Computers have been widely used in the world of business for at least 50 years. So it comes as some surprise to learn that some organizations in some industries continue to use paper to gather and share information with other people.

Examining those rare cases where paper persists provides insights into why those organizations keep doing things the old way -- and raise questions about whether the suppliers of paper for those applications could survive despite dwindling demand for their product.

Here's an example.

When tomatoes are picked from a field, they are packed in boxes and loaded onto refrigerated trucks where they might travel to the loading dock in the back of a supermarket.

At that point, the grocery store's shipping manager may decide whether to accept the shipment, reject it, or offer to buy it at a lower price than the seller is demanding.

A key part of that decision is whether the temperature in that truck stayed below an acceptable level throughout the entire trip from field to shipping dock.

To do that, the shipping manager often finds that the quickest way to get that information is to reach for a piece of paper from inside the truck that graphs the temperature over time in the compartment where the tomatoes were shipped.

If the graph shows a line that stays below the required temperature maximum, the shipping manager may accept the shipment at the seller's price. If the temperature spiked during the journey, the shipping manager will either reject the shipment or offer to buy at a discount due to what he knows will be a short shelf life for the tomatoes.

It's much simpler and cheaper for the shipper and the grocery store manager to get this information from paper than from a digital system.

DeltaTrak, based in Pleasanton, CA, makes "in-transit temperature chart recorders [for such] Time And Temperature Sensitive applications in which raw materials are being shipped to manufacturers," according to Fred Wu, President and CEO.

Many of DeltaTrak's customers still like paper. As Wu said, "Customers that do not want to change and international customers prefer paper, and the convenience of no software and no additional reading devices required in order to get the trip data."

DeltaTrak also sees a shift to digital for better data analysis, sharing, and storage. "About 70% of the U.S. market has shifted to digital.  For the international market, maybe only 50% to digital.  The key is ease of data analysis, data communication, and data archiving," said Wu.

Other industries have also seen a shift away from paper -- most notably the oil and gas exploration industry -- which decades ago chart the potential for finding oil at various depths in an underground well using paper charts on big rolls.

PRAXXIS Ltd. Based in Mougins, France, is a petroleum geology consultancy dedicated to the exploration of both conventional and unconventional petroleum. The Director of PRAXXIS, Dr. Fivos Spathopoulos, is an exploration geologist with 25 years of experience in the field of International petroleum research.

PRAXXIS believes that use of paper data collection in the oil exploration industry ended about 20 years ago and will not come back.  "To record exploration-related data, companies generally use digital chart recorders. There is currently, no paper data use. From the mid-1990s onwards, the paper data were phased out due to the coming of three-dimensional seismic data. I do not know one oil company that has not yet moved to digital data. NO ONE is using paper data now, and no one will ever accept paper data in the future. All paper data were scanned in the late 1990s." said Spathopoulos.

$1.2 billion Austin, Texas-based National Instruments makes a compelling case for using digital.  Compared to chart paper recorders, data loggers offer better "flexibility in measurement parameters;  [data analysis to] identify trends and correlations; and [the ability to] use networking technologies to make recorded data available in real time to anyone," explained NI's Anjelica Warren and Chris Davis, Product Marketing Managers - Data Acquisition.

But when it comes to tracking fire safety-related information, paper is still required.

Consider Waltham, MA-based Keltron Corporation that "develops and manufactures UL-listed, life safety event management systems for multi-building facility and municipal environments to improve dispatch and response to fire," according to Lisa Korklan, Vice President of Marketing.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) still requires paper and insurance companies like paper as well. "Paper logs immediately present key information during NFPA-required tests and inspections. And many insurance companies require an easily accessible log of all fire and life safety incidents," explained Korklan.

Record requirements could shift from paper to digital in 2019. NFPA requires "a device for producing a permanent graphic recording of all alarm, supervisory, trouble, and test signals received or retransmitted at each communications center for each alarm circuit. The day may come that the code allows only digital records, but the next edition of the code is scheduled for 2019," said an NFPA spokesperson.

Except for turbidity tests, which measure the concentration of particles in water, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) collects and reports all data digitally.

"All of our water quality monitoring is electronic, and we use data loggers to get the results into our electronic reporting systems.  The one parameter the regulators do want on paper is turbidity (not sure why)." explained Ria Convery, MWRA spokesperson.

Meanwhile regulators are trying to encourage organizations to shift to digital.

The EPA is pushing regulated organizations to do electronic reporting. "In 2013, the EPA issued a memorandum that outlines EPA's policy on e-reporting, which the agency continues to implement" said Emily Bender, EPA spokesperson.

And the FDA allows paper or electronic data collection. "Under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), plans and records can be either a paper document or electronic document," said Theresa Eisenman, EPA spokesperson.

Nevertheless, paper could be around for the next 10 to 20 years in some applications.

Michael Elliott, the President of Allen Datagraph Systems, Inc. (ADSI), based in Derry, NH, said, "There remain today several government regulations - including FDA, FCC, FAA, and military - that require use of paper chart recorders for qualification and maintenance testing.  The cost of changing the regulations does not justify changing from analog to digital as long as analog devices remain available," he said.

Despite these counter-examples, paper charts seem to be going away for most applications.

Comptus, based in Thornton, NH, is a distributor of wind and environmental sensors, transmitters, and controls that started selling chart recorders in 1991.

Comptus "has not sold any chart recorders in over 12 years. We didn't stop selling them.  Customers stopped buying them [due to issues of ] cost and convenience. It is our experience that all data is collected in [digital] data loggers now," said its president, Andrew White.

Paper is going away for these applications -- if you were a paper supplier, would you exit or buy up your struggling rivals?

 

Published on: Jul 11, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.