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.
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!
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.