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Digital Mini-Labs: A New Frontier

Digital technology has had a major impact on the print industry. Jobs that could never be imagined, much less executed, have become almost routine. But there is one area for growth that has yet to see an explosion of adoption—the digital mini-lab.

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Apr. 2005 — Photo processing was once the domain of service bureaus and harsh chemicals. Mini-lab technology itself isn’t new. After all, one-hour photo labs have existed for quite some time. But, they still required chemicals and a technician to oversee the process, and almost always required the customer to wait at least 24 hours to see their finished photos.

Digital technology has created some interesting opportunities. Kiosks and mini-labs can be established in a wide variety of venues, from a retail location, to a print shop, to a theme park—the possibilities are endless. And for a print shop, they are lucrative. They are handing their customers the same prints at the same cost as always, yet they took them no time at all to produce. The profit margin can be unbelievably huge.

The Evolution
Mini-labs have changed quite a bit, especially in the last few years. According to Todd Tereshkow, VP, Technical Services and On-site Marketing, Konica Minolta Photo Imaging USA Inc., improved PC technology is one of the big factors in the current wide-spread implementations of mini-labs. Prior to 1997, each manufacturer had their own proprietary hardware, but with the standard PC configuration, it is much easier for end-users to learn and use, making adoption quicker and easier.

“From a technology standpoint, it really comes down to the architecture,” says Tereshkow. “Years ago, equipment manufacturers used closed systems where you could do little else than D&P. Today, via networking and improved color management, it is possible to use the scanned information from the mini-lab and push that information across the network to other printing devices such as wide format inkjet. The networking and transition to open systems has made this all possible.”

They have also evolved in terms of capability. In the beginning, mini-labs were used solely to process basic photos. Today’s mini-labs have more robust features that allow users to re-size, enhance, and add such extras as borders or text, as well as choose from a variety of sizes.

The Digital Print
I.T. Strategies estimates that customers spend over 3.4 billion dollars printing photos at home. At the same time, the Photo Marketing Association estimates that only five percent of photofinishers in the United States are equipped to print digital photos, and almost half of all digital camera owners are not aware of retail opportunities to print their images. Once consumers realize that these retail opportunities will in fact save them money and that buying all that paper and a printer for home is unnecessary, the profit possibilities for commercial printers will soar. The mini-lab is a huge untapped market that a print shop can take advantage of.

Digital mini-lab technology makes it easy for a print shop to become involved. A minimal investment in a mini-lab and some marketing to consumers with digital equipment would allow entry into the market. It also opens up the possibility for repurposed imaging, according to I.T. Strategies, with a potential of one billion dollars of revenue per year. These applications include apparel such as t-shirts, art such as watercolors, and printed goods such as invitations or posters. A print shop with the capability to not only print digital images, but provide options for those images, would be able to capture market share and consumer dollars.

It’s Getting Even Better
At PMA in February, K.V.D., KlearVision Digital Ltd. introduced new mini-lab smart technology that can optimize and enhance digital photos automatically for print. This widens the possibilities for repurposing, since images will already be cleaned and prepared. It also opens the possibility of placing mini-labs in remote locations, even in gas stations or restaurants.

“Statistics indicate that barely a quarter of all digital photos taken are ever printed,” says David Zwang, director of U.S. business development, KlearVision. “This is largely due to the frustration people experience due to the difficulty they face managing the image file as well as the poor quality of many of the resulting prints.” The increase in digital revenue is unimaginable when considering the ease of mini-labs. Its just a matter of time until they are seen everywhere, and digital frustration will be a thing of the past.

Top of the Line
AgfaPhoto is one of the many companies producing mini-labs. The d-lab.1 basic is one of the most compact on the market. If you don’t need an integrated film processor, d-lab.1 basic is a smart alternative to the all-inclusive d-lab.1 all-rounder. At the heart of this small machine is the Agfa micro-stepper, designed to produce sharp, high-resolution prints. The d-lab.1 is the perfect product for customers for whom, above all, the simple operation combined with compactness, is the most important.

Another key manufacturer of mini-labs is FujiFilm. Their newest member is the Frontier 570 Digital Lab System, which delivers high processing speed and a maximum processing capacity of 2,210 prints per hour. This Frontier model delivers higher image quality, more advanced image enhancement, and better print resolution, than any of its predecessors. In addition, scratch and dust on the original images are detected and corrected automatically.

FujiFilm also offers the Printpix 400, the most inexpensive of their mini-lab line. This machine develops high quality prints in less than a minute. By simply attaching digital camera media, the photos are printed instantly. The Printpix 400 is very compact and easy to set up, and has two components, the IC1400 controller and the NC400 printer. It is an entry-level digital camera developing solution that provides immediate gratification.

Konica Minolta also offers a variety of mini-labs. The newest Konica Minolta digital mini-labs come equipped with the most up-to-date technology. Customers can expect simplicity with use, while receiving very high quality images. There are various models, each designed to fit various business needs. The new exposure engines in the Konica Minolta mini-labs feature Solid State Electro-Optic Shutter Array Device (S.E.A.D). This helps in the production of clear, perfected digital prints, and improves the appearance of traditional film prints drastically. The 400 dpi resolution of these new systems deliver the highest quality images.

Konica Minolta’s R2 Super 1000 can output a wide range of print sizes, from 3R to 10″x15″, while allowing a wide variety of input media sources. It has excellent scanning speed from digital media, and can print easily from either digital or conventional film. Although a newer version of the previous R1, customers can still expect a stress-free operating environment.

Noritsu is another key manufacturer of mini-lab equipment. Specifically, the QSS-32 Series allows you to produce an outstanding professional product, while allowing you all the flexibility you need. QSS-32 Series Mini-Labs are some of the most trusted within the industry, due to a combination of usability and support.

The high-speed processor of the QSS-32 Series allows you to widen your workflow, with production up to 1,620 prints per hour. Blemish-free prints are a possibility with the Laser Printing System. The 300 dpi setting allows large prints up to 12″x36″. Flawless prints are produced with Digital ICE, an automatic feature that allows you to make annoyances such as dust, fingerprints, and scratches a thing of the past.

Noritsu also offers the CT2, a user-friendly digital input terminal designed for everyday use in a commercial setting, available in standard or enhanced models. The CT2 can serve as a self-service photo finishing system including a Digital Dry Printer, in a pharmacy or convenience store, or a stand-alone kiosk located at a rest stop or gas station. The CT-Kiosk configuration has the ability to support up to three full-color printers.

There is some great software on the market that can help customers drive the mini-lab technology with the greatest of ease. Luminous Systems, Digital Photo Factory Mini-Lab (DPF ML) Media Creation Version 5 software, was specially created for low cost retail production of CD’s and DVD’s. It allows customers to hand over their film or digital media, and be handed back a CD, Video CD, or DVD with all their images contained, within minutes. This software is great for the retail environment because it allows your computer to become a high quality imaging system for creating multiple image products, without making drastic changes on your photo lab production process. Kodak also produces software to assist in the use of mini-labs. Many of Noritsu’s mini-labs are powered by KODAK DLS Software, helping users work more efficiently and print the best pictures possible.

The Future
So where is the technology of mini-labs heading? Well, as PCs continue to get faster, smaller, and cheaper, the possibilities for mini-labs will expand. The cost of entry will go down, allowing more players to enter the market. The capabilities of the units will increase, opening up a wider range of end-use applications, not to mention an improvement in overall quality.

Output has improved dramatically just in the past few years, leaving digital fans anxious as to where Noritsu, Konica Minolta and other printing giants will take us next. “As the hardware and software evolve, we as a manufacturer will be looking at ways to improve the photographic paper and chemicals that are used today,” said Tereshkow. “In the not too distant future, it may be possible to achieve the same quality and throughput levels that we enjoy today via other printing technology.”

As digital technology comes down in price and becomes easier for consumers to use, the demand for mini-labs will increase. Mini-labs may eventually be as common as an ATM on a street corner, or a stamp vending machine in a convenience store. Print shops that get in early and establish themselves as a name in the market will be better positioned to take advantage of the technology evolution as it happens.

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