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Will wet labs be hung out to dry?

ipic-dingusThe silver halide vs inkjet debate is getting more pertinent as the installed base of silver halide minilabs grows older. At IPIC 2016, a panel of retailers presented a comprehensive, ‘real life’ summary of the advantages and disadvantages of each printing technology.

kurt-neumannThe panel of four photo specialists comprised Kurt Neumann as the main presenter (pictured right), supported by Lori Bellman, Larry Bever and Larry Kuntz.

‘There’s no one solution that’s perfect for everybody – one application may be better, or your clientele may prefer one versus the other,’ said Kurt Neumann, owner of Frame It / Waban Gallery, an all-dry printing/framing business in Boston. ‘I don’t know if you can find a one-size-fits-all solution. The dry labs are getting better and you’re getting more paper choices, and they offer an easy solution.’

– Higher print production capabilities
– Lower need for service contracts
– Lower cost per print (in high volumes)
– Traditional process still preferred by some professionals

– Higher equipment purchase price
– Typically higher cost service contracts
– More experienced operators needed
– Longer start-up times
– More periodic maintenance
– Chemical disposal concerns
– Water consumption
– Higher power consumption
– Larger space requirements
– Generates more heat

The consensus was that dry is ideal for low volume printers in a smaller space – and home or mobile businesses may find value in the technology. Event photographers as well.

epson-surelab-d3000-photographic-dry-lab-printer-imageThe larger wetlabs are a better match for those handling over 300K prints a year, he said. The cost per print is lower and, once up and running, they’re faster. Extra costs for increased power use, plumbing, and airconditioning are stacked against them.

Some professionals – typically portrait and wedding photographers – still prefer chemical-based traditional printing, and labs dealing with these clients should bare this in mind.

‘I regret going dry,’ said the printing manager from leading specialist chain, Samys.’When I turn on the dry to print business cards, or 4x8s, it’s slow. The quality is different. I tend to see it’s a little too digital for my taste – and my customers who are mainly professionals. They still want wet prints. I would stick with wet.’

On the other hand, it was noted from the audience, most dry labs can be ‘dumbed down’ to mimic the colour gamut and look of AgX photographs.

– Lower initial cost
– No chemicals – ink cartridges
– Fast startup each day
– Wider colour gamut
– Some machines print double-sided
– Potential reduced labour costs
– Smaller size

– Higher cost/.print
– Service contract is needed to protect printer heads, which frequently fail
– Some customers (professionals) prefer traditional chemical prints to inkjet
– Print speed typically slow
– Clogged print nozzles equals poor quality (and wastage)
– Head replacements cost US$14K

green-%e2%85%a1Kurt said that in the US, dry printers can cost anywhere between US$30,000 to US$60,000 – which is roughly the starting price point of a silver halide lab.  (He is clearly not considering smaller desktop printers like the Epson D700 or the Fujifilm DX100 here.)

While the inkjet printers are significantly cheaper, the cost per print is higher – he quoted (US) 8.7 cents compared to 5 cents from AgX.

‘It’s a lower cost per print. That only really takes effect if you’re doing a decent volume because you pay much more for the machine upfront,’ said Kurt.

But the tables may turn. It was later mentioned in the session that the inkjet per print cost is dropping year-to-year, while the increases in silver halide paper prices are regular and relentless.

Total cost of ownership in terms of maintenance, service repairs, and lifespan was crucial for labs considering the switch – speakers and attendees expressed concern about inkjet printers being more ‘disposable’. They are more prone to failure and have a lifespan of three to five years, whereas there are well-maintained wet labs running for 10 or 15 years.

Despite operation that’s so simple practically anyone can load up and run an inkjet lab, the maintenance is complicated and requires attention from an expert service technician. This costs around US$3500 annually for a contract.

‘What has scared me immensely is the longevity of the dry lab print printers. I’m running printers that are a decade old,’ said Larry Bever, owner of University Photo, Iowa. ‘Before that we had Noritsu QSS-1201s that ran for 20 years. What bothers me, is that a (Noritsu) Green or Green 2 won’t survive without a service contract, which is around $3000 or $4000. I haven’t had a contract on my (Agfa) Dlab for eight years.’

In-house maintenance is feasible for wet labs, as many readers would know from experience. A mechanical fault or a replacement part doesn’t necessarily require a service technician. You can often do it yourself at a fraction of the cost. On the other hand, they require more experienced operators – someone who knows the chemical process – to get the best from the equipment.

When the head clogged on one of Kurt Neumann’s dry machines, a replacement head was the only solution offered by the service operator – quoted at US$15,000!
‘A service contract is a must with dry. I had to throw out a dry lab machine last year and bought a new US$30,000 machine because the head went. I was told it was US$15,000 to change it on a three-year-old machine. I didn’t have a service contract. I took a gamble not buying the US$5000 service contract,’ he said.

This susceptibility to inkjet head failure is only now beginning to be understood as a factor in the dry lab equation.

ron-kubaraRon Kubara, Noritsu’s director, Worldwide Strategic Sales and Planning, and company spokesperson (pictured right), was in the audience and chimed in to say it was not likely a faulty head but an issue with the wipers, which in turn stemmed from using badly finished paper stock.

If the wipers are kept clean inkjet printers will last longer and require less attention from service operators, he said.

‘The problem isn’t the head, it’s the wiper. Paper dust from the cutting of the paper flies in the air. Keep your printer clean; if you don’t the dust ends up on the wiper. The wiper shoves it in the nozzles and plugs on nozzles,’ he said. – Take note dry printers!

He said while Noritsu was fairly relaxed about use of third party sheet-fed paper, it was more insistent that customers used proprietary roll paper due to the excess paper dust issue, which related to whether paper had been cut along or across the grain.

Specialist quality
But the real appeal for photo specialists seeking to offer a higher quality product than the cheap commodified prints from a mass merchant, is that inkjet printers have a provably wider colour gamut.

‘You’re using ink cartridges to create the colours. A dry lab is a dye-based ink,’ said Kurt. ‘What’s unique about it is that ink can overlap and sort of mix to create colours you can’t get with a wet lab. Will people notice the difference? Sometimes. My reaction – my customers, they say the prints are amazing.’

Ron Kubara strongly agreed with this. His speaker session, scheduled for the following day, discussed the future of printing and strongly endorsed dry inkjet printing. (See separate report.)

His argument was that consumers view their images on smart phones, tablets and monitors that actually have a higher colour gamut and resolution than AgX printers, leaving them unimpressed with the results when those images are printed.

The session – which was in a panel Q&A format – then went to the future.

Lori Bellman, owner of Bower’s Photo Pennsylvania,  which prints with a wet lab, concurred with Ron Kubara – she noticed some clients weren’t as satisfied with prints because they didn’t ‘pop’ like they did on a smart phone.

She predicted this will lead to the death of the 4×6. ‘I worried about that person with an iPhone, and the 4×6 print they want not looking like it does on their phone. I’m starting to think we need to skip pass them, because I’m not sure the 4×6 print will be relevant to anybody soon,’ she said.

The panel was politely divided, as were the retailers in the room – Kurt Neumann found success with dry, while Lori Bellman and the Larrys Kuntz and Bever preferred their wet machines.

But the cost of prints are gradually falling (or at least AgX costs are rising!), the inkjet machines are becoming quicker (Noritsu Green 2 can manage 950 4×6 prints in an hour), the colour has more punch, and they’re smaller and cheaper.

If Ron Kubara’s prediction is correct, silver halide is fast becoming a legacy technology. Give it five years, he says. He hinted at new technology on the horizon, specifically a small Noritsu printer to be debuted at Photokina.


  1. VOR VOR September 15, 2016

    Great story from IPIC.
    It’s inevitable that dry will take over at some point. That’s an expensive head as i have been quoted 8K for my Epson and if i need one outside of my 3 year warranty then its covered in my shop insurance. I’d sooner pay this than the 25K that my old Frontier’s laser cost!

  2. Chris Chris September 16, 2016

    We run both, having purchased a D700. Saturdays & Mondays for us are traditionally slow print days so I don’t start the wet lab on those days. It saves on power. We also use the D700 if the Noritsu has a lot of 6X4s running through it & need to do enlargements urgently. Having the D700 also means more paper surfaces we can offer customers without constantly changing reels. We have customers who use the enhanced matte & metallic papers. We need the wet lab because of our film processing as number 1 priority, & secondly because it’s faster than the D700. Thirdly, the D700 doesn’t backprint, so if you do corrections & need to redo a photo you have to remember what setting it was on the 1st time around. Being the only lab west of the ranges who can process films between Newcastle & Brisbane the wet lab is by far more efficient than the dry lab, taking seconds rather than minutes to do a paper change.

  3. Larry Steiner Larry Steiner September 17, 2016

    This is great information: It’s why I go to IPIC every year.
    We are still a wet-lab and can maintain our machine pretty inexpensively because we know it inside and out. One of the factors that prevents us from moving to dry, as mentioned in the article above, is that stories about $15,000 head replacements on 3 year old dry machines are not reasonable. We can get 6 years out of a laser on our silver-halide printer and I can get it replaced for $3500.
    I think the only way I would buy a big drylab is if the head was warranteed for 6 years. Even then, the fact that the maintenance on drylabs is proprietary would still give me pause. Labs need to be able to do basic repairs in-house. For instance, I can maintain the head wiper on my Epson wide-format easily, can I do that myself on a Noritsu drylab?

  4. VOR VOR September 19, 2016

    Wow Larry…$3500 for a new laser!
    Take note Aussies on just how much our major suppliers in Fuji and Noritsu have been ripping us off. This is why i went dry and have never looked back.
    You could buy 2 Drylabs with 3 year warranties which then gives you 6 years at 2/3 of the price of a wetlab.
    Chris, it sounds like you are using a D700 to do the job of a D3000. Also if you have it profiled then the only adjustments to the prints are density….the colours are unsurpassed!

  5. Kelly Kelly October 1, 2020

    This was very informative and had some good points which I hadn’t considered. The one thing not discussed was comparing the longevity of the prints produced between wet and dry lab.

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