It has become a common practice for many businesses to convert paper documents into digital data. Doing so significantly improves operational efficiency, improves communication, reduces administrative burdens and costs, and even helps to achieve compliance with governmental regulations. Network scanning (with a document scanner that resides on a company's network, rather that being attached to a dedicated PC) has become a way to enhance an existing document management system or even form the nucleus of a brand new one. If executed properly, network scanning can become a powerful tool. As such, organizations of any size should do a little homework before selecting and installing a network scanning solution.
"Researching print and online publications, visiting vendor Web sites, and attending trade shows and imaging seminars to learn how network scanners can and are being employed by end users is a great place to start," says Roger Markham, product marketing manager, distributed capture, document imaging, Graphic Communications Group, Eastman Kodak Company. "It is advisable for a potential purchaser to contact a reseller who knows the available technologies and product options and, most importantly, will take the time to ask questions about what the purchaser wants to achieve through document capture and management." Regardless of whether a user chooses to involve a reseller or not, a thorough assessment of existing systems, networks, and needs will be required in order to make the right choices and achieve desired results.
Determine Your Need For Network Scanning
The first consideration is to determine if network scanning is the best choice for a given environment. "Understanding which users need scanning, where those users are, the volume and frequency of the scanning, and what they intend to do with the images are all important in determining whether a network scanner, PC-connected scanner, or MFP [multifunction peripheral] is most appropriate," says David Haining, product marketing manager, commercial scanjets, HP. It is important to contemplate the following questions before selecting a scanning solution:
n How many people will need to use the device? For users who need to scan a low volume of documents, a shared network device with robust security capabilities may be a good solution. However, if employees need to scan a higher volume or need to scan documents frequently, a desktop, PC-connected scanner is likely a better option than a network scanner.
n How often will you be scanning, and at what volume? Companies that want to scan documents frequently or at high volumes can still successfully implement network scanning solutions but should employ due diligence when researching the speed, hardiness, and recommended duty cycles of the scanning hardware. A dual-head duplex scanner with a high capacity ADF (automatic document feeder) and fast scan rates would be a satisfactory option.
n What type of documents will you be scanning? Not all media are created equal. In most applications, a sheet-fed scanner is appropriate. However, in some network scanning applications, users will have the need to scan documents that are not a simple sheet of paper. For example, a medical office will generally require a scanner with the capability to scan plastic identification cards. Flatbed scanners have the ability to handle a wider variety of media, including odd-size paper documents and bound or thicker materials.
While network scanning may be appropriate for any size business, it may not be appropriate for every application. In general, scanning with a network device should be reserved for lower-volume tasks that require accessibility by a variety of users. The choice of devices can vary, as well. If the primary scanning tasks are associated with communication, such as e-mail or fax, an MFP may be an ideal fit. However, if scanning functions are low volume but frequent, such as only a few pages at a time but several times an hour, a dedicated network scanner may be the better choice. Additionally, opting for a single-function scanner will avoid contention with the other capabilities of the MFP.
Be Prepared For Network Scanning Challenges
Before implementing any network scanning program, it is imperative to ensure access to an existing secure network that includes secure file storage. In some cases, the need for security may be determined by governmental regulation or compliance mandates, such as Sarbanes-Oxley or HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). In others, it may have more to do with a company's own internal processes, such as when employee files are being scanned. Security implications can even have an impact on who in the organization has the ability to scan and retrieve files.
"With more people having system access through network scanning, companies need to consider security," says Kodak's Markham. "Hardware manufacturers are working with software developers to establish security measures that ensure authentication and document security. This can include integrated user authentication on the hardware along with a standard log-in procedure." Security features such as SMTP (simple mail transfer protocol) and LDAP (lightweight directory access protocol) authentication are also available that enable users to safely transfer scans and protect digital files.
Other challenges can be directly related to not fully understanding a company's existing network. "Examples of issues that could arise include technical incompatibility with the network file server [i.e. Windows, Linux] and the possibility of slow network performance caused by increased data transmission," says Scott Francis, senior director of product marketing, Fujitsu Computer Products of America. "To prepare for these challenges, companies should ensure that the network scanner is compatible with the existing network prior to purchase." Francis adds that performing proper pilot testing will alleviate this challenge and identify if additional network bandwidth will be necessary.
HP's Haining says data consistency can also be a challenge. "Given that the scanner will be used by many employees, it is critical that policies are put in place to assure scanning is handled in a consistent manner," says Haining. "For example, a company may establish a policy that a file name should look like the following: company name_account number_document type. If one user plugs in the account number with dashes and another one inputs it without dashes, the documents may not be retrievable in the system." This can be of particular concern if the data captured will flow into a document management system. In that case, companies should be sure to determine how indexing will occur and what ECM (enterprise content management) applications will be fed by these documents before making a decision on which device to deploy.
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Overall, network scanning will continue to proliferate as more users realize the applicability of the technology. In addition, the technology will continue the trend toward ease of use and the integration of the advanced features and functionalities typically found on larger, more expensive scanners. "Today's network scanner options include integrated keyboards, touch screen displays, thumbnail viewing, searchable PDF creation, document encryption, and automatic image enhancement/processing, as well as connectivity to back end ECM systems," says Francis. It is important for companies that move forward with a network scanning implementation to remain aware of the variety of both hardware and software options. This will ensure that the network scanning solution created today will continue to be a valuable part of a document management strategy in the future.