The widespread use of smart cards in today’s society means that the banking and identity industries order billions of them every year. Card manufacturers and personalisation companies are responsible for delivering an extremely robust and reliable end product, which means taking decisions on standards, quality and production methods. Smart cards are often classified based on their connection technology: contact, contactless, hybrid or dual interface, which all require a specific production process. Once a card type has been chosen, switching to a different one can become a very difficult and expensive process. Electromagnetic coupling can remove this barrier to facilitate the migration from one interface to another.
Four connection technologies
This article discusses the four technologies from a manufacturing perspective and how electromagnetic coupling may provide manufacturers and their clients with new possibilities.
For the production of contact cards, card manufacturers can use the same card body that is used for non-electronic cards. The material can be polycarbonate (PC), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or a composite. The next step consists of embedding the module into the card. During the final step, the personalisation process, each card becomes unique with a card number, photo, and the cardholder’s name. The graphic personalisation options are magnetic stripe, signature panel and hologram.
For the production of contactless cards, the card manufacturer will buy the required modules and antennas, which are supplied on a material support, such as PVC, PC or Teslin. Based on his client’s requirements, the manufacturer will ask for a specific chip on a specific material, which is compatible with his own card construction and manufacturing process.
Compared to contact cards, options for card body lamination are limited. The colour photo, for example, should not cover the chip area of the card and embossing is limited. This means that for a contactless card a new graphic design has to be created. An end client cannot simply provide one that was originally created for a contact card.
The process of creating a hybrid card is similar to that of creating a contactless card, but involves embedding the contact module. The price of hybrid cards varies depending on the manufacturing process, and can often be relatively high.
Dual interface cards
Dual interface technology refers to a connection between the module and the antenna on the card. There are many (patented) processes to accomplish this, but one of the major challenges remains the card’s reliability. The weak spot of dual interface cards is often the connection between the module and the antenna.
A new solution for dual interface cards is fast becoming the preferred choice of banks: electromagnetic coupling. This inductive coupling solution is widely recognised by the major actors in the smart cards world, as there has been major interest for this new ‘industrial solution’ for smart cards.
In 2011, at the Cartes and Identifications trade show in Paris, this contactless solution , received a Sesame award in the Identification/ID cards category for innovation excellence, which was demonstrated by the company’s Embedded Contactless Module technology.
However, this technology has another advantage, a highly relevant one for card manufacturers: the possibility to integrate this technology within their existing production lines. It allows card manufacturers who currently make contact cards, to also produce dual interface cards in their factories – without extra cost, equipment or a change in materials. How does that work?
The answer is: by integrating a very thin antenna material (40 µm) into the card body. This allows them to use many types of card body material (PVC, PC, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and composites) and implement many types of graphic personalisation or security features.
So why not use this method for other smart cards?
By embedding these dedicated modules, any manufacturer of contact cards can now also produce contactless, dual interface and hybrid cards. Moreover, electromagnetic coupling allows them to produce any of these four interfaces on a single production line and offer their customers more flexibility.
The main advantages of hybrid cards are the ‘physical’ separation of the chip (which contains the secure personal information), and the chip’s flexibility in terms of services. Although for security reasons there is a real interest in hybrid cards, the complicated manufacturing process and the high unit price remain barriers to a more widespread adoption. However, if a card manufacturer were able to embed a single module with two chips – one connected to contactless and one to the contact module – then the process would become the same as that of creating a contact or dual interface card.
Electromagnetic coupling is quickly becoming the standard for dual interface cards because of its high reliability, but in years to come it could also become the standard for contactless and hybrid cards, partly due to the increased efficiency and flexibility in production processes.
|Start production of residence cards (contactless)
|Start legislative process on hybrid e-ID Production of officers cards (police) in hybrid mode
|Start production e-DL(contactless)
|Start production of first e-card for military personnel, with a dual interface
|Ready for new requests
During the production of contactless or hybrid cards, the chip is integrated before card lamination – the chips are collated with the printed sheets. However, due to the printing process, the yield after lamination is not very high (around 90%). That means that 10% of the cards are scrapped after lamination, which also means a waste of 10% of all chips. With the electromagnetic coupling solution, only the antenna has to be integrated into the card body before printing. The chip module is embedded just before personalisation. As a result, the yield of the chips is much higher at around 99.8%.
What about dual interface?
Contrary to traditional technology, the antenna used for inductive coupling has the shape of a closed loop, so it has its own resonant frequency. As a result, it is very easy to control without contact. The antenna control can now take place in-line between milling and embedding. So with the inductive coupling solution, manufacturers can achieve a chip rate of 99.8% similar to that of a contact card. As other technologies do not allow control of the antenna before the embedding, the wastage involved in adding a contactless interface is generally higher.
In order to demonstrate the advantages of interface ‘migration’, here are some examples with regard to cards produced for the French government (see Figures 2 and 3). During the last 10 years, various national ID projects were launched that involved the implementation of electronic ID cards. These included residence cards, driving licenses, military personnel cards and officials’ cards for the French Ministry of the Interior. At the start of these projects, the French state printing house (the Imprimerie Nationale Group) chose the electromagnetic coupling option and easily managed to produce these products with various interfaces.
The contactless solution was used for the residence cards since 2010 and was briefly used for the electronic driving license at the beginning of 2013. The Ministry of the Interior currently uses the hybrid solution for their officials’ cards. The dual interface solution was chosen for military personnel cards in 2014.
All of these cards (contact, contactless, hybrid and dual) are made of polycarbonate and are produced on one single production line from the lamination process to personalisation.
The electromagnetic coupling solution enables card manufacturers to easily switch from one solution to another, be it contact, contactless, hybrid or dual interface, without having to worry about extra cost or delays to their project. This makes the manufacturer’s products more flexible and as a result clients have more interface options to choose from and switch between.
Dominique Charrié joined the Imprimerie Nationale Group in 2009 as a customer support officer, and was appointed Marketing Product Manager in 2015. From 1997 until 2009, Dominique worked for Gemalto as an Industrial Projects Manager, both in card body manufacturing in Industrial Coordination and at the embedding and personalisation of cards at the Gémenos plant. Dominique is an engineering graduate from the École centrale de Marseille, in France.