Techniques: Product Roundup

Cheap and easy imaging tools are laying waste to paper

Businesses have been trying to convert hard copy into bytes since the birth of the bar code...with minimal success. The challenge has been to translate--reliably and cheaply--ordinary typed text into data that can be manipulated, transmitted, and archived. They've tried and they've failed, and they've paid for that failure with trillions of hours spent retyping documents.

When it first appeared, imaging technology--the combination of hardware and software that transforms paper information into electronic information--seemed to be the solution. Until recently, however, it's had a pretty bad rep, castigated by users for being expensive, unreliable, and difficult to operate. Lately, though, product quality has started to improve, and prices are falling. Today you can buy an imaging package for less than $500 that saves time, labor, and the cost of paper.

"Until a few years ago, imaging technology was a farce. The hardware and software didn't do the job. Now it's opened a whole new world," says Roger Gamblin, president of Flagler Title, a title-insurance agency located in West Palm Beach, Fla. For years, as part of each preclosing review, Gamblin's staff manually assembled and collated hefty packets of legal documents and insurance papers for shipment to the firm's clients. An attempt in 1988 to replace that cumbersome process with imaging technology failed: available products were slow and suited only to archival storage.

These days, however, when it comes time for preclosing reviews, Gamblin's company uses Visioneer's PaperPort Deluxe software ($99) and a slew of Hewlett-Packard HP ScanJets and Visioneer PaperPort scanners to process the necessary documents. An employee records the digitized material onto a CD-ROM and then sends each customer a single disc in one slim envelope. There are three to eight parties involved in a typical deal, so the cost of labor for scanning the hard copy and making a disc is more than offset by the $500 or so each of those clients saves in copying charges and overnight-mail fees.

Imaging technology has advanced on several fronts, but it is software that has shown the most dramatic improvement. Back in the DOS and early-Windows eras, users had to juggle one program to capture an image and another to translate the image text into bytes (a process referred to as optical character recognition, OCR for short). Although imaging software could organize the captured material for review, handling large numbers of images was cumbersome. The worst of it was that OCR could be wildly inaccurate. That meant that documents often had to be corrected manually before a file could be output or even searched by keyword. Today several programs under $100 perform all those functions. Not only are the new programs cheap; they're also easier to master than the most rudimentary word processor.

Hardware, too, is getting friendlier in both price and functionality. Imaging systems designed to handle large volumes or special applications cost thousands of dollars, but a couple of hundred dollars can buy you a large flatbed scanner, a shoe-box-size sheetfed scanner, or a more specialized CD-ROM-drive-size scanner.

At the same time that imaging technology is becoming more usable, it's also becoming more useful. In offices everywhere, rivers of paper--credit-card receipts, expense reports, business cards, and the like--threaten to overflow their banks. Many companies make a lot of noise about reducing their own paper production, but the real challenge is how to deal with incoming paper in its myriad sizes, colors, and formats. Even after paper-bound information is fished out and channeled into central reservoirs of data, the original materials have to be categorized and filed.

The employees at Carver Patent Law Ltd. aren't quite ready to haul their file cabinets out to the curb, but the introduction of imaging technology has had an enormous impact on their daily routine. Every week the Little Rock firm receives as many as 500 documents: briefs, case evidence, graphics of new patents, and more. Until 1995 the company needed a large pool of secretaries just to key those documents into the computer system. Now Jerry Ellerbee, who handles the firm's electronic-document processes, takes each day's haul and submits it to an HP ScanJet 4c scanner ($899) operating Xerox's Pagis Pro 97 software ($99). That system efficiently produces electronic versions that a single secretary can edit and modify on a word processor. The lawyers, for their part, have learned to search those electronic documents for specific words and phrases, instant access to key information that allows them to negotiate settlements even over the phone. In addition to improving the firm's productivity and performance, the technology has cut personnel expenses by $10,000 to $15,000 annually.

Imaging also helps businesses sustain a presence on the World Wide Web. Much of the stuff companies want to put on-line--press releases, brochures, and product photos--was born in the paper world. Imaging tools make it easy to incorporate text and graphics--both paper photos and digital images--into a Web-page design. There are difficulties, however. First, although the software needed to scan images for the Web is relatively cheap, the hardware can be pricey. Count on spending $150 for a scanner, and add $500 or more to that if you need the flexibility offered by a digital camera. Furthermore, because it's tricky to get photographic images to look just right on the Web, you'll probably need imaging products that can crop, resize, and make color corrections.

The type of imaging product you buy depends on the application you have in mind and the amount of physical space you're willing to surrender. Scanners vary greatly in size, shape, throughput capacity, resolution, and adaptability to networks. The three main types are flatbed, desktop-sheetfed, and special-use. Multifunction peripherals--combination printer-fax-scanner-copiers, for example--also qualify as imaging hardware.

If you plan on imaging large objects or pages from books and magazines, you're going to need a flatbed scanner. These scanners operate very much like photocopy machines: you place the document face down on a glass plate, close the lid, and push a button. Basic units from Hewlett-Packard, Umax, Plustek, and other manufacturers go for $100 to $600, and they come bundled with OCR or another kind of image-management software. Some of the scanner manufacturers also include software that lets you integrate the scanning function with fax and E-mail functions.

Automatic document feeders--increasingly a built-in feature--take the tedium out of feeding loose sheets. Some high-end flatbed units come equipped with superfast feeders and the imaging guts to match. Panasonic's KV-SS55EX, for example, can process an impressive 52 single-sided sheets per minute at 150 dots-per-inch (dpi) resolution; it also handles double-sided documents. The cost: more than $8,000. For $2,245, the Ricoh FS2 can give you ultrahigh resolution of 1,200 dpi--way more than you need unless you're doing graphic-arts applications. You can also find special adapters for imaging from media like 35mm slides. Keep in mind that flatbed models take up at least 15-by- 20 inches of space.

Desktop-sheetfed scanners are the best choice for offices where workers need to do their own thing. Smaller than an in-box, a sheetfed scanner can sit on a corner of your desk or snuggle between your keyboard and monitor. Visioneer even makes a keyboard with a built-in black-and-white scanner: you just feed documents one by one into a slot located above the function keys.

For large quantities of loose paper or photos up to eight inches wide, you might consider Microtek's Color PageWiz ($159) or Visioneer's PaperPort Strobe ($249). Their built-in automatic document feeders gobble sheets up as you drop them into a slot one by one (some of these machines let you stack up to 10 sheets at a time). Resolution is usually around 300 dpi --more than adequate for handling documents destined for OCR processing and pictures that are going to be posted on Web pages. And if you don't need to deal with bound materials, sheetfed scanners have some serious advantages over flatbeds: prices that dip below $200 and footprints as small as 5 by 11 inches. Low resolution, however, makes them inappropriate for desktop publishing. The top speed of five pages per minute is attainable if you're willing to settle for 100 dpi; raise that to 300 dpi, and the speed drops to one page per minute.

The special-use category is crowded with contenders that can perform tasks beyond the reach of flatbeds and sheetfeds but that are not as versatile. One of the niftiest special-use scanners is the Argus Scan100 ($200). Using its little pop-out tray--like the one on a CD-ROM drive--you can image small opaque objects like stamps and coins or transparent media like color slides and black-and-white negatives. Then there's Storm Technology's Easy-Photo Drive: feed a color photo up to five-by-seven inches into its mouth, and seconds later your picture is scanned. And the machine's $169 price tag--plus rebate--won't devour your graphics budget.

What your computer does with imaged data is at least as important as how it collects those data.

Up until last year, separate programs were needed to control the scanner, recognize characters, manipulate graphic images, and perform other functions. Today PaperPort Deluxe, Pagis Pro 97, and NewSoft's Presto! PageManager Suite ($49) combine those functions in a single package. Click a button on the virtual desktop of any of those programs, and you can launch the scanner, perform OCR, and drag and drop images into virtual folders for filing.

The programs also work easily with other applications and hardware. Want a paper copy? Simply drag a miniature image of the scanned item onto the virtual desktop's printer icon. Or drag the image onto the fax icon if you want to fax it or onto the E-mail icon if you want to send it as an attachment.

Although the most dramatic improvements in imaging are related to text, graphic imaging is also getting better. Tony Zalatoris of Davison Smith Certo, an architectural firm in Westlake, Ohio, used to prepare renderings--depictions of architectural designs in two-dimensional settings--by hand. He'd cut and paste pictures or clip art onto a graphic that he then sent to an offset printer. With NewSoft's View-Office PowerSuite, the Macintosh equivalent of Presto! PageManager, he scans in a photograph of the setting and electronically cuts and pastes the building, automobiles, and other scaled figures, creating a lifelike rendering for his clients. The total cost: around $300 for ViewOffice and a Mustek flatbed scanner. An Epson Stylus Color Ink Jet printer completes the task.

For all the progress it's made, imaging technology still can't cope with handwritten materials. The technology that could decrypt free-form cursive writing is locked in prolonged infancy because available recognition engines require program and memory resources beyond the realm of personal or business computing. So you can keyword-search those 2,000 pages of manual-typewriter-era archives, but your handwritten records--which can be saved only in graphics files--can't be searched.

One last thought: although it's true that imaging technology itself need not cost much, you may have to invest in expanded data-storage capacity--particularly if you plan to keep copious scanned information. Roughly speaking, each scanned text image takes up about 16 Kb of storage--about 1 Mb for 30 pages. Still, when you consider what you save in labor and paper costs, the trade-off seems well worth it.

David Abrahamson is a freelance writer based in Vienna, Va.

Scanning Horizons
Numerous companies offer a wide range of imaging hardware and software. The following list includes only vendors that are mentioned in this article.

Argus, 847-297-8900

Epson , 800-463-7766

Hewlett-Packard , 800-722-6538

Microtek , 310-297-5000

Mustek , 800-468-7835

NewSoft , 800-436-4365

Panasonic , 800-726-2797

Plustek , 800-685-8088

Ricoh , 800-955-3453

Storm Technology, 888-438-3279

Umax Technologies , 800-562-0311

Visioneer , 800-787-7007

Xerox , 800-248-6550