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Going Digital on a Dime



Digital camera sales are soaring. Unfortunately, that hasn't translated into surging demand for prints from digital at retail. At least not yet.

Even as equipment vendors step up efforts to cultivate consumer awareness and demand for print options with digital, there's a general consensus that these efforts must be given time before they will have an overwhelming impact at retail. In the meantime, minilab operators, photofinishers, and all providers of imaging services are faced with something of a dilemma: how does one build a presence in digital without overburdening one's self with the significant cost of new equipment?

Much as they might want to, it's a decision providers can ill afford to postpone for long. The last thing they want to do in a developing market is turn away the consumers who come to them first to get prints made from media cards. But even where the consumer market for digital prints is already evident, only a few independent operators have seen the demand that warrants the purchase of a high-capacity digital minilab system.

Equipment vendors share many of these concerns with their lab customers. They are responding with a combination of programs and solutions which can help minilab operators build their presence while minimizing their financial risks. From entry-level systems through upgrades for older equipment, and completely new digital minilabs, there's a solution for most budgets.

One system which had generated a lot of buzz and anticipation is no longer one of those options. In May, Kodak and HP announced the dissolution of their Phogenix venture. With its demise went the promise of the Phogenix digital inkjet minilab system projected to sell for less than $50,000. At this writing, neither company has indicated plans to incorporate the technology it contributed to venture into other retail photofinishing systems.

Kodak also signed an agreement to acquire ASF's assets, including its proprietary rapid film processing technology, Digital PIC. The technology develops standard color film without chemical mixing or plumbing. As the film is processed, it also renders a digital file of images.

Kodak says it plans to incorporate Digital PIC in a new generation of imaging kiosks. Planned availability or pricing has not been announced, but Kodak indicated these will function like automatic picture machines, and allow consumers to place print orders from film and digital input.

Retailers will find other suppliers remain just as committed to do what they can to help imaging service providers build a presence in digital. "The people who are going to stay in this business have to start offering digital services," observed Wayne Strobel, Agfa's marketing manager for minilab systems and digital equipment. "If they can't do digital printing within the next 12 months or so, they can expect to find themselves hard pressed to keep up with those who can."

He says consumers are slowly becoming aware that they should be able get prints made from their digital images at the same locations where they've been taking their film. Those prepared to handle their orders, and equipped to show them what's possible with digital prints, are positioned to capture that business long term.

Owners of some of the Agfa MSC minilab systems can retrofit their equipment for a share of the digital business with the company's Flexible Imaging Technology (FIT) upgrade. The $24,000 upgrade equips the labs to also produce prints from digital media, at print sizes up to 8 x 10 on photographic paper. "We've done quite a few retrofits," reports Strobel.

For those who want to encourage consumers with a self-serve order station, Agfa offers the Image Box. It sells for around $5500.

By the end of this year or early 2004, Agfa should also begin shipments of its d-lab 1, expected to sell for around $100,000. Strobel says the all-in-one system will offer labs a solution for handling both film and print orders, whether they originate on film, digital media, CD-ROMS and disks, or slides. Options will empower the system to scan and print from photo originals, or to write images to CD-ROMs.

Fujifilm rolled out the latest member of the Frontier family at PMA. A newly developed processing mechanism and a new chemical system allow the new Frontier 340 to achieve faster processing speed while producing high quality prints. The machine also uses Fujifilm's proprietary solid-state laser technology, and provides operators with easy-to-use functions while maintaining the Frontier series' compact 13 square feet footprint.

At Noritsu America, marketing manager John Brunson suggests retailers make a realistic assessment of their existing business before deciding which is the most practical and economical solution for adding digital services. "It's always better to make decisions when you're not pressured," he says, alluding to the economic concerns many are now facing. "And it's up to each retailer to decide what's going to work in his or her market, with his or her customers. The retailer has to figure out how to position himself against the mass merchant and drug chains which are already going after the digital print business," he adds. "What are the value added services, the specialty services you can offer that they can't?"

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