Magazine Article | September 1, 2003

Imaging Applications Need More Green, Less Red

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Better color scanning technology can cut labor costs in imaging applications and improve the efficiency of employees and processes.

Integrated Solutions, September 2003

A decade ago, companies that adopted document imaging solutions had to learn to limit their processes to black and white. However, bi-tonal scanning may be going the way of the black-and-white televisions and computer monitors. "There have been significant changes in color scanning technology over the past few years," comments Russell Hunt, general manager of Böwe Bell & Howell (Chicago). "There is a wide range of vendors and products to choose from." However, it's likely that, even if your organization has purchased a color-capable scanner, you haven't reintroduced color. Improvements in document scanners and complementary technologies should encourage companies to look at how color can improve their processes.

Color can be critical for capturing many kinds of crucial documents. For instance, international shipping documents may have color stamps that indicate important clearances. Documents on which handwritten notations appear in various colors can also be difficult to interpret when scanned bi-tonally. Because a color image more closely resembles the original document, color scanning may address some objections to imaging solutions. "The color images are sharper and better," says Hunt. "Look at the images produced today and compare them to those from two years ago, and you will see a completely different image quality."

Reduce Presorting, Rescanning Costs
Using color images can reduce labor associated with production scanning. "Labor is the most expensive part of any scanning operation," says Scott Francis, scanner product manager for Fujitsu Computer Products of America (San Jose, CA). "Color often eliminates the need for presorting." Watermarks, stamps, stains, or highlighted areas can all result in illegible images that then have to be rescanned or require adjustments to be captured properly. Likewise, the coffee stain that creates a black blob in a bi-tonal image can easily be differentiated in a color one.

Without production color scanning, many organizations have been sorting out color images to be processed separately, requiring additional labor to reassemble the documents. "One insurance customer was using a flatbed to scan photos offline," reports Hunt. "Between every photo, there was a control sheet to indicate which file the photo was associated with, which required even more scanning and sorting. By using high-speed production scanning in color, the images can be captured into a mixed folder."

Use Color To Speed Processing
Implementing color scanning can increase employee productivity. When reviewing thumbnail images, for instance, users can recognize individual documents much more quickly. Using color to highlight particular fields can speed manual data entry.

Software applications that use color to automate processes are beginning to appear on the market, and their numbers will continue to grow as leading vendors support color output. Use of color is particularly promising for document recognition or for indicating fields on semi-structured documents. "For example, there is software that supports color for form identification," notes Tim Vaughan, worldwide marketing manager for Eastman Kodak (Rochester, NY). "The software can read a patch of color that might even be part of the form design for companies that have control of the forms. Or a form can be marked with a color marker to denote a particular vendor or other element." Dual streaming, which can simultaneously create two images in different formats, offers organizations the benefits of color images while creating a bi-tonal image for applications such as forms processing.

Debunking Color Scanning Myths
"The barriers when color scanning was new are all getting knocked down," says Vaughan. "The question used to be, 'Why color?' Now it's, 'Why not color?'" While sales of color-capable scanners are up, many organizations still have misgivings when it comes to implementing color scanning at a production level.

Myth #1: It's too expensive. "The total cost of ownership for color scanning has become more affordable," contends Hunt. "The cost/performance ratio at the scanner level is much better. Color images are being produced at a faster speed for a lower cost." While virtually eliminating the price difference between color and bi-tonal hardware, manufacturers are offering more tools for image quality in scanners that can run at practically the same speed for color or bi-tonal/grayscale.

Myth #2: Color images require too much storage and bandwidth. While it's true that a color image will be much larger than a bi-tonal one at the same resolution, studies have found that color images can often be just as legible at a much lower resolution. In addition, new compression technologies such as JPEG 2000 and the wide acceptance of PDF (portable document format) have resulted in relatively small file sizes. "Part 1 of JPEG 2000 is already here, and provides a much better quality image with the same file size as JPEG," says Francis. "PDF is also emerging as a standard for color scanning. One Chicago area bank has adopted it because it can hold different compressions in the same image. If an organization is concerned about the storage expense, it may want to consider segment-based color compression." By breaking down the document into at least three layers (background, foreground, and text), users have options such as capture text at high resolution for OCR (optical character recognition) while downsizing other elements to reduce file size.

Of course, using color images doesn't mean you have to save color images. "In a local government implementation in San Diego, color images are used in AP [accounts payable] workflow," says Francis. "Invoices and supporting documents entering the mailroom are scanned in color and routed for approval. When those images were monochrome, users often had to go back to the original paper when an area was highlighted or there was some other question. After the AP process is completed, the images are stored in monochrome to reduce space."

Given that the majority of production scanners being sold are color, it's likely most organizations have the technology. They simply need to look for areas where it can improve their processes. "Try to do a pilot with some documents, and you won't go back," asserts Vaughan.