The $4,000 Digital Imaging Station

digstation1.jpg (45926 bytes)I had agonized about buying - or leasing - a Kodak Copyprint Station. My dealer friends who had them said they were the greatest thing since sliced bread. Real money machines. People were lined up at the Holidays to use them, throwing hundred dollar bills at them like drunken sailors on leave. Still, the cost to get one in the door started around $20,000. And running the total bill up to $50,000 wasn't all that difficult. Our store is in the center of a depressed small town, and traffic isn't that great.

I had enough experience with computers to think I could put one together myself, but buying the printer was still going to cost a lot. Lowest pricing I could find on a Kodak 8650 series was over seven grand, and none of the other "photographic quality" printers I had seen up to that time had really impressed me.

Fargo Primero Pro printer (7830 bytes)

Then Fargo introduced the Primera Pro Elite printer. A distributor had a deal that brought the price down under $1,400, and suddenly the project made sense.


I already had a Nikon scanner that had cost under $300, complete with Adaptec SCSI adapter board and some software. Sure, it's not a high-end unit - but I figured it would let me get started and work until we could afford something better.

The computer chosen was a NEC Ready 9740. A Pentium 200, 24 megs of RAM, CD-rom, 2 gigabyte hard drive, and a scrawny 15" monitor. That was about $1,700 then, perhaps would cost $1,200 four months later.

More memory was the first addition. We bumped it up to 128 MB. At the moment it's enough.

I used the After Dark screen saver program to show a series of promotional blurbs that run whenever we're not actually working with the equipment. The actual images for the screen saver were generated in other programs, such as Harvard Graphics, and saved into the directory.

Commercially-available digital imaging stations have a highly-polished interface. They are much more "user-friendly" than the system I cobbled up. Most can actually be used by customers, although dealers often don't let customers do it without a lot of guidance. Products such as the Kodak Copy Print Station, Agfa Innova, and Pixel Magic have touch screen software.

We generally do all projects - even straight print-to-print copies - in Adobe Photoshop. As a stand-alone purchase, that's about $400 - but you can get varying degrees in bundles when you buy a scanner. Our scanner included Photoshop LE, which is enough for most projects.

The Fargo printer came bundled with Packagizer software, which lets you print an image in the following combos:

  • 1 - 8x10
  • 2 - 5x7
  • 4 - 3 1/2 x 5
  • 4 - 4x5
  • 8 - wallet
  • 10 2x3.5 business card size
  • 16 1 3/4x 2 1/2 "half wallets"
  • 2 - 4x5 and 4 wallet

We spent a certain amount of time on the phone with Fargo's technical support people. The biggest problem was configuring the printer port. In our case, it was essential that the port be configured as a standard parallel port - not an ECP port - and that we choose the option "print directly to printer" rather than using the included 32-bit spooler.

After assembling the working components, the next step was cabinetry. The best-looking integrated system I had seen was the Afga Innova, but my cabinet-construction skills aren't up to that level! One of the giant highway office "box stores" had a computer desk for 99.99, and the speckled gray laminate countertop matched the countertops in our store. Rickels Home Centers were in the process of going out of business and I bought a small white bookcase for $22.97. The bookcase went on top of the computer desk.

digstation2.JPG (51194 bytes)A door to cover it was made with supplies from our framing shop. The outside is a standard aluminum framing profile we use for all the signs in the store (it also matches the counter tops.) The face is two layers - one of foamcore mount board, for rigidity, and one of mat board. The cut-out for the monitor can be made bigger if and when we buy a bigger monitor.

Signs were made on the computer, using PrintShop, and printed on the Fargo. The big sign used three sheets of paper and the three small ones were done on a single sheet.


Here's the final analysis of costs:

  • $1,300 Fargo Primera Pro Elite Printer
  • $277 Nikon Scantouch 110 (came with Photoshop LE)
  • $1,699 NEC Ready 9740 Computer
  • $396 Additional RAM
  • $99 Computer desk
  • $22.97 Bookcase used as hutch
  • $50.00 Framing supplies, hinges, signage

Our results so far have been fantastic! While the basic charge for a print-to-print copy is set at $11.99 (second sheet from the same image $9.99), the average retail per sheet has been around $30! Since we are doing every image in Photoshop, we suggest improvements to the customers. Staff members are having a ball with it, while they make money for the store.

We also are doing a lot of scanning to disk for customers who want to send photos with their e-mail, or set up web pages. And we offer high-quality prints from digital files, though that hasn't been a big item so far.

Our way is certainly not the way for everyone. If you don't feel comfortable taking the cover off a computer, you probably should not try to assemble a $4,000 digital imaging station!

UPDATE AFTER NINE MONTHS:

We're becoming much more proficient with the system. Projects that took hours in the beginning take fifteen minutes now. Our customers love what we do with their older photos.

The gross margin on sales from this system has completely amortized it more than two times in the last nine months.

We upgraded from a 15" monitor to a 17" monitor recently - for about $250 - and cut a slightly larger hole in the faceplate. We added an Olympus scanner for slides and negatives to expand our capabilities.

Since I made this system, the price of almost everything digital has continued to plunge - especially RAM. I recommend getting a much more capable computer and gobs of RAM - preferably at least 256 MB.