Scannerby Patricia Ames, The Imaging Channel

As digital transformation continues to grab hold of more and more businesses, paper usage continues to decline. But don’t let this dip fool you — there is still paper at play. A lot of it. Just because you stopped using paper doesn’t mean the rest of the world did too. And then, even if we are truly going digital, all of that existing paper has to be digitized somehow. 

So, lo and behold, digital transformation replaces one problem with another. How are we going to integrate all of these disparate incoming documents into our fancy new business software that was supposed to eliminate paper? 

Scanners. 

These aren’t your mamma’s scanners either; we’re talking about intelligent, lightning fast, precision instruments that can swallow and digest tall stacks of paper in a matter of minutes. On the truly high end of the spectrum are machines that can capture two entire copies of “The Iliad” and then some in under four minutes. Such speeds may not be practical for most businesses, but high-volume operations like busy law firms, service bureaus, insurance companies and government offices, to name a few, all rely on making tons of information available immediately. 

Efficiency in Automation

What used to simply be a question of “how will I scan all 1,000 documents that need to be scanned and still have time to accomplish any other tasks?” is now “What system will automate all of the document-related tasks that I need complete after I have scanned these 1,000 pages, and have it done by lunch?”

Speed only complements the modern scanner’s greatest benefit: automation. High-capacity automatic document feeders (ADF) can sort through a multitude of batches made up of a variety of mixed media as well as a wide range of paper weights and sizes, and the only help it needs is the push of a few buttons, or sometimes only one. Thanks to innovations in ADF technology, these devices have found homes in a variety of industries. Many machines offer ADF/flatbed combos so users can capture everything from delicate or oddly shaped originals, like old receipts or pages from a bound book, to mixed batches with one device. More advanced machines can accept all types of media through the ADF, including credit cards, checks, thick and thin media, and long documents — most as long as 10 feet, and a few outliers that can capture documents even longer. This can help insurance agencies and healthcare providers, or any other business that is constantly capturing high volumes of mixed-media batches, save time and provide better and faster service.

And thanks to the increasingly popular feature of misfeed detection and prevention technology, a scanning device can take care of itself. These devices can be programmed to take a specific action should a misfeed occur — stop the scan and alert the operator, continue scanning, or retry to scan the misfed document. Together, these features work to foster interventionless scanning, enabling users to complete other tasks while jobs are in process. 

Most devices enable businesses to build customized scan profiles — a set of preprogrammed instructions that tell the device which image enhancement and batch settings, OCR and barcode recognition instructions, indexing and routing commands and other features should be applied to a given job, then embed those profiles in the device’s control panel to streamline job configuration. These profiles can be set up to replicate virtually any scanning workflow need, enabling businesses to kick off any scanning workflow from the device’s control panel with the single push of a button. 

Another handy feature enables users to insert control sheets with imaging settings or indexing and routing instructions between different batches to apply specific settings on the fly. In other words, workers won’t need to constantly stop and start other work because invoices need to be scanned one way and contracts need to be scanned another. 

These devices can also handle post-scan sorting. This enables users to configure jobs that automatically eject sheets to a separate tray based on the defined settings. It is particularly useful for instances where scan operators have to return some originals to customers, such as an ID card, or separate checks from other originals automatically to ensure no payments are lost. This can also help businesses save money by reducing waste associated with reprinting control sheets (or blank pages, sheets with barcodes and patch codes, etc.) for each scan job.  

Where automation has gone to great lengths to reduce user intervention before and during scanning, it has all but eliminated end users for post-scanning processing. Built-in image enhancement features can work together with blank page detection, barcode and patch code recognition, and OCR capabilities, to automatically enhance image quality, separate batches, recognize document types, read and act on encoded indexing and routing instructions, or read specific parts or the entirety of a document. 

Apps and Integration

Twenty years ago, we were amazed that you could send text messages, emails, and make phone calls from the same device. But now cell phones are nothing less than miniature computers with virtually global internet access that we can carry around in our pockets. Once they could support their own applications, these simple communication devices morphed into portals for sharing all types of media.  

Imaging hardware is following a similar trajectory. Embedded applications are pushing the boundaries of what these devices can do, converting your office MFP or network scanner into an intelligent information portal where both paper and electronic media can be printed, captured, and automatically indexed, processed, routed, and shared.  

Many OEMs are rolling out and expanding app marketplaces, à la Google Play or iTunes Store. These digital storefronts are stocked with everything from simple scan-to applications to apps enabling users to make edits to a document from the control panel. Businesses can now create and deploy custom UIs for licensed MFPs. Workers can personalize their UIs from a web-based, drag-and-drop development environment, populating them with the features and functionalities they use frequently (or for administrators to lock features and functionalities they don’t want their users to access).

Meanwhile, imaging devices are integrating with more and more back-end repositories and databases, improving the way users search, access, share and organize information. Scans can be passed off directly to line-of-business applications, document management solutions, and other repositories and databases. Many devices are cloud-ready, offering built-in hooks to popular cloud services like Google Drive, OneNote, Dropbox, and many others. This allows businesses to make usable information available to any stakeholder in any part of the world in an instant. Employees will be able to collaborate on work faster and workflows won’t wait in limbo because of information lost in the shuffle. 

And more recently, bilateral integration between imaging devices and the connected systems are making these devices much more intelligent, helping users get a lot more done in a shorter amount of time — and with fewer mistakes — while at the control panel. For instance, some applications are tied directly to an ECM solution, connecting users to repositories they can scan documents to directly from the control panel. Some are capable of presenting users with relevant indexing fields so only the pertinent information is captured with few mistakes.  

Some manufacturers also provide Application Program Interfaces (API) and Software Development Kits (SDK), which enable businesses to build custom applications to maximize their device’s capabilities. These applications can be critical for optimizing document-related processes by connecting disparate systems, even across different protocols and programming languages, to deliver the most efficient flow of data as possible. 

But most importantly, these devices are going to take automation to a whole new level. For instance, the latest capture software can recognize a document type by merely reading it with OCR, then kick off specific processes related to that document type. This seems like a handy task for one document, but some of these solutions are pointed at folks capturing thousands of pages a day.  

Intuitive UI, Just Like at Home

Touchscreens make for an intuitive user experience. In 2007, while announcing the iPhone, Steve Jobs told us that “we are all born with the ultimate pointing device — our fingers” and that they are “the most revolutionary user interface since the mouse.” Jobs was right. Tablets are so easy to use that babies, literally, can figure them out. So for your employees, navigating through embedded address books and applications or connected repositories using the familiar tap, flick, pinch, and swipe gestures should make for an easy user experience.

And it’s not just how you interface with the device; it is what you can do with the interface, too. Like all of their devices at home, workers will have the ability to customize what they see and how they see it. For example, users can choose to display which applications, one-touch keys, scan, print, and copy profiles, or any other buttons they need for frequently used jobs so they can be accessed easily. These interfaces are portable too, so users can access them across the entire network. Many applications will also remember a user’s preferences by prioritizing commonly used jobs. For instance, if a user frequently scans to a file folder in their document management system or an email, those options will be presented first.   

It used to be that the fastest way to share information was on paper. But now that we live in a digital world, paper is a snail racing against Usain Bolt. But you still have to deal with paper, and at least today’s scanner can be relied upon to accurately and efficiently convert paper documents into useful, shareable information. 

Today’s imaging devices are plenty fast, but there are more things that can be done to further enhance productivity. The nuts and bolts — impressive as they may be — are only one piece of the puzzle to optimizing efficiency. In addition, workers expectations in the office are shifting. They want their office equipment to be as easy to use and intuitive as the products they use at home, plus incorporate personalized user experiences and homogeneity between the devices and systems they use for work every day. 

Manufacturers are addressing these needs. Applications are making devices more intelligent and extending their capabilities, while integration with key backend systems and the cloud is improving the way we share data. And as we continue to see the control panels of these devices look more and more like the tablets we use at home, operating these machines will only become easier and more intuitive.

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of The Imaging Channel.