If you thought you were experiencing a déjà vu when you walked into the Fuji booth at PMA, don't sweat it. You really were seeing double.
After making an announcement in March, 2006 that Fuji and Noritsu were forming a "global alliance in the field of photofinishing" the first fruits of that alliance were revealed at PMA as Fuji announced two new items to their lab menu, a Frontier digital lab and a compact film processor.
What makes the Fuji unveiling somewhat exceptional is not so much the announcement of a new Frontier and compact film processor to the line, but that they were made for Fuji by Noritsu.
Take the Noritsu 3501Plus and paint it green and you have the newly introduced Fuji Frontier 710. Likewise the Noritsu film processor, QSF T-15 which becomes the Fuji FP150SC.
However, the labs are not exactly the same in an area that matters the most: software. The systems are both laser light machines with common paper processor components for silver halide output. But the computer software to drive the system is unique with the 3501 loaded with Noritsu-developed software and the Fuji 710 being managed with the popular Fuji PIC software found on all Frontier models.
Another difference may be the price, and this depends somewhat on what is included in the package. The list prices do vary: Noritsu 3501Plus, with Fuji CP-49E chemistry, is $72,560; the Fuji 710 is listed at $78,770. Noritsu's film processor lists at $13,900 while Fuji prices its model at $15,500.
Having one company make products for another within the same industry is not unusual. Konica used to supply components to others. Auto manufacturers commonly supply parts and even finished products for competitors.
On many levels the Fuji-Noritsu alliance makes sense. The worldwide market for silver halide systems is rapidly dwindling. Along the way such brands as Gretag, Agfa, Konica and Kodak have bitten the dust with Photo-Me scrapping its best and San Marco on the brink of extinction.
Noritsu Koki Co., Ltd., has recently reported a sales decline of 18.8% for nine months. Negative numbers are unusual in the history of Noritsu and, for a firm that is dedicated to only one business, manufacturing photo processing equipment, these are not good times. Fuji has the advantage of playing in a multiple of business arenas and can easily shed the burden of the costs of a minilab manufacturing operation to focus on marketing its broad line of products.
The economics of the industry would dictate that manufacturers find every means possible to survive in a shrinking market. That two firms have created such an alliance as did Noritsu and Fuji is not surprising. What is surprising is that these are the final fighters in the ring, the last ones standing. While they will continue to battle in the marketplace they will, nevertheless, be strong business partners at the corporate level.
Bing Liem, Fuji's senior vice president, imaging division, feels that the back end of the minilab system, whoever makes it, does nothing more than process the silver halide paper and that it is the front end that makes the difference for both the lab owner and the customer.
Bing believes that the front end that Fuji offers, with the graphical user interface for the consumer at the kiosk and the PIC system for the operator, is what makes the difference. "We feel our image intelligence is more advanced and we will continue to use the Fuji systems on all Frontiers, regardless of who makes the back end."
A spokesman for Noritsu would not comment on the Fuji-Noritsu relationship other than confirm the March 2006 announcement that such an alliance had been made.
What about the future? Might the full line of Frontier 500 series models eventually be replaced by Noritsu-made equipment? No one will respond to that at this point but it seems that this is the direction of the alliance between the two firms though no timetable has been revealed.