Only a few years ago, the central wholesale photofinishing lab faced an uncertain future. The daily volume of film and film-based prints, increasingly replaced by digital files, dropped precipitously. Utilization of these huge facilities became unviable-in the U.S. alone, the number of wholesale labs in operation fell from 95 in 2001 to fewer than 30 in 2006.
Fortunately, this transition is largely a thing of the past. Centralized labs are still adapting to a digital world-trying to keep film processor chemistry in balance with today's volumes, and making good decisions about upgrading their digital minilabs. But the big labs are facing a much brighter future. Consumer prints have returned as the growth in digital has surpassed the decline in film. And new systems required to optimize digital workflow are now available.
So, once again, centralized photofinishing offers a viable option for meeting the demands of the marketplace. The latest systems now feature high-volume productivity, such as Imaging Solutions' widePrint printer, outputting 6,000 8x12 prints/hour-yet can operate profitably at considerably lower volumes. The cost of these systems is no more than the cost of a few minilabs, but the economics of operation are substantially less on a per-print basis.
And since these new systems incorporate all the essentials for functioning in a digital world, they accept digital files directly over the internet; create photobooks, calendar pages, and other high-margin digital output "in line;" and support a total digital workflow. They represent a highly flexible production system that allows large photofinishers to serve a client base as diverse as photo studios, retailers, and photo-sharing websites.
"Centralized print processing, which some had pronounced dead only a couple of years ago, has a new lease on life," says Don Franz, editor/publisher of Photo Imaging News. "With the new growth in photo prints and value-added picture products, the central photofinishing lab has regained its raison d'etre. If they can automate the production of personal photo products by harnessing digital technologies and workflows, they'll become more valuable to their former photo retailer clients, and also attract interest from new players such as the online photo services businesses whose contact with customers is completely via the web."
So the hunt is on for digital workflows as efficient as film-based ones, and that deliver all the new possibilities digital imaging promises. Ideally, labs would be able to digitally integrate cutting and packing into their internal batch management and data processing systems. Connecting the finishing segment of the production process-where images, information, and the customer envelope come together-to the front end has become the linchpin of an efficient and productive digital workflow.
But wholesale labs aren't the only ones grappling with this situation. It's prompted systems providers to take steps-even reinventing themselves-to deliver those solutions. One is Imaging Postprocessing Solutions GmbH (IPS), formed in May 2007 from the blending of Swiss photofinishing specialist Imaging Solutions and Spitzke KG, a German manufacturer of cutting, sorting, and packing equipment.
The addition of IPS to the Imaging Solutions family, according to Rainer Bauer, CEO of parent Imaging Solutions, "enables us to offer central labs a complete workflow solution-order receipt, image processing and printing, right through to cutting and packaging." IPS has done so at CeWe Color, in Europe.
CeWe Color's challenge was typical: develop a digital workflow as fast, effortless, and operator-friendly as its film-based workflow. Dr. Reiner Fageth, in charge of CeWe Color's R&D, says its total solution from IPS was as simple as designing an order envelope that can accommodate a variety of print formats, and as innovative as integrating a multiformat cutter into its batch management and data flows.
"With the mounting importance of digital photography, we had to find new solutions for automatic cutting and packing, because digital orders now not only are bigger than analog orders in terms of the number of prints-they frequently contain several different print formats," Fageth says. "On top of that, digital orders arrive…over the internet without an order envelope." Fageth notes that they've come up with some creative solutions.
District Photo in Beltsville, MD, the largest single photofinishing plant in the U.S., recently installed an IPS system. Of immediate concern was the efficient handling of the rapidly growing volume of greeting cards. "The pair of custom-designed systems from IPS that we installed will boost productivity for us and improve service levels for our customers in this high-demand seasonal product category that's very important to our business," says Neil Cohen, president, District Photo.
Bauer says a high level of system customization is usually necessary to meet the requirements of each lab. But a total solution will incorporate similar components-process control software, batch management systems, sophisticated cutters and packaging devices, a PDF server, and other assets. Most, if not all, labs already have some components in place, he notes.
"It's the integration and versatility of the finishing steps, and linking finishing to the order at the front end, where the big efficiencies are to be gained," Bauer says. "When that's achieved, the lab is truly in the digital age. High-speed integrated centralized production systems have become a truly competitive alternative to on-site production by minilab chains, photo specialty stores, and online photofinishers, as well as wholesale photofinishing production companies. I think we can say with confidence that the central photofinishing lab is in a position to have great influence again in this industry."