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The Fuji Frontier is one of the best minilabs (small photography labs, almost exclusively used in stores) currently in production. It comes in different flavours (see the end of this w/u about the differences), depending on capacity. The guts of the machine are always the same, however.

What the Fuji Frontier does

From film

The Fuji Frontier machines really consist of two sections; Developing and output.

The developing section of the machine is where the undeveloped 35mm (135 film) or APS films are fed in. The films are attached to a special plastic piece that the machine can take a hold of. The films are then pulled out of the roll and into the machine. When the film offers resistance (i.e. is fully extended) the machine cuts the film off at the base of the film roll.

Different films need different developing times - The speed of which the film rolls are pulled through the different developing baths (see film developing if you are curious about this) is determined by the film roll’s DX marking. When the film is finished, it is hanging in a (normally enclosed) casing to dry for a while.

Now that we have the negatives, comes the real fun part of the Frontier machine – after the negatives are ready, the negatives are fed through a film scanner (Several film scanners can be connected to the same Frontier printer machine - useful if one of the faster models is used). The scanner automatically determines if the negatives are correctly exposed. If they are not, the computer automatically recalculates the appropriate correction values, corretcs, and then rescans the negatives if necessary.

After being scanned (in 3000 DPI, using a proprietary Fujifilm scanner developed especially for minilab use - although rumours have it that the scanner is based on the Polaroid Sprintscan film scanner). This means that a 35mm negative gets scanned in 2048x3072 pixels (about 6.2 megapixels for a 35mm negative).

This scanned material goes to the server built into the Fujifilm machine, and is entered into the queue.

From other sources

Have you noticed how many photo stores have a photo booth, where you can have pictures printed from CD-ROM, Smartmedia, Memorystick, Compact Flash, Floppy Disk, ZIP disk or other media? (Including, some times, a separate scanner where you can scan your paper pictures for reprints)? This works the same way as above. When you pay, the Frontier operators will add your order to the queue, and they get printed.

Have you ever tried an internet developing service – the type where you upload your scanned / digital camera pictures and have them printed? Again, the same thing. The operator makes sure that the order seems okay, then adds it to the queue.

The nifty thing about the newer versions of the Fuji software is that it reads the headers on the Jpeg files, and then looks up your digital camera in a database. Knowing that most Olympus cameras tend to have a cyan tint, it compensates the images accordingly. Fab!

The printing

This is where the real fun begins, and what makes the Frontier machines so good. For the insides of the Frontier printing unit, Fujifilm holds numerous patents. The most safely guarded one, however, is the one for the laser technology.

The printing unit works very much like a regular printer – as a matter of fact, it uses a Windows 2000 printer driver to communicate with the main unit. Never mind that – in any caes, the images are spooled to the internal memory of the printer unit, and paper starts moving off a large roll of paper inside the Frontier unit.

These rolls of paper are kept in lightproof containers, so if you would want a different paper width, you would just change the paper cartridge (beasts of cartridges, but cartridges nonetheless) between prints. The server controlling the prints makes sure that the printouts are sorted so you don’t have to keep changing cartridge all the time.

At least in the UK and in Norway (I assume everywhere else too) the first image of a different size is more expensive, then the price drops. This is because the changing of the cartridge requires both manual labour (changing the cartridge) and stops the entire production until it has been done. Often – in high capacity photo labs, at least, they will have several Frontier machines, each one loaded with different paper sizes, to avoid this.

When the paper moves through the machine, it is exposed with three solid-state lasers. The green and blue lasers are unique to Fujifilm, and ridiculously expensive (the pure-red laser is "old" technology). Mind you, it is important that the lasers are exactly RGB 0/255/0 and RGB 0/0/255, or else the pictures will have their colours distorted.

The paper moving through the paper cut into the right size. Then it is exposed with the laser, capable of performing at 300 dpi. This does not sound like a lot, but when used in these types of printers, you need a trained eye to see the difference to "real" developed photos, and photos coming from the Frontier.

The paper then moves through the developer baths, (see the node on colour developing for more about this) and goes through a dryer. It the pictures are sorted by batch (or roll) into trays on the side of the machine – waiting for the operator to pick them up and pack them.

I believe that this whole process (from developing the film to finished prints) can take as little as 16 minutes if there is no waiting between the steps.

The various Frontier flavours

Frontier 330

  • 570 4*6” prints an hour
  • 8” maximum paper with

Frontier 350

  • 1050 4*6” prints an hour
  • 10” maximum paper with

Frontier 370

  • 1450 4*6” prints an hour
  • 10” maximum paper with

Frontier 390

  • 2440 4*6” prints an hour
  • 10” maximum paper with


Sources

  • A longish interview with the chief technician at Fujifilm in Norway, in connection with an article.
  • The Fuji website
  • Various previous knowledge

PMA 2004 saw the introduction of 2 new Frontier units.

The Frontier 355 is the same as the 350, but with a new scanner unit, utilizing a 24-megapixel area CCD as opposed to a line-at-a-time CCD. This new CCD apparently paves the way for the "12-inch" Fuji Frontier, which is apparently the holy grail of Frontiers, since the Agfa d.labs and Noritsu (Kodak) QSS machines all do 12" paper, but not at the quality of the Frontier.

The real magic of the scanner unit is that it incorporates a dust-and-scratch removal algorithim, based on FARE technology present in Canon scanners. The more common ICE technology for this was co-opted by Noritsu, so it apparently wasn't an option. Dust and scratch removal in my mind is worth it's weight in gold. I run a 370 unit at my day job, and the environment is so dusty since it is an older building.

Apparently, the interface has been given a major rework, as well. You do not need a degree in Fujinese to operate it.

The Frontier 375 is the same as the 370, but with the same reworkings of the scanner unit that the 355 has received.

The hoary old PIC software is being redone. The Frontier Manager will be taking over from the PIC. I have little details on this at the moment, but this will supposedly support nifty things like ICC profiles and the like.

I'd like to say too, that the Fuji film developers are totally optional components to the Frontier system. As roller transport devices, they can and will damage film. The ideal solution today is to purchase a dip and dunk processor like a Refrema Olympic, which aside from weights on each end of the film, does not put the film through any physical contact with solid objects, ensuring a scratch free development (well, aside from any scratches from scuzz inside your camera...but that's the price of a film workflow...) process from start to finish. Of course, this is only a pro-lab option, since your average consumer isn't concerned about microscopic scratches on his or her film. And the Refrema machines cost as much as a Frontier...around $250,000 US dollars.

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