Analyst reports have identified workgroup scanning as the fastest growing segment of the scanning hardware market. According to InfoTrends, a firm dedicated to providing worldwide research and analysis on digital imaging and document scanning solutions, the proportion of workgroup scanners in the market will represent 81% of the units sold by 2011. But does the growth of workgroup scanning nullify the benefits that can be realized in a production scanning or centralized scanning environment? Certainly not. A recent conversation with three industry vendors reveals that production scanning remains as valuable and appropriate as ever. In fact, in certain paper-laden applications it may be the only logical choice. Either way, vendors are driving innovations in their production scanning hardware that address entire business processes, not just fast imaging speeds.
Move Production Scanning To The Front End
Historically, production scanning has been analogous to a centralized, back room operation occurring only at the end of a business process. For example, in an accounting office, files would not be sent to the scan room until all administrative tasks were complete. In other words, not until the final bill was paid or payment was received and recorded. Although scanned images were often released into a secondary software system for data entry clerks to enter index and metadata information, all of this occurred after the fact. The data could be retrieved for later review or use, but not during the actual business process itself.
Many companies, especially large enterprises with massive paper file loads, have already realized the value of production scanning as part of an archival and records management strategy. In addition, backfile conversion projects were also prime targets for production scanning installations, with the ability to image large volumes of paper documents in a relatively short amount of time. However, the first distinction industry vendors wish to make clear about today's production scanning solutions is that the technology has evolved way beyond scan-to-archive.
"Evaluating production scanning equipment used to focus only on the actual conversion of the paper to digital," says Phil Sylvester, marketing projects administrator at OPEX. "Those basic technology needs have been met, and a listing of scanner features and tech-speak just isn't going to cut it in today's market." Production scanning hardware vendors have been shifting the focus of their products, reducing the emphasis on impressive speeds and feeds and stressing the importance of understanding the entire life cycle of a document within a business process instead.
The vendors following this trend are on the right track, considering the efficiencies companies wish to gain through document imaging can't be met by a simple scan-to-archive strategy. To gain the most value from any imaging strategy, a company must be able to address needs that are centered on process improvement and productivity. For example, if you revisit the same accounting office mentioned above, much more efficiency can be gained if documents are imaged and data is captured and indexed at the beginning of the process. This can make the digital data available to other LOB (line of business) applications, such as an ERP (enterprise resource planning) system, and can enable the automation of traditionally manual processes. The data extracted from the documents at scan time can be used to immediately route the image to a specific work stream for further processing. For instance, if an invoice number, date, and payment amount can be extracted from a remittance invoice and fed into a back end workflow process at the time of scanning, a data entry or accounting clerk doesn't have to manually enter or verify that information in the ERP system. If all the data matches between the remittance and the ERP, that transaction can flow straight through the approval process without another worker having to view it.
"Cost reduction through the use of technology makes sense," says Jim Bunn, business development manager at IBML. "As processing speeds have continued to increase, the horsepower now exists to enable sophisticated data capture tools to be integrated with the scanning platform, and the most significant enhancement in production scanning is in the area of in-line data capture." What Bunn is referring to by in-line data capture is the ability to capture and extract information simultaneously as the documents move down the scanner track, rather than as a separate process. "Specialized scanners capable of capturing data in-line have been on the market for many years; however, their size and cost made them prohibitive for all but a few applications," says Bunn. "Today, affordable in-line OCR [optical character recognition], OMR [optical mark recognition], 2D bar code reading, and document typing are available to a much broader range of end users. These tools provide a valuable cost reduction opportunity."
But it is important to understand that vendors aren't limiting software integration to basic data capture. More frequently, modern high-volume production scanners — as well as some of their lower-volume counterparts — are being labeled as 'intelligent' scanners, with vendors integrating software tools to enable automatic image classification and data extraction, as well as advance recognition technologies such as ICR (intelligent character recognition) for handwritten text and even MICR (magnetic ink character recognition) for check processing. Combined, these tools make high-volume production scanning a much more viable — and valuable — solution to be introduced at the beginning of a business process.
By identifying key information within a document as part of an in-line capture process, companies can also reduce preparation costs. For example, classification technologies can automatically identify a document by form type, bar code, or even by using context analytics. This eliminates most of the manual prep required to sort documents into batches and insert separator sheets. In addition, identifying documents automatically during scanning enables users to set up the scanning operation to outsort specific documents into separate scanner pockets, stackers, or bins after imaging occurs. An example of this would be in a remittance processing scenario, where checks are scanned along with other remittance documents. The scanner can image all documents and automatically sort the check into a different slot, eliminating the need for the scanner to locate and pull checks for deposit manually.
Finally, production scanning has also made great strides in the validation process. No longer does a suspect image require the operator to temporarily halt the imaging process to address the document in question. "Advancements in image quality assurance will enable organizations to define the metrics for how they want to handle suspect images, whether postscan or in-process by stopping the transport," says Peter Caporal, director of portfolio management at BancTec. "With the ability to feed suspect files to a stand-alone workstation while still scanning, and then being able to accept, reject, or make adjustments to the images, users can significantly improve image quality without slowing down the scanning operation."
Deploy Production Scanning As A Shared Services Solution
Because of the size, speed, and often the cost of production scanning equipment, many companies are realizing how to leverage an investment in production scanning to provide services to multiple business units throughout their organizations. For example, despite the increasing ability to interact with clients via the Internet, insurance and financial services continue to process large amounts of paper on a department-to-department or location-to-location basis. "Although there are business applications to support distributed scanners [such as policy or account applications scanned at an agent's site], production scanning operations utilizing a shared services model continue to grow in these segments," says IBML's Bunn.
The shared service model is also driving the increasing adoption of digital mailroom solutions, where document volumes demand a production scanning solution. "Companies are starting to realize that there is enormous benefit in imaging documents and capturing information at the point paper first enters the business, i.e. the mailroom," says Caporal. "By taking the paper document out of the process earlier, the information not only can get to the business application or knowledge worker who needs it faster, but it can be tracked and monitored all along the way."
Caporal makes a good point when he refers to tracking and monitoring information captured during the scanning process. Companies in all verticals are required to comply with regulations involving information. For example, the FRCP (Federal Rules of Civil Procedure) are regulations that outline procedures for civil litigation within the U.S. federal court system.
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A section of the FRCP deals with how electronically captured and stored information is to be handled, requiring companies to provide audit trails of who had access to the information and how and when revisions are made. The need to meet increasing compliance regulations will drive further innovation in production scanning hardware and software integration.