CD Service Bureaus, Brokers and Fulfillment Houses

Perhaps it is a bit odd that it has taken me so long to get around to creating this page, since running a CD-ROM service bureau was my first practical activity in the industry. There is such a thing as being too close to a subject! However, that background does provide what I hope you will find to be an interesting perspective. Just keep in mind that in this area the writing and opinions are probably less objective than elsewhere in The CD Information Center.

Katherine Cochrane, President
The CD-Info Company

 

What is a CD Service Bureau?

The matter of defining a service bureau in the Compact Disc field is complicated. There are probably as many descriptions as there are shops. In general, however, a CD service bureau is a company who puts data onto CDs for customers. This data can be computer information of any kind, or audio or video files, or even a combination of these. Some service bureaus do only data conversions to CD, some do certain kinds of data preparation, and some also work as replication or duplication brokers or perform duplication in-house. Some sell CD-R systems and even produce CD recording (premastering) software. Most CD service bureaus do at least CD recording, regardless of their other services.

Services Offered by CD Service Bureaus

Not all service bureaus offer the same services, but here are some examples:

CD Recording
Data format conversion
This can be anything from transferring data from floppy diskettes to CD-R, to doing audio/video capture and compression and application authoring.
CD Duplication
Different from "one-off" recording and from mass replication, duplication is the process of making many copies of a single disc using recordable technology rather than using an injection molding process to encode the data on a CD. This emerging technology fills the middle ground between one-offs, which must be made one at a time (as the name implies), and mass replication, which is generally only done for hundreds or thousands of identical discs.
CD-Recordable System Sales
Since service bureaus use CD-R systems constantly, they are frequently excellent sources of expert information about them. Some shops choose to become resellers as well as service providers. However, some companies specialize in CD-R systems, providing expert information and technical support, but have decided not to do CD-R services directly now that recording is becoming closer to a "mainstream" activity. One of our site sponsors, Octave Systems, Inc., has chosen this business model. They use CD-R technology themselves, so they are very able to provide good advice for purchase decisions, and they do systems integration of CD-R into applications as well as component sales (software and hardware), a growing niche in this world of always-evolving technologies and entreprenurial creativity.
Replication Brokering
This topic is handled in detail below.
Consulting
Precisely what type of consulting might be available at any particular shop depends on the background and expertise of the people there.
Archiving
While storing data on CD-Recordable in any sense could be considered "archiving," the term does have a specialized meaning. Systematic archiving involves maintaining version control, regular backups, and an emphasis on organizing and storing data in a form that can be restored logically and efficiently even after an extended time. Some service bureaus specialize in archiving data for specific types of clients, such as those in the medical, legal or banking fields.

CD Replication Brokers

A broker is an agent who puts together a client with a service provider, frequently adding some facilitating services in between. CD replication is a complex, specialized field, but one whose services are needed by many people in other fields. To bridge the gap between those requiring and those providing disc replication services (groups who frequently do not share a common terminology or jargon, which sometimes results in confusion and miscommunications), a speciality of CD brokering has evolved. These brokers frequently advise clients on what to do to prepare their materials long before they contract with a replication facility for disc manufacturing. Besides optimizing the data for publishing on CD, decisions must be made about labelling, packaging, ordering quantities, and warehousing or distribution of the finished products.

Since CD packaging and labelling requires materials to meet very fine tolerances, some brokers subcontract or refer these jobs to yet other specialists. Some brokers also contract out or broker the task of creating the one-off, or data image master, or have a sound studio record a tape for an audio disc. Then the broker brings all the elements together and makes a contract on behalf of the customer with a replication plant for making a glass master and stampers, and pressing the discs. It is a time-consuming, risky business that requires precise time and resource management as well as strong customer and vendor relations. A good broker can save customers time and money by knowing what is required and where to get it done. Because some brokers have large accounts and do frequent work with one or a few replication facilities, the prices they can offer their customers may be no more, and in some cases even less, than the customer could get going directly to a replicator, and a broker can streamline the process and prevent (actually, absorb) a great deal of the stress involved, especially for first time customers.

Fulfillment Houses

Fulfillment is the term used for providing a complete "horizontal tier" of services, from the beginning of a job through delivery to distributors or end users. Some companies broker or subcontract part of the work on a job, but in the most pure sense of the term everything is done by one organization. An even more specialized form of fulfillment house is one that provides small numbers of products on demand, as well as large manufacturing runs. This kind of "just in time" production is usually more expensive than doing large runs, but it can prevent waste because only enough product is made to fulfill current demands. It also eliminates the need to warehouse unshipped products until they are needed. As well as conserving resources, this can result in a tax savings, since under some governments even unsold inventory may be taxable.

Clarification

When he read this article, someone who has operated a CD service bureau for several years told me he thought I had said that working with a broker or service bureau was a risky business. I actually meant that operating this kind of service is a high-risk operation. The margins are slim, the technology is exacting and constantly changing, and the capital investment required is relatively high. Those who provide CD recording and replication brokering help make this industry work by providing an easy and inexpensive way for potential users to get started, and they have to work very hard to do a good job of it. I did not mean to disparage them in any way. As with any business, you the customer need to investigate service providers to the best extent possible before entering into a contract. The best results are obtained when customer and service provider work together to produce a good product, and when a service provider has knowledge and experience from working with this technology for some time. Listen to whatever advice is offered by people who have done this before. It could help make your product and your project better and easier to accomplish. In general, people do this kind of work because they like it, not to get rich quick, and they tend to know a lot about it because it is something they want to do. Take advantage of that, and enjoy working with some fine professionals.


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