Magazine Article | May 1, 1998

A Large Supermarket Chain Gains Faster Access To Its 4.5 Million Documents

Source: Field Technologies Magazine
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Intermediary solution, between CD-ROM and microfilm, allows Star Markets, a supermarket chain, to gain the functions of document & image management without the cost.

Integrated Solutions, May-June 1998

Microfilming documents had been a standard practice since 1980 for Star Markets, a grocery store chain in the New England area with 52 stores (including its Wild Harvest branches). The company places vendor invoices, purchase orders, packing slips and bills of lading onto microfilm. However, as the company expanded and more advanced technology became available, it became evident that simply microfilming alone was not the long-term answer the chain was looking for.

More Stores Equals More Documents
Star Market's microfilm collection included more than 4.5 million documents. All of the microfilm is stored at Star Market's corporate offices in Cambridge, MA. Several full-time employees had been converting the documents to microfilm in-house, but that task became too great as the company grew and the number of weekly documents needing to be microfilmed surpassed 5,700.

The company often needed to look up information about a vendor with whom it was having problems with shipping, conflicting invoices, etc. To do this, employees had to pull up the microfilm on a viewer and then print it. This was a laborious task because they had to locate each document on each roll of microfilm and print out a hard copy individually. Because of a backlog, many documents had not yet been put on microfilm and employees had to locate the original copy from a filing cabinet.

Disadvantages Of A Reader/Printer
"We used an old reader/printer system to print out documents from the microfilm," says Jeff Pierce, manager of accounts payable at Star Markets. "The film quality and the print process it went through did not produce a clear image most of the time." A reader/printer prints microfilm documents onto thermal paper from a projected image. Printouts are in negative (white on black) format, often speckled, unclear and deteriorate over time, much like a fax.

"The reader/printer was a huge, cumbersome machine. It required approximately a ten square foot area and experienced a lot of down time," Pierce asserts. "It required service often, produced poor quality printouts, and it was becoming difficult to support with parts or service by the manufacturer." When the reader/printer went down, documents on microfilm were unavailable.

What Was The Technology Implemented?
Pierce did not want to purchase another microfilm reader/printer. However, he did not want to invest in an expensive CD-ROM storage application, either. In addition, he wanted to outsource all of the actual microfilming process. He contacted New England Micrographics (Manchester, NH), a reseller of imaging products, for a solution. What Pierce decided upon was the Fujifilm M Drive (from Fuji Photo Film USA, Inc.), which filled a gap between the microfilm and CD-ROM. The M Drive connects directly to a PC and allows users to quickly retrieve 16mm microfilm images and capture them electronically onto their PC. It digitizes documents within 2 seconds and makes them available as a TIFF image which can be e-mailed, faxed, retrieved electronically over a network, or printed out directly from a user's PC.

Working in conjunction with Fujifilm's MS-1600 software, the M Drive produces positive images (black on white) that are much clearer than the old reader/printer printouts. This software allows the user to size, despeckle, border erase and deskew the scanned image. What appears on the screen is an enhanced version of the image. The M Drive also provides users with an indexing capability where anything that is stored on a roll of microfilm can be indexed on the M Drive. When searching for documents, users can simply key in a pre-indexed code (concerning Vendor X for example) on the PC. The M-Drive will let them know where the documents concerning Vendor X are on each roll of microfilm.

Benefits The M Drive Has Provided Star Markets
"The M Drive allows us more efficiency," says Pierce. "When looking up information on a vendor, we actually can program the M Drive to print a batch of invoices at once. Our invoices are indexed on the M Drive by vendor number and invoice number. If we need to check on a particular vendor, we simply key in the vendor number on the PC and the M Drive will locate, retrieve, digitize and print all of those invoices from the microfilm."

Employees of Star Markets still have to physically put the roll of microfilm into the M Drive. However, employees no longer have to search through each roll of microfilm, look for a vendor's invoice, print it, and then look for the next one to print on that same roll.

Pierce adds, "The most important thing is the copies are much clearer now. Often, in our business, problems boil down to signatures. In the past we couldn't always read the signatures from the microfilm. This device provides us with a quality printout we did not have before."

Outsourcing The Microfilm Process
As well as providing the technology to solve Star Markets' reader/printer problem, New England Micrographics is a service bureau for the store chain's actual microfilming. Star Markets no longer places documents onto the actual microfilm in-house. It is all outsourced to New England Micrographics, which simply provides the microfilm rolls to Star Markets on an ongoing basis. This eliminates the labor-intensive process Star Markets had with the 5,700 documents a week it placed on microfilm. Employees now can spend their time doing more productive tasks around the office.

"We still have a large quantity of microfilm boxes. That has not gone away, but we have freed up labor and space with this solution and it was three times cheaper than a CD-ROM solution," Pierce states. "We feel we are getting the technology of CD-ROM without paying for the processing of CD-ROM."