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Microtech Systems’ ImageAutomator Review

Microtech Systems’ ImageAutomator is an excellent CD duplicator that offers a lot of bang for the buck. While not as much a turnkey solution for centralized network disc creation as Rimage’s Protégé and Autostar systems, the ImageAutomator is without peer in customized corporate and commercial environments.


Microtech Systems’ ImageAutomator

Hugh Bennett
EMedia Professional, June 1999

A darling of the corporate and commercial worlds, Microtech Systems’ ImageAutomator is an ingenious solution for small and large-run unattended CD-R disc duplication, creation, and enterprise network recording. Although available for several years, the latest version of the ImageAutomator extends Microtech’s policy of continuing improvement by integrating the latest industry advances.

In its high-powered system. The latest ImageAutomator combines cutting-edge 8X recording with optional color thermal transfer printing and an alignment system for completing silkscreened discs.

Handling It Like A Pro
Any good automated CD production system has a solid robotic disc-handling system at its core and the ImageAutomator is a good automated CD production system. A curious beast that looks like a cross between a ceiling fan and a baseball pitching machine, the ImageAutomator’s CD handler is a model of flexible modular design. As physically massive as ever, it consists of a rotary pick-and-place robot arm mounted on top of a 24-inch high hexagonal tower from which is hung a series of detachable stations. This flexible design allows the system to be configured with different combinations of production equipment mounted at each station, be they CD-Recorders (or DVD-Recorders when they become available), printers, buffers, disc spindles, or other units as they suit the application.

Configurations of the standard CD handling system include three removable 200-disc spindles (input, output, reject) and one of three different printers currently available including Rimage’s thermal transfer monochrome, the new color Prism Perfect Image CD Printer, and Primera Technologies’ Signature II color inkjet. Since printing may be a significant system bottleneck, the CD handler also accommodates a buffer cup to hold discs awaiting labeling.

Thanks to its unusual architecture, the CD handler offers a great deal of flexibility when it comes to installing CD recorders. For example, it can accommodate large form factor or even caddy-loading recorders, as easily as standard tray-loading 5.25-inch half-height recorders in “6-Pack” clusters. Until recently the CD handler was equipped with the Matsushita (Panasonic) 4X/8X CW-7502S but these have been replaced by Plextor’s state-of-the-art 8X/20X max PlexWriter 8/20 recorders.

Numerous equipment combinations may be ordered but for most situations Microtech offers several off-the-shelf system configurations. The entry-level Model 100 comes with two to six recorders and one printer, the Model 105 includes three recorders and one printer, and the top-of-the-line Model 200 accommodates from one to twelve recorders and two printers.

The Soft Side: ImageMaker MJ Software
The nerve center for the ImageAutomator’s CD handling system is Microtech’s Windows NT 4.0-based ImageMaker MJ (multi-job) CD-R production solution. Configurations vary from model to model but the system Microtech provided for testing consisted of a 233MHz Pentium II PC, 64MB RAM, 17-inch monitor, two 9GB SCSI A/V hard drives, and a Plextor 12/20Plex CD-ROM drive housed in a sturdy ten-bay tower.

Centralized system control is offered by the main ImageMaker MJ system software, which is in turn supported by several secondary applications including MasterMaker for disc premastering and DiscPrint for labeling. Although the interface is a little non-standard in places, the system software is easy enough to use. Since multiple tasks can be performed by the system either sequentially or simultaneously the main control screen is divided into separate job cards (from one to twenty) to rationalize the work.

Job cards are filled out on the screen as needed and contain all the relevant details regarding tasks that need to be performed including defining the source material, number of discs to be recorded, read-back verification, hardware allocation, and labels to be printed. CDs can be duplicated disc to disc or from images already loaded onto the hard drive, and most logical formats are supported. Discs can also be created from scratch using local or network files via the supporting MasterMaker software that authors basic logical formats including ISO 9660, Rock Ridge, CD-DA, and mixed-mode.

Despite its quirky interface, a Model 200 system performed flawlessly during testing. This included duplicating and creating several hundred discs with mixed data and audio sets and a combination of monochrome labels. When performing large disc runs or unattended work it was easy to get spoiled by the ImageAutomator’s generous 200-disc capacity and the system’s multiple job scheduling capability.

As with any CD production system, balancing the ImageAutomator’s hardware to the application is critical. As the system is only as fast as its slowest component, having a lot of 8X recorders doesn’t guarantee tremendous throughput. For example, a configuration with 12 recorders but only one Rimage Prism color printer would quickly get bogged down churning out large runs of 50MB discs. The result would obviously be different for runs of 650MB discs. This is where the ImageAutomator’s modular architecture really shines, since components can be added where needed to reduce bottlenecks and adjustments made to the system at a later time if needs ever change.

As a further testament to its flexibility, the ImageAutomator can also be configured with CD-Remote software for completely hands-off network operation. CD-Remote works by continually scanning a specified network folder for production orders and placing them into queue as they arrive. CD-Remote is controlled by a straightforward programming language saved in standard ASCII text files, so integrating the ImageAutomator into custom environments is a piece of cake.

For companies wanting users to be able to create discs over the network but who don’t want to have to write their own applications, Microtech also plans to offer an optional program called MYDisc. Not available in time for this review, MYDisc promises to be an easy-to-use client application for Windows 95/98 and NT with a drag-and-drop interface for defining recording projects and creating disc labels from scratch.

Labeling Picture Perfect: ImageAligner
The ever-increasing use of CD production systems for network and commercial disc creation is demanding a design emphasis on disc labeling. With the ImageAutomator Microtech offers an innovative optional system for combining silkscreened discs with on-demand printing for applications where disc labels require the addition of customized elements and at a higher-quality appearance than can be achieved by thermal transfer printing alone.

Since discs may end up being loaded into in the printer in any orientation, aligning the existing silkscreened image with the text to be printed is always tricky business. For example, Rimage’s “PerfectPrint” solution to the problem involves using an optical sensor to detect a small index mark silkscreended on the disc and a mechanical system to rotate the disc into the correct position before printing.

Microtech’s ImageAligner, takes a different tack, using a Pixera digital camera stationed directly over the open printer drawer to take a picture of the disc surface and compare it with a previously stored image of a correctly oriented disc. Rather than physically rotating the disc into position like the Rimage solution, the software determines the disc’s orientation and aligns the text to be printed in the software. ImageAligner is an elegant product that worked extremely well during testing. A dozen different label patterns which were correctly identified and accurately printed.

An obvious advantage of the system is that it includes not only the ability to align printing to existing silkscreening but to recognize if the system is labeling the correct disc. This is especially handy in lights-out environments where unskilled attendants may be maintaining the production system by simply keeping it stocked with consumables. For the image-conscious, ImageAligner also eliminates the need for the unsightly additional index mark in the silkscreening.

On the other hand ImageAligner has its downside. For example, the system takes approximately 15 seconds to image the disc and perform the alignment (roughly 11 seconds longer than Rimage’s PerfectPrint), which introduces yet another potential bottleneck into the production process. As well, there are considerations restricting label design such as the need to avoid shiny surfaces whose glare can interfere with the digital photography and for silkscreened labels that must have sufficient visual landmarks for the software to determine the orientation of the disc. And, unlike Rimage’s PerfectPrint, Microtech’s ImageAligner only aligns text.

Making A Good Thing Even Better
Selecting an appropriate CD duplication or custom disc production system means understanding the details of your application. How many discs do you need to produce? What is their average data size? What type of labeling is required? Could this change in the future? Flexibility is the key to answering these questions and Microtech’s ImageAutomator offers greater scalability and adaptability than any other system on the market.

In summary, ImageAutomator is an excellent CD duplicator that offers a lot of bang for the buck. While not as much a turnkey solution for centralized network disc creation as Rimage’s Protégé and Autostar systems, the ImageAutomator is without peer in customized corporate and commercial environments. It’s also important to note that, unlike some companies who introduce products and quickly move on to the next one, Microtech has stayed committed to the ImageAutomator for several years now and continues to upgrade and improve the system for the benefit of all their customers.


Companies Mentioned in This Article

Pixera Corporation
140 Knowles Drive, Los Gatos, CA 95030; 408/341-1800; http://www.pixera.com

Plextor Corporation
4255 Burton Drive, Santa Clara, CA 95054; 800/886-3935, 408/980-1838; Fax 408/986-1010; http://www.plextor.com

Primera Technology, Inc.
Two Carlson Parkway North, Plymouth, MN 55447-4446; 800/797-2772, 612/475-6677; Fax 612/475-6677; http://www.primeratechnology.com

Rimage Corporation
7725 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55439; 800/445-8288, 612/944-8144; Fax 612/944-7808; http://www.rimage.com


Microtech Systems’ ImageAutomator

synopsis: Combining cutting-edge 8X recording with optional color thermal transfer printing and an alignment system for completing silkscreened discs, Microtech’s ImageAutomator is an excellent CD duplicator that offers a lot of bang for the buck. While not as much a turnkey solution for centralized network disc creation as Rimage’s Producer 2000 Protégé and Autostar systems, the ImageAutomator is without peer in customized corporate and commercial environments. It’s also important to note that, unlike some companies who introduce products and quickly move on to the next one, Microtech has stayed committed to the ImageAutomator for several years now and continues to upgrade and improve the system for the benefit of all their customers.

price: $23,404-$59,941

Microtech Systems
2 Davis Drive
Belmont, CA 94002-3002
800/223-3693, 650/596-1900
Fax 650/596-1915

http://www.microtech.com


About the Author

Hugh Bennett, editor-in-chief of Hugh’s News, is president of Forget Me Not Information Systems, a reseller, systems integrator and industry consultant based in London, Ontario, Canada. Hugh is author of The Authoritative Blu-ray Disc (BD) FAQ and The Authoritative HD DVD FAQ, available on Hugh’s News, as well as Understanding Recordable & Rewritable DVD and Understanding CD-R & CD-RW, published by the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA).

Copyright © Online Inc. / Hugh Bennett

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