Sunday, March 04, 2007

MICR for the MASSES

MICR for the Masses
March 1, 2007
Part I: Why Small Businesses Print their Own Checks and How They Do It
By M. Shulman
Cartridge Technologies, Tempe, Arizona

As small US businesses adopt computerized bookkeeping and accounting programs, and routinely print check information using standard accounting programs, many business owners investigate whether to print their own checks.

Programs such as QuickBooks, Quicken, Peachtree and internet and computer-based payroll programs, allow users to print check details (date, payee, amount, memo and any additional information) on pre-printed check stock forms using their office printers.

These pre-printed forms have intrinsic drawbacks. The user synchronizes the pre-numbered checks with the program. Businesses with multiple accounts, such as general payables, payroll and escrow, must maintain multiple stocks of preprinted check forms. The forms are expensive and companies frequently do not upgrade or replace them until they are completely used.

MICR printing provides an alternate means of issuing checks.

Magnetic Ink Character Recognition, or MICR, is a special kind of optical character recognition (OCR) technology that was adopted by the US banking industry to facilitate check processing. MICR characters are printed in a specialized font using “ink” that has magnetic properties, allowing the MICR characters to be read by high speed check reading/sorting equipment used by financial institutions.

As the checks travel through the US check clearing system, they pass through high speed MICR reader/sorters which use a device, similar to the head of an audio tape recorder, which sends a magnetic charge to the check, allowing the reader/sorter to read the information contained within the “MICR line” quickly-at speeds of up to70 mph.

The combination of specially-designed characters and magnetic ink make the error rate for check scanning extremely small. If negotiable documents are printed with regular toner, the reader/sorter will reject the check for manual processing – and the company that issued it may be charged a fee.

Within the past few years, check printing programs have been released which allow “on demand” (as opposed to the large batch printing used by government agencies, banks, insurance companies) MICR check printing by businesses, at very reasonable prices. By printing checks using MICR laser printer toner, all check information, including static information such as the company logo, name and address and the MICR line, as well as all variable information (frequently including pre-authorized signatures) is printed directly onto blank check stock.

In order to implement MICR check printing, a business must have (1) a check printing program, either free standing or integrated into its general accounting or payroll program; (2) a dedicated printer capable of MICR check printing; (3) blank secure check stock and (4) MICR toner (or ink) cartridges to fit the printer.

The price of check printing programs is now within most small business budgets, and versions are now available that work directly with most standard accounting programs. For example, VersaCheck QuickBooks and Quicken compatible programs sell for $59. Check Factory by Trans-Micro, Inc. also coordinates with QuickBooks. The programs supply designs, characters and the MICR line-the 65 character line of numbers and special characters that appears at the bottom of every check—describing the routing information and account. They usually allow for multiple accounts, logos, company and other information and provide varied security features.

“The term “magnetic ink” in MICR is deceptive, according to Jeremy Shulman, Vice President of ReInk Technologies Inc., operator of Vibrant Ink. “With limited and recent exceptions (Versa released an actual MICR “ink” usable in several HP type inkjet printers in 2003), MICR printing is produced via laser toner cartridges which contain a 50% to 60% iron oxide additive content that permits the bank line information of a check to be read by electronic bank processing equipment.”

The intrinsic properties of ink (a liquid) and toner (a powder) make MICR a difficult product to produce with ink, since the iron oxide particles may not properly distribute. Toner powder is more easily produced with high iron oxide contents and much more cost-effective for high volume monochrome printing.

Several companies advertise and sell special MICR Laser Printers which are produced or modified to comply with ANSI X.9 standards for MICR printing and which may also include important security features such as secure numeric fonts, encrypted transmissions, removable font cartridges and PCMCIA Cards, allowing specialized fonts, company logos, signatures and other check information to be removed for security.
Companies with multiple MICR toner stations, advanced requirements or MICR printing through remote printers (where the printer is not within visual range of the person printing) should consider these printers.

“Most small businesses” said Shulman, “find that standard laser printers fitted with MICR toner cartridges fit their check printing requirements.” MICR toner cartridges are produced for most common Hewlett Packard, Canon and Lexmark laser printers as well as for popular Dell, Samsung and Smartech (a brand which uses a Lexmark engine) printers. You can find them on the Vibrant Ink website at http://vibrantink.com. “There are no MICR cartridges for current Brother laser printers. Brother uses a toner and drum system which creates magnetic fields which are incompatible with magnetic toner. Manufacturers of MICR toners tell me the R&D required to produce a MICR toner for Brother would be ridiculously expensive.” Early Brother models used print engines manufactured by HP, Canon, Lexmark and Xerox. Those machines use the corresponding HP, Canon, Lexmark and Xerox cartridges, most of which are available in MICR.

Coming Soon: Choices in MICR printers and MICR Toner Cartridges? Cost, Utility and Value.

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