There are more than an estimated 4 trillion paper documents in U.S. offices, a moon-and-back stack whose volume has been growing by 22% a year -- hardly the route to a paper-free office. But optical-storage and -retrieval databases, previously the province of large institutions only, have plunged in both size and price. Even on an ordinary PC, such systems can file and reference 40,000 pages at once. The documents' exact images -- text and graphics -- are written as digitized data on a disk, similar to a music-playing compact disc, whose capacity far exceeds that of the largest hard drive. Any small business awash in paper can -- and probably should -- get such a system.

Analysas, a $20-million Washington, D.C., contractor, recently did just that. When the company advertises for help, it's flooded with job applications. Office workers used to retype the rÉsumÉs into a conventional database. No more. About 6,000 rÉsumÉs have been optically scanned and written onto disk. And now, via optical character-recognition software, those rÉsumÉs are retrieved and sorted through simple key-word searches. "It's helped us to keep track," exults director of technical operations John Holliday, "and it's reclaiming floor space from filing cabinets." Analysas has also invested in a network for its next application -- handling requests for proposals. Before, those were photocopied for distribution; now they're digitized for paperless viewing.

Analysas paid around $10,000 for its single-user setup from Image Engineering. The price included a 4-page-per-minute scanner, a rewritable optical-storage disk, and software. (Analysas had a PC and a printer.) A fully integrated "plug and play" system costs upwards of $22,500 and comprises a 486 PC with a 200-megabyte hard drive, a fast scanner, a video laser printer, a fax/modem, and an optical storage disk. If that disk gets filled, a peripheral called a jukebox can manipulate more than 250 million documents.

Some PC-level imaging-system players:

Binary Research (800-832-7772) is the developer of EasyImage ($1,000 for software for one station), industry-standard optical-database software.

Robec (215-675-9300) distributes the Panasonic SSP-1 SPIA subsystem (with scanner, printer, interface, and adapter) bundled with EasyImage software. Prices start at $12,630.

Image Engineering (614-899-7226) configures and sells imaging systems. Prices start at $12,500.

Logix International (804-488-1228) configures 486 PCs and adapts them to high-performance imaging systems. Prices start at $22,500. -- Robert A. Mamis

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In the Average Office
Nineteen paper copies are made of each original document; 7.5% of paper documents get lost completely; 3% of the remainder get misfiled; $20 in labor is spent filing or retrieving a document; $120 in labor is spent finding a misfiled document; $250 in labor is spent recreating a lost document.

Source: Lawrence Livermore Labs; Coopers & Lybrand.