Media Production

Service-Oriented Disc Duplication at Penn State

Customer service in higher education comes in a multitude of offerings, from grand and glorious, such as student lifecycle initiatives involving complex six-figure CRM software, to small, narrow and--well--round, such as providing disc duplication services where a dime will buy a student all the data that can fit on a blank CD.

Pennsylvania State University's Entrepreneurial Services addresses the latter category. According to system administrator Jeff Badger, the four-person team fills in gaps in the IT services provided to the university, and it does so on a cost-recovery basis. Currently, services take three forms. First, through an online site called The Computer Store, Penn State sells hardware, software, peripherals and accessories at academic prices, available to every member of the campus community. Second, the group provides long distance and cellphone programs. Third, it offers Web and media design services.

CD duplication fits into that third category. With two dozen campuses spread around the state, a student enrollment of 85,600 and a full-time faculty and staff totaling 22,500, it's easy to see why the school duplicates a quarter of a million CDs and DVDs a year.

"We'll burn 10 or 15 for a small class," said Badger, "400 for a conference, 30,000 for a back to school event." That includes requests from a campus sorority or fraternity that wants to make club materials available, professors who want to distribute course materials and an on campus gathering of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Each summer, the team produces 30,000 CDs for ResCom, the Penn State Housing's residential computing program, which provides people living on campus with access to the Internet. The disc includes the Firefox Web browser, the Thunderbird e-mail client, and Symantec AntiVirus. These are handed out to all students for free at the beginning of the school year to help get first-year residents connected.

As part of its Computer Store operations, the group also duplicates licensed software. As Badger explained, "We negotiate software contracts with Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, SAS--all those companies that educators want to be a part of. They don't send copies of Microsoft Office or Adobe Creative Suite. They send us a master and then we've got to duplicate that and keep track of sales and monitor the condition of the contract--and in many cases keep track of keys and licenses." The advantage, of course, is that the school can offer commonly used software at a reduced price.

When a student comes in to buy a program, store personnel check the student ID to make sure "we're not going to violate any contracts by selling to you," said Badger. "We used to send the materials out to be duped, but if we did it ourselves, there was a significant cost savings."

Badger said the school is evaluating digital download possibilities, but "right now that's tough to manage.... No matter how well secured they are, they'll get broken into."

Duplication Operations
A dedicated person works the duplication equipment, which currently consists of four Rimage Producer duplicators, two for CDs and two for DVDs. Badger estimated that the systems run about $50,000 for each setup. (The company quotes educational pricing on its Producer 8100N at $39,950 and the Producer 7100N at $24,950.) The newer machines include four disc burners and can crank out 200 DVDs an hour; CD duplication goes faster than that. The cost of the media--including a blank disc and printing costs--run between $0.25 and $0.30 for DVDs and $0.10 and $0.15 for CDs. In late 2006, the company began offering a version of its systems that allows network users to access the equipment.

Badger said midrange devices such as the Rimage typically attach to ordinary desktop computers or have a computer built into the system to feed the image to the particular media. (The company released a network-enabled version of the Producer in 2006.) Plus, they have some type of robotic arm and a tray at the bottom with blank discs. An arm picks the disc up; the burner does its job; and the arm picks replaces the disc into the finished tray. A thermal printer imprints a color or monochrome label onto the disc.

"There's some human interaction because you have to load and unload the trays," said Badger. "And you have to sit there and click around on the screen and tell it what you want to burn and how many copies you want."

The school chose--and continues to choose--Rimage equipment for two reasons: price and service. But a major consideration was also space. "Their systems fit into the space that we had available. That helped us make our decision." The computer for each unit sits under the desk, and the tower with the robotic arm sits on top. The Producer 8100N is between 29 inches and 35 inches high, 17 inches wide and between 25 inches and 29 inches deep. It weighs about 100 pounds.

Customer Support
Badger is circumspect about the reliability of the machines. "They're a piece of technology," he said, "and sometimes technology breaks down."

That includes problems with the printers because the graphic isn't formatted to fit on a donut-shaped space. Sometimes the disc images don't want to burn because there's an error in one of the image files. Other times the CD or DVD blanks have a bit of bend to them--undetectable to the naked eye, but still unable to be burned by the machine since they don't fit right. Sometimes, said Badger, the burners--"just standard CD and DVD burners that you could buy at any good quality electronics store"--just break, and they need replacing.

For its part, Rimage provides good support, said Badger. If there were one weakness he could identify, he said, it's the Rimage software's reliance on Microsoft operating systems. "We're not necessarily a Microsoft shop. We have a lot of Mac products, Red Hat products, and Microsoft products. If it were available under a different OS, we might consider that." But the group has gone out of its way to meet the company's hardware and software specs to reduce technical conflicts. "If there is any issue, we can say, 'Look, we've done a, b and c. It's gotta be something else.' But that's a rare occurrence."

Badger recognizes a customer focus. After all, it's built into the mission of Entrepreneurial Services. "The group I work for is service-oriented," he said. "We're trying to make the educational process easier and more affordable simply by providing more things you're going to need as student, faculty or staff member."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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