Magazine Article | April 1, 2002

You Generated It, You Scan It

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By capturing paper closer to the point of origin, companies can eliminate costs and improve customer service. If you don't believe it works, ask your competition.

Integrated Solutions, April 2002

Four years ago, a Midwestern integrator named Critical Technologies tackled a pretty complicated document management problem for a national financial services company ("Capturing Customers With A New Application," July 1998, Business Solutions). The integrator's proposal, which was implemented by the financial services company, was to eliminate the centralized scanning of documents and push those processes out to the field. In practice, this meant that branch offices would now have desktop scanners that allowed employees to scan documents (e.g. mortgage applications). The resulting scanned images would then be transmitted to headquarters for approval over a WAN (wide area network). This concept of distributed scanning eliminated the mailing and copying charges that were accrued at the financial services company's 200 branch offices. It also compressed the application approval times and improved customer service.

Distributed Scanning: Overcoming The Barriers To Entry
Critical Technologies did not create the concept of distributed scanning, but the company was certainly at the forefront of the movement. Distributed scanning has been an ongoing trend in the document management industry for the past four years, and the economic conditions of 2001 only served to underscore the point. With departmental and workgroup scanners ranging in price from $2,000 to $8,000, they often pass under the radar screens of purchasing agents. Centralized scanners, which carry price tags in the tens of thousands of dollars, receive much more scrutiny from the purchasing department. For companies that are trying to cut expenses (read: all), distributed scanning eliminates the need to ship documents to a centralized scanning location. And now that branch locations retain documents, copy charges are slashed as well.

For all of its advantages, it's important to remember that distributed scanning and centralized scanning projects will have roughly similar costs to implement. A company with 100 branch locations will need to invest in 100 document scanners, image capture software, and a WAN to accommodate the transfer of images to a centralized location. A centralized environment will require only a few high-volume, high-priced scanners in one location. "The real savings to end users comes after the project is complete," explains Tim Vaughan, worldwide marketing manager, Kodak Document Imaging (Rochester, NY). "When you capture paper closer to the point of origin, you enjoy a whole host of productivity benefits. Your customer service improves as response times drop. And, moving information electronically through your company is much more beneficial than moving it physically through your company."

While the benefits of distributed scanning are obvious, it's equally obvious that not many distributed locations will have scanning experts in-house. In most cases, salespeople, customer service reps, or clerical employees will do the scanning. That's why ease of use is critical. "In one of our sites, the loan officer scans the document and the integrated software detects the page size, deskews the page, and assigns contrast and brightness measurements. For the agent, there is just a green 'scan' button on the monitor that needs to be clicked. The system does the scanning and sends the image right to a centralized server," states Scott Francis, products manager, scanners, Fujitsu Computer Products (San Jose, CA).

In terms of the low-end scanning market, bulletproof designs have advanced to the point where any SOHO (small office, home office) user can use the technology. But, scanners for the distributed environment need to be as easy to use as a copier machine. According to Vaughan, this intuitive interface is forthcoming. "Today's scanners are not specifically designed for distributed scanning. For the people who use these scanners, scanning is a very small part of their overall job. So, this is where I think end users will see improvements - simpler designs and improved interfaces," comments Vaughan.

Color Scanning Will Be Mainstream...Someday
Along with distributed scanning, color scanning has enjoyed a steady march forward and may be on the cusp of mainstream business adoption. When Kodak introduced its color scanner in 1999, the company predicted mainstream acceptance in the mid-volume space within three years. "We were overly optimistic," concludes Vaughan. "In the low-end scanner market, 98% are color. In departmental scanning, about 50% are color scanners. In the production environment, color scanning is still a relatively new idea." However, the price points and performance of many new color scanners should continue to increase those adoption rates. According to Francis, Fujitsu's approach has been to offer both color and monochrome within the same scanner. "Our scanners will not only scan in color, but they are fully backwards-compatible to monochrome or grayscale scanning," explains Francis. "The end user can decide what is best for their application."

Another oft-cited barrier to the adoption of color scanning is the increased file sizes of color images. While this used to be a valid concern a few years ago, increased storage capacities and the drop in storage hardware costs have mitigated this argument. Also, compression ratios and options allow users to balance file size and image quality in color scanning. "Mainstream color scanning relies on two factors. First, color scanners need to be about the same price as black-and-white scanners. Second, software developers need to integrate color scanning into their applications," says Vaughan. "When those two things happen, color scanning will be mainstream. It's that simple."