As professional photo labs migrate to digital technology, they enjoy boosts in productivity in a number of key areas-from film scanning to image editing to workflow management. Overall throughput, however, is determined not by the fastest piece of the workflow, but by the slowest. The limiting factor is output: how quickly prints can be generated, cut and finished. More labs are now turning their attention to printers that automate this part of the workflow to provide yet another boost to their total throughput.
One Lab's High-Speed Solution for Growth
For example, in 1990, Tony Rodrigues opened a new professional lab- Printmakers, in Pawtucket, RI. He started with two school photography accounts and quickly built a business serving that specialty. Today, however, about half of Printmakers' customers are wedding and portrait photographers. Rodrigues credits digital technology with making that possible. "Digital lab technology lets me offer better service to photographers," he says. "And when I offer better services, I generate new business."
Part of good service is turnaround time. Another is image quality. Printmakers recently brought in a new printer that meets the lab's goals on both points: a Kodak Professional RP 30 Laser Printer. This new printer produces up to 500 finished 8 x 10-inch prints per hour, with automated cutting and finishing. It uses advanced laser exposure at 400 ppi for continuous-tone print quality, and features an automated densitometer so the printer can be warmed up and calibrated as soon as it's needed.
Thanks to the RP 30, Rodrigues says, his ability to turn out quality output has caught up with the rest of his digital imaging system. "The printer is so fast, it has removed a bottleneck in our workflow," Rodrigues says. "It lets us move everything through faster, because it prints so much faster." He also expects the printer to save labor costs during next year's busy season.
Piecing Together a Digital Workflow
Rodrigues has assembled his digital workflow piece by piece, as market demand and his capital budget would permit. Today, 15-20 percent of Printmakers' business is completely digital and based largely on hardware and software from Kodak, which sells a menu of integrated, modular "lab digitization" components that create a comprehensive digital workflow.
Any images Printmakers receives that require retouching are funneled into the lab's digital side of the business. Increasing numbers of the lab's customers originate digitally, including its wedding photographers (particularly for candids) and school photographers (for "activity" shots such as sporting events and proms). "Almost all of my customers are sending at least some camera files," Rodrigues says.
Even customers who don't use digital cameras, however, often want the benefits of digital technology. To serve this growing market, Rodrigues uses the Kodak ProShots System. "With the ProShots System, I can offer key benefits of digital imaging to any photographer. For example, photographers who use the ProShots System don't have to card negatives. This is a huge advantage to them. It helps me attract wedding and portrait photographers from out-of-state as well as locally."
But a digital workflow does more for Printmakers than please customers, as important as that is. It helps the lab run more efficiently. Citing the ProShots System again, Rodrigues notes, "It saves us time handling images. We don't have a person dedicated to handling negatives anymore because the process is now automated." Delivery of ProShots jobs is faster than optical orders by a matter of days.
When photographs for an order arrive as film negatives, Printmakers first digitizes them with its two Kodak Professional HR 500 Film Scanners. Next the lab uses Kodak Professional Digital Print Production (DP2) Software to build the order, specify layouts and send jobs to the lab's printers. The lab also proofs digitally, which is faster than conventional proofing and cuts waste. "With conventional proofing, we need to thread the printer with about five feet of paper to generate proofs. In the busy season, we might do that five times a day. It's great to be able to eliminate that waste."
One of the scanners, Rodrigues says, is also equipped with Digital ICE Software. He plans to upgrade his other scanner to the same configuration soon. Digital ICE Software has saved the lab's staff considerable time. "It automatically cleans up normal dust and scratches. We've cut our retouching time by half."
The benefits didn't appear overnight because the system wasn't adopted all at once. But appear they did, which encouraged Printmakers it was on the right road. Then, as Rodrigues improved his lab's productivity in scanning, image management and proofing, a new issue emerged.
"Our lab has about 16 full-time employees," Rodrigues explains. "But to handle the rush during our business season, we often need to add as many as eight extra people." It's a juggling act that many labs face. It's important to have enough people on hand to keep orders moving through. But hiring temporary staff is time-consuming and costly. Rather than continue to struggle with this problem, Rodrigues turned once again to digital-this time for an output solution.
By boosting output speed, Printmakers' new RP 30 printer helps the lab accommodate the rest of its digital workflow more efficiently. The lab installed the new printer last September, and put it through its paces during its busiest time of year. Now Rodrigues is tweaking his processes to take even better advantage of his boost in throughput. For example, he plans to add more DP2 seats so jobs can be pushed out to his capable new printer more quickly.
Once he has optimized his workflows, Rodrigues expects to handle his projected annual growth of 10-12 percent with only his existing staff. "My goal is to accommodate this year's busy season without having to add temporary employees," he says.