Panasonic: Smart Document Scanning in the Digital Age: Taming the Paper Tiger

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Each year the world produces more than 300 million tons of paper. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, printing and writing papers typically found in a school or office environment such as copier paper, computer printouts and notepads, comprise the largest category of paper product consumption.

The average office worker continues to use a staggering 10,000 sheets of copy paper every year.

In 2002 Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper published The Myth of the Paperless Office. Their thesis was that we are never going to truly divorce ourselves from paper in an office environment. Additionally, since the introduction of electronic communications the use of paper has increased. Sellen and Harper give five reasons why paper will continue to be used and the psychology behind it:

1. Authoring: When writing users prefer to have their references and materials printed around them, perhaps because they can be located within a three-dimensional space and grabbed as needed.³

2. Annotation & Review: When reviewing someone’s work the ability to comment and understand a colleague’s work is easier to do on paper.³

3. Planning: When organizing projects and activities, it is easier to do on paper, perhaps because it is easier to see a larger timeline emerge.³

4. Collaboration: When sharing information in a meeting or in a group, people can annotate and follow the group’s discussion with a shared paper or a shared whiteboard at hand.³

5. Organizational communication: When there is something you need to guarantee others seeing, you print it in paper and walk it to their desk.

Summary

In this White Paper, we will attempt to determine a solution for taming the paper tiger syndrome.  More important, with many individual corporations and even entire industries still drowning in oceans of paper, we will show how advanced document scanners — relatively simple, objectively low-tech pieces of hardware  – can be deployed to grab that metaphysical paper tiger by the tail, wrestle it to the ground, and keep it subdued today, tomorrow, and far into the future.

Whatever Happened to that Clean Desk and Empty in Basket?

Although there is some disagreement on the subject, the phrase “paperless office” first intruded itself into public awareness in the June 30, 1975, edition of Business Week Magazine. In an article therein, an uncredited writer quotes Xerox Research Center Director, George E. Pake, who states boldly, “There is absolutely no question that there will be a revolution in the office over the next 20 years. What we are doing will change the office like the jet plane revolutionized travel and the way that TV has altered family life … I don’t know how much hard copy [printed paper] I’ll want in this world.”

Interpreting Pake’s statement as containing solely the option for zero hard copies, the article adds the fateful phrase … “Some believe that the paperless office is not that far off …. “

“The paperless office,” three words that despite defining and describing essentially nothing became the title of numerous books, articles, and theses, and a buzz phrase used by both futurists, such as information technology pioneer and Project Xanadu developer Ted Nelson (“The paperless office is possible, but not by imitating paper”) and traditionalists, for instance library search-system developer Jesse Shera , who called paperless solutions “about as plausible as the paperless bathroom.”

The phrase also resonated with more practical thinkers, such as Bill Gates who, virtually a quarter-century after it was coined, noted “The paperless office … is one of those ‘any day now’ phenomena that somehow never seem to actually arrive. Paper consumption has continued to double every four years, and 95 percent of all information in the United States remains on paper, compared with just one percent stored electronically.  Paperwork is increasing faster than digital technology can eliminate it.”

Fortunately for corporate America, Gates was only partially right when he made that statement in 1999. The “paperless office” was, as it still is, a chimera, but the rise of broadband internet availability, massive decreases in the cost of digital storage media, vast improvements in the speed and accuracy of document scanners, and significant upgrades in the performance of optical character-recognition software had by then begun turning back the flood of newly created paper documents and helping move tons of long-archived paper records from offices to incinerators.

By 2016, despite ongoing and significant declines in workflow deployment of such other document-capture devices such as fax machines and copiers, document-scanner integration had become so ubiquitous that, in the words of Infotrends magazine, “The proliferation of scanning and capture throughout business for common tasks such as scan to email and more sophisticated scanning to be integrated into business process is vast. Scanning has become mainstream, a frequent task for everyday knowledge workers as well as process workers.”

According to Patricia Ames, President of BPO Media’s Workflow and Imaging Channel periodicals, document scanners play an even bigger role in the collection and organization of information intended for distribution to designated interest groups such as executives, managers, resellers, etc. “I think that scanners are the most important part of the Enterprise Content Management equation, so long as paper usage remains pervasive,” Ms. Ames says. “A lot of folks are going digital for obvious reasons–more efficient, faster, fewer mistakes, lower operating costs, and without scanners, they wouldn’t be able to integrate information stored on paper into these systems (without retyping it). “Of course, the scanner doesn’t do all of the work — OCR/capture/route software does a lot of heavy lifting in the conversion of paper to digital form. I don’t know what type of improvements they can make, as scanning is a very simple process — feed paper across a camera (typically a CCD or CMOS cell) as fast as you can, then send that image somewhere.”

Despite reputable studies projecting compound annual growth rates of up to 14 percent for workgroup document scanners over the rest of the decade (Technavio Global Document Scanner Market 2016-2020), Ms. Ames raises a significant issue pertaining to the role of document scanners in the (paperless or not) office of the future.  Will paper usage remain “pervasive” or are we headed for a more paperless society which, though few commentators of the past century seemed to recognize it, is a necessary precursor to a paperless office. Though little hard data on which to base a forecast is available, what measurable trends there seem to indicate that progress toward a paperless society has peaked and is, in some markets, now moving in reverse.

As one example, e-book sales in the U.S., UK, and Canada declined steeply in both 2015 and 2016, while sales of both paperback and hardcover books rose sharply. Typical of the entire two-year period, according to the Association of American Publishers, 2016 saw book sales declining by nearly 19 percent while paper book sales have increased by almost 12 percent.One telling point in favor of the “paper is here to stay” point of view is a British survey by the youth research organization Voxburner that found 62 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds preferred print books to e-books.

Somewhat supportively, an across-all-age-groups U.S.A. study by the Pew Research Center found 65  percent of Americans reported reading a printed book during 2016, compared to only 28% who read an e-book.An even more powerful debating point in paper’s favor, one directly relating to the bottom line, is media research firm Statista’s projection that U.S. magazine 2018 ad-revenue will reach $15.23 billion for print publications and only $4.34 billion for online-only and online editions of print magazines combined.

Certain industries such as healthcare also stand as fortresses protecting individual sheets of paper, literally billions of them a year, from any and all digital solutions threatening to make organic document storage materials obsolete. The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reports roughly three upfront and personal healthcare system encounters for every American man, woman and child annually. Every visit to a doctor or hospital today requires multiple pieces of paper to be filled out as per HIPAA guidelines, many of them simple boilerplate forms requiring nothing but a signature, that have to be scanned, filed and disbursed to insurance claims offices, referring or referred doctors, government agencies and, more and more frequently these days, to patients themselves via online patient portals.Even where the healthcare industry could be acting proactively to somewhat lessen the blizzard of paper in which it operates, it seems largely unwilling to do so.

For example, the average initial visit with a doctor requires a patient, depending on the medical specialty involved and other factors, to fill out between 8 and 20 pages of personal and family medical history forms and other formatted data. Eight and 20 pages that is frequently available to the patient as a PDF to be downloaded, printed, scribbled on in pen and ink and presented to the doctor’s receptionist at the first appointment. The vast majority of these are standard documents that can be easily made available to individual practitioners as web-fillable forms for use by patients who would later electronically sign them at the doctor’s office. Net result? A lot less writer’s cramp and feeling abused by the patient and easy, paperless entry into the doctor’s medical and billing workflows. Instead the paper sheets proliferate merrily via download and print or snail mail to the patient, and eventually join all the other grist for the front or back office document scanner’s mill.

 Panasonic System Communications Company’s Product Manager for Document & Imaging Products, Joe Odore, is one person who believes paper will remain a pervasive, ubiquitous fact of business life for at least four decades. A fact of business life that scanners will continue to capture, refine, and convert into essential, easily retrievable digital data.“ Quick access, process automation and compliance, in my opinion, is the driving force behind scanner adoption,” Odore says. “While technology is replacing many of the paper-based documents, there is a need to convert existing paper into digital content and there continues to be the ongoing needs for paper-based processes. For instance, people still write checks to pay bills. Most if not all companies and financial institutions are scanning the checks and storing them as proof of payment … scanning them and making them available via their online accounts or printed on monthly statements. “

The U.S. government has kept records and documents for the past 100 years due to their own compliance policies and most of them, prior to the last 10 to 20 years since scanners have been on the market, are still sitting in boxes collecting dust in warehouses,” Odore adds. “Eventually all of them will have to be digitalized in a form that make them easy to find, identify, and access.”While Uncle Sam is never troubled by the cost of such things as storing 50 or 100 thousand tons of cardboard boxes and file cabinets filled with yellowing paper, the same cannot be said for the average public company.Quite to the contrary, the average public company must deal with realities like: 1. High-rise office rental space averaging, according to a 2017 report from real estate services firm JLL, $43.70 a square foot and 2. Standard four-drawer legal-size filing cabinets occupying slightly more than 10 square feet.

Doing the math is simple, about $500 a year in rent (somewhat less if lateral or other forms of file cabinets are used) for every one of, in many large firms, hundreds of file cabinets full of legacy documents clinging to life simply because of document retention laws, the need for historical records or other perfectly valid reasons.Perfectly valid except for one thing. Nobody currently alive, let alone still employed in the office, has any idea how all those old files were organized. Is there an index? Was there ever an index? What about cross-indexing? Are all the documents relating to that 30-year-ago merger together in one rusty file drawer or are they scattered throughout the document storage room in the separate files for each company that took part, opposed or supported the merger? And on and on it goes … days of effort, scores of personnel hours to resurrect the details of one almost forgotten deal brought back to life by some totally unexpected bankruptcy filing or auditor inquiry.

Which is, of course, where optical character recognition comes in. Scanning a room full of files and storing the images on a secure server will free the space formerly occupied by their file cabinets for repurposing, but it won’t make the information on them a bit more accessible than it was on paper. A typical OCR program will transform the scanned image into a PDF document that can be easily searched for specific information such as customer names, invoice dates, brand and model names, etc. A new-generation OCR program like Panasonic’s PremierOCR, which combines intelligent pre-processing with best-in-class OCR and dramatic file compression to produce compact, fully high-speed searchable PDFs with nearly 99 percent accuracy, can, when stored and indexed in an appropriate database, solve the above merger problem in a virtual eye blink.

A simple search for the merger by name will instantaneously give you access to every document related to the transaction regardless of where it was hidden in the file cabinets. Adding basic Boolean search operators such as “and,” “or”, “not” to the search query will just as quickly limit your returns to documents involving specific companies, documents signed within a specific time frame, etc. Another new technology, one which dwarfs even advanced OCR applications in its implications for scanners as an increasing presence in workflow automation, is the physical and electronic integration of computational power and scanning hardware. Early examples of this integration, as exemplified by Panasonic’s line of tablet PC-controlled Network Solution scanners, allow a single scanner to operate other scanners on a network without an external PC controller. As deployed by Panasonic, the purpose-programmed tablets help relieve the scanner’s drain on network PC resources by taking over such tasks as auto-rotation, de-skew and image enhancement.

“There’s quite a bit of processing power on that tablet, so you can (hypothetically) do a lot of things,” Joe Odore says.

Scanning the Near- and Long-Term Horizon

For approximately the past 30 years, networked front office and workgroup scanners have played a fundamental, vital, but essentially mechanical role in the document workflow process. As Joe Odore notes, current scanners are primarily “just meant to create a clean digital image while (on PC) software does the rest of the work.

”During this referenced period the prime elements in scanner marketing were image quality as defined by CCD resolution, sensitivity and charge-amplifier quality, and speed ratings based on the number of pages or images the device could scan per minute under optimum conditions (high-quality originals of the same size, weight, etc.).With some high-volume, high-speed scanners now offering capture rates nearing 300 images per minute, most experts agree that the horsepower race has probably run its course. Given current PC capabilities and the number of back-office tasks they are typically called upon to perform, capture rates significantly higher than those currently available would make unacceptably high resource demands on the computers receiving, OCRing, sorting, filing and/or delivering the scanned documents.In the near term, therefore, many of the “improvements” in today’s scanners will have their genesis in outreach and strategic partnering agreements rather than in manufacturer’s R&D labs.

Look to see scanners with increased compatibility, connectivity, and UI homogeneity with third-party software vendors specializing in solutions filling specific needs for targeted industries. Other near-term projections include seeing document scanners becoming the dominant, if not sole, hard-copy input device in many offices by taking over the functions of inefficient, slow, limited image-quality devices like fax machines and copiers. Gazing farther down the road of technological development, we see numerous evolutionary, perhaps even revolutionary, possibilities inspired by Panasonic’s game-changing merger of scanning and computing functions in its Network Scanner Solution Tablet line.

To put it another way, is it really so very difficult, in this age of Smart Phones, Smart Homes, Smart TVs, Smart Cars, and SMART (Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic and Timely)

Objectives to imagine:

  • Scanners with internal storage for thousands of documents and logic circuits that release those documents for processing in sync with a PC’s peak, average, and minimal work cycles.
  • Scanners whose internal computer functions can analyze a 17-page expense report, including four pages of taped-on restaurant receipts, and render it as a spreadsheet with over-the-limit per-diem expenditures highlighted in red.
  • Scanners with integrated PC pods optimized to OCR paper health records, converting them into fully formatted EHR documents and correctly entering them into its associated EHR application’s file system.

If that’s not enough, imagine scanners with built-in computers driven by customized CPUs and memory circuits … single-purpose chips which, like those in gaming consoles, significantly outperform those in general-purpose computers and power

  • Scanners that flawlessly input documents of differing sizes, ages, paper types, and languages, OCR them, render them in one or more of a palette of encrypted or non-encrypted formats — including searchable PDF and searchable/editable Word or Text documents – all of them linked to a highly compressed, pure, non-editable, undeletable, legally admissible digital image of the original.
  • Scanners that will do all that, plus analyze and briefly summarize the contents of each document and distribute the file and its summary in less time than it now takes to process the first page of a scanned small-type contract.

Once upon a time not so long from now, 2020 or thereabouts to be precise, a team of immaculately dressed, well-spoken, highly confident manufacturer’s reps will enter the lobby of a modern, upscale, high-rise office tower in Any City, USA. They’ll sign in, get their passes, take the elevator, and eventually get to the point where they have their attaché cases open on an executive’s desk. Carefully, moving an existing stack of paper out of the way, they’ll unload their full-color brochures, glossy spec sheets, and other expensive collateral. The executive will lean forward in his over-sized, genuine leather Aeron chair, and take a few quick glances at the pictures of the world’s “latest, greatest” scanner line as the sales reps begin to sell their story and what a story it will be of a new line of integrated, do-it-all scanners that add an incredible array of assets to corporate document workflow without subtracting an iota of system resources or performance.

For more information on document scanning, visit Panasonic here.

[1] ©2016 The Paperless Project – www.thepaperlessproject.com/facts-about-paper-the-impact-of-consumption/

[1] ©2016 The Paperless Project – www.thepaperlessproject.com/facts-about-paper-the-impact-of-consumption/

[1] The Myth of the Paperless Office – MIT Press 2002, Abigail J. Sellen, Richard H.R. Harper

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