The Great Scan

The Great Scan

In an industry where new technologies are constantly emerging, it is hard to remain glamorous for very long. Tried and true technologies tend to lose their glow long before their use-by date.

A classic example is high-end and corporate scanners. When they first appeared on the scene, going to the supermarket became an exciting interaction with technological innovation. But all too soon the drudgery of the checkout queue returned and end users began to take the technology for granted.

Since consumer-based low-margin scanners have taken the limelight in recent times, it is easy to forget that scanners are also important business tools. Fitting neatly into most data-processing situations, high-end data scanners can still offer end users significant savings and productivity increases, while maximising profit margin for the channel.

A few years back, the Australian Passport Office was facing a particularly sticky, but common, dilemma. Government cutbacks saw the Passport Office's staff cut by roughly 25 per cent, and the forecasts for the coming year were pinning demand for passports to increase by approximately 50 per cent.

In response, Australian integration group Solution 6 designed a system named project Delta, which consisted of an automated system of scanning, data extraction and verification, workflow processing, interfacing with existing legacy applications and image storage and retrieval.

The system enabled the Passport Office to increase productivity to 1.2 million passports per annum, despite the cuts to personnel. Although project Delta appears to be a prime example of how scanning can be implemented in the data-processing environment, much of the hard work has been hidden behind the flashy technology.

Susan Burmeister, manager of marketing and communications at Business 6, a branch of the Solution 6 group, points out that the key to integrating scanning technology into an overall solution is understanding the business requirements of the end user.

"Scanning allows you to automate certain processors. The technology is readily available and easy to implement," Burmeister said. "The key lies in analysing the business processors behind the scene."

While technology is the key to business process automation, Burmeister said it is the last thing Solution 6 talks about with the customer, preferring to break the ice by introducing the business and productivity outcomes.

According to Craig Quinn, imaging products product manager for Australian integrator and OEM ASI Solutions, the key to high-end scanning solutions lies in the depth of understanding the solutions provider has of the end user's requirements.

"Scanner technology is pretty basic technology," Quinn said. "Discussions tend to lead into storage, because once the data is captured it needs to be managed in a way that is appropriate to the organisation."

Although storage is an issue when it comes to the integration of scanning into and over workflow considerations, much of the scanning process itself is centred on the shier productive capacity of different scanning solutions.

"The mechanics of the operation becomes really critical," Quinn said. "If you build a data-capture process around scanning technology, when the scanner goes down the whole process comes to a halt."

For this reason ASI Solutions places particular importance on ongoing preventative maintenance, ensuring that end-user education is central to any rollout.

"The paper path is really critical and the robustness of the mechanics is key to the smooth operations of a solution," Quinn commented. "Scanning for data capture requires sites where we can work with relatively stable staff who we educate in the technology so that they become familiar with the day-to-day operations of the equipment."

As part of an overall rollout, ASI ensures that the staff is capable of performing simple maintenance and knows how to react in the case of a stoppage.

"At the end of the day it is a bit like the office printer; you need to provide practical training so that people can avoid simple problems and keep the whole operation running," Quinn said.

Ausdata, a fully owned subsidiary of integration and outsourcing group KAZ Computing Services, has found a slightly different approach.

Charles Dunn, managing director of Ausdata, has watched the data-capture industry develop in recent years and is a strong supporter of scanning as a key element within overall business process outsourcing (BPO).

"In conjunction with KAZ's operations, one approach is to sell the solution directly to the customer," Dunn said. "On the other hand we can provide them with the same solution which is maintained, supported and operated by us."

While the BPO industry is increasingly competitive, Dunn points out that businesses with a deeper understanding of the technology, required to efficiently collect and collate, are at a distinct advantage.

"A lot of the players in the BPO industry have come from the data-entry arena rather than the image- and data-capture environments," Dunn said.

According to Dunn, while other companies are playing catch-up on the technology, Ausdata has been able to dedicate itself to developing the more labour-intensive support resources that enable the company to offer a complete solution.

"It is critical to offer the whole service so the customer can apply the service according to their requirements and comfort levels," Dunn said.

In this respect, Ausdata offers not only image and data capture through scanner technology, but also provides data checking through KAZ's call centre backbone, as well as storage and retrieval services.

"We can either deliver the images and data back to the organisation and store it on their archives, or we can house the data and allow them to access it from their own location," Dunn said.

However, with legal recognition of scanned images yet to be fully determined, Dunn makes it clear that organisations must also have in place document storage facilities.

"The difficulties with paper document storage are mostly associated with retrieval, but digital storage at least provides ready access to the information," Dunn said.

Although it represents a major element of the market, not all high-end scanner solutions are based around data processing. Mike Tongue, state manager of high-end scanner distributor Southern Graphtec, has carved out a niche in the large-format scanners. These machines are sold into verticals such as graphic design, mapping and defence; and although the volume is not as high as the standard desktop flat-bed image muncher, they offer some attractive margins per sale.

"The market has traditionally been strong, especially in Queensland," Tongue said. "It is becoming more competitive but it is not overwhelmed by resellers."

Like ASI's Quinn, Tongue places special emphasis on the training element of a sale. However his focus is slightly different.

"We are not looking at high-volume processing, so maintenance is not so much the issue," said Tongue. "Yet it is important the end user is fully aware of the machines' capabilities so they can use it to its full potential."

Rather than set a fixed training regime, Tongue varies the education according to the end user's requirements.

"I will stay with them until I am happy they understand how the scanner operates and how it can be fully used for their requirements."

At the end of the day, however, Tongue is not phased by increased competition in the market place. Echoing comments made across the scanner channel, he pointed out that converting data and images to digital format is becoming a business imperative.

"Every market is promoting digital, and without scanners you can't do digital," he said.

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