the side, alternately appearing as the viewing angle is changed. This effect is extremely difficult to copy. A simpler effect can be achieved by laying down a metalized polyester foil area, then printing a shape in two spot colours overlaid on top. This creates a prismatic effect that, when copied or scanned, will contain obvious banding or blotches, even with a good colour printer or copier.

Halo images are another common security measure, made up of a scatter dot pattern usually printed on blank areas. The pattern is created so as to be visible only through an inexpensive hand-held plastic viewer with a specific grating frequency, such as 80 lpi, on the surface. Similar effects can be achieved with inks that appear or change colour when viewed through polarized plastic, similar to what’s used in the disposable 3D glasses you get in most movie theatres.

Still another security approach is to use a special chemical, either included in paper production or added later as a clear basecoat in the print shop. When a small area is tested later with a separate chemical, the two chemicals react and produce a strong colour change. This general approach is often called ‘false-positive’ testing. If you’re printing double-sided work, a common security measure is the use of two different images, one on each side of the paper, both carefully aligned to interact with each other. On one side of the paper you might have a small line-art version of the client’s logo, and on the other side, a solid colour version. Looking at the piece with a light in the background, the two images combine to form a complete image.

Outfitters of student digs everywhere IKEA took its catalog to a new level a couple of years ago, when it used Augmented Reality to make pictures of its rooms come to life

For other high-security applications, tiny RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips can be attached to each piece with an adhesive. As small as one millimetre across and even thinner, these devices are unnoticeable to the untrained eye, cost just pennies and give off a very faint RF signal detectable by hand-held scanners seen often at retail checkout counters. The chips cost as little as $30.

Now let’s turn from security printing to a couple of recent and related print technologies that can add real value and profit to your work—QR and AR. Both techniques require a camera-equipped mobile phone and a specialized free app. QR (quick response) codes are just small parts of the printed piece, perhaps a couple of centimetres square, printed with black or solid dark ink. Much like bar codes or MICR print characters, these images are created by free or inexpensive software, or with specialized websites.

You enter the desired text (up to 512 characters) and include the print piece’s image. When you open your phone’s QR software and hold it up to the printed piece, the app uses the phone’s camera to capture the image and decode it. The phone screen reveals the hidden text, or opens a related web page. The most common use for this is in packaging or retail POS signage, but it can also be used in print advertising.

AR (augmented reality) is a more sophisticated variation of this. The printing is the same—encoding a bit of hidden text, code or a URL—but when the phone captures the image, almost any result can be generated directly in the app or through a connected web page.

For example, both Disney and Marvel use retail product packaging and POS signs with printed codes readable with their free mobile apps. Hold your phone up to the Captain America action figure packaging or sign, and the superhero comes to life onscreen with a special video or animation. Sony does the same thing with its consumer electronic products, triggering a short video extolling the product’s virtues or special offers. These are extremely effective POS and print advertising methods, all enabled by simple printing. 

Bob Atkinson is a technology consultant with graphic art and publishing clients all over North America.

*This article was first published in the December 2013 edition of Graphic Monthly.*
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