Volume 8 | Issue 5 | Year 2005

Cash is no longer king. Putting the payment on plastic is the norm of modern commerce. A corollary is the customer loyalty program that tracks your purchases at a specific retailer and tallies points earned toward some future reward. Not to mention the ID card that gets you in the door at work, or the gift card someone gave you that you can continue to swipe at the register until a predetermined cash amount is exhausted.

As if that isn’t enough, the world of plastic cards is getting smaller and smarter. And Versatile Card Technology (VCT) is playing a key role in making sure the plastic you use – in whatever size, of whatever intelligence – works as it should. Indeed, with more than two billion served at the end of last year, VCT is the world leader in both secure and nonsecure plastic card manufacturing.

Headquartered in Downers Grove, Ill., just outside of Chicago, VCT was founded in 1986 to supply the printing and fulfillment needs of the direct marketing industry for membership cards. In 1991, the company developed the capabilities to print, emboss and encode on laminated plastic cards ranging in size from 10 to 30 millimeters and was certified by Visa(r) and MasterCard(r) to supply their associated financial institutions. Card finishes range from UV coated, press polish, matte, to a full ISO-laminated product. Additional features include magnetic stripes, signature panels, foils, holograms, lenticular and smart chip technology. Today, it is the largest U.S. manufacturer of bankcards. As part of privately owned Veluchamy Enterprises, VCT is also the largest minority supplier of gift cards in the U.S.

In 2003, VCT acquired QualTecq Inc., based in South Plainfield, N.J. to better serve its East Coast customers and expand its product line, particularly in printing on foil attached to the plastic cards. VCT also recently opened a manufacturing plant in Chennai, India.

“We have sales brokers and facilities located throughout Mexico, Germany, Singapore, and Asia,” explains Nicholas J. Cooney, president. “We originally opened the India plants as a better way to serve our Asian and European customers. As an added benefit, it also turned out that the growing market for Visa and MasterCard products is absolutely huge, the debit card market alone is increasing 80 percent annually, so that’s become a significant strategic asset for us.”

Certified Security
VCT employs 350 total in the U.S. between its 75,000-square-foot facility in Downers Grove and 70,000-square-foot plant in South Plainfield; another 180 are employed at India’s 70,000-square-foot plant. All operations are ISO: 9001 certified. However, what underpins success in this marketplace is Visa and MasterCard certification. Indeed, the India plant is the only plastic card manufacturer in that country to earn this stringent certification, and VCT is the only American manufacturer to gain approval to produce credit cards outside of the U.S. “As you can imagine, there are precise procedures for handling this kind of product. The highest levels of security and documentation have to be maintained at all points in the manufacture and distribution process,” Cooney explains.

Using the latest state-of-the-art technologies and cutting-edge applications, VCT is able to produce a diverse range of card products in a wide range of thicknesses, UV coated, liquid or film laminated. “We are unique as a printer in that we only print on plastic cards,” Cooney says. Other complimentary sister companies within Veluchamy Enterprises, however, offer fulfillment and direct marketing services.

Cooney adds that while much of the print process is automated, it still requires highly skilled technicians to ensure the proper execution of distinctive designs and the variety of information that has to be fit on a wallet-sized card. “There’s not a lot of real estate to work with,” he notes. In addition to bankcards, VCT makes gift, loyalty, promotional, identification, and temporary, phone, airline and retail cards, as well as key and luggage tags. Cooney points out that a growing trend is the key ring, which makes the real estate to work in for printing even smaller. “They are becoming popular not only for frequently buyer programs such as supermarkets where users swipe their key ring tag with every purchase, but increasingly with credit cards,” he says.

Even though the customer presents a completed design in about 70 percent of the cases, it still requires an extensive graphic design department to ensure the design is executed exactly as intended. “The component positions of graphics, magnetic card stripes, holograms and other elements require tight tolerances for consistent color and tone that frequently can’t be detected unaided by the human eye.” To this end, automatic vision inspection systems with programmable software tools determine acceptance levels and detect defects. However, it needs to be emphasized that the criteria for quality levels is only as good as what the human programmer inputs.

Swiping Eliminated
The latest design trends include printing on foil that is affixed to the plastic surface of the card, satin finishes and a translucent card, such as the see-through blue card of American Express. “These are all ways to distinguish a product through design,” Cooney points out. “But they all require the secure encoding of information that is typically conveyed by physically swiping a magnetic strip.”

A growing trend – and one that adds further complexity to the manufacturing process – is the “smart” card, which employs an operating system to manage and convey data via an antenna embedded in an electronic chip. “An example of this is the Chase Blink card that can recognize and transmit to a reader without the need to make physical contact,” Cooney says. Such technology is particularly suited to applications such as fast food drive-up and gasoline transactions. “It’s more widespread in Europe than it is here, but I think it potentially may become the standard here as well. The big advantage is the greater capability to store large quantities of data. And it has immense potential beyond the use as a financial instrument for such applications as a medical ID or a passport. The industry is still in the process of setting smart card standards and I think once this is finalized you’re going to see it take off.”

Whatever kind of technology is employed, the plastic card printing has certainly not only taken off for VCT, but maintained high altitudes. “We’re anticipating double digit growth over the next five years,” Cooney says. VCT’s success in this burgeoning business is attributed to its customer service focus. “We’re a private company without a lot of layers of management,” he explains. “Customers get to talk directly to the people who make things happen. The owner of the company in particular, Pethinaidu Veluchamy, has personal relationships with our major customers.” Indeed, Asian Business News quotes Bill Powers, vice president of multicultural development for the Bank of America, in saying, “Our relationship with the Veluchamy companies has grown through the responsiveness of Velu and his management team to our business needs. Unlike working with larger supplier bureaucracies, when significant decisions need to be made or customer service issues need to be addressed, Velu is involved and problems are addressed immediately.”

Cooney adds, “VCT continues to strive forward in an industry that is constantly growing and adapting to new technologies and market needs. As the industry expands in size and demand, VCT will remain a bedrock of quality, with the customers needs and demands always the first priority.”

That’s a promise from a plastics company that will never bend.