Production scanners establish the basis for continuous digital business processes. They transfer large volumes of paper-based information into electronic workflows quickly and, to the greatest possible extent, automatically. In order to accomplish this task, they must have certain characteristics and features. All these taken together define performance capacity. Ideally, the manufacturers of the devices available on the market communicate these performance values in a uniform manner: that is, in the same wording and in the same units. Then only in this way can the various models be compared and assigned to particular product categories. In fact, however, the manufacturers do not do this. Which often leads to a situation in which customers and manufacturers do not speak the same language.
This linguistic confusion becomes perfect when manufacturers describe their production scanners by means of melodious but less meaningful attributes such as “high-speed scanners” or “maximum-performance scanners”. Yet, still using the scanning speed conventionally as reference point does not help much either in view of the devices currently available on the market and it sometimes proves to be misleading for customers because the demands placed on production scanners have risen severely in the last few decades.
In focus: large volumes of diverse documents
Two applications hereby form the center of attention: the scanning of incoming mail and the digitalization of archives and records. When incoming mail is scanned, extremely diversified types of documents must be converted regularly to digital processes in a few hours time. Here, it is not unusual that at large companies thousands of operations are electronically recorded every day – that is equivalent to tens of thousands of pages. In the digitalization of archives and records, it is important that large volumes of documents be electronically captured in a defined time period – including historic records from the last century. Thus, the condition of the documents represents a considerable challenge in this regard.
Both of these application examples demonstrate that scanning speed alone cannot suffice as the sole criterion for the operational performance of a production scanner. Instead, the focus must lie on the ability of the scanner to cope with large volumes of extremely different documents within a certain time period in high quality as well as safely and without interruption.
Contrary to the opinion widely prevalent among users, details such as speed and price do not provide an initial orientation in the search for the right product. This is also the view of scanner expert Frank Schuler of InoTec GmbH Organisationssysteme. In an interview with DOK.magazin, he explains why an orientation based on scanning speed is misleading and why low scanner prices can be responsible for high costs.
Mr. Schuler, to define the differences among production scanners, you are in favor of using more significant criteria and features than mere scanning speed, is that correct?
Yes, even if it is simply because in many cases manufacturers use different units. Added to this, they use obscure abbreviations and translation inaccuracies. For example, the designation “ppm” stands for “sheets per minute”, but it is sometimes used for “pages per minute”. Here the English concept for “page” is translated into German in various ways. Thus, a speed of 200 ppm could mean 200 pages per minute. But, converted, that’s only 100 sheets of paper per minute since a sheet of paper always has two sides. Then it can quickly happen that specified speeds are interpreted as being too high. Even more confusing is the specification “ipm” for images per minute. Scanners equipped with a multistreaming function can deliver six or more images per paper sheet. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that only one sheet of paper is scanned.
What criterion can users then utilize in order to evaluate the performance of production scanners?
Decisive in practice is the throughput that is achieved: that is, the product of the two factors speed and runtime. A production scanner might produce a particularly high transportation speed in the short term, but what about paper jams, barely legible documents or extensive amounts of maintenance work? The important point is the ability of the device to operate for many hours or even complete shifts without interruption. Only then do high scanning speeds bear fruit.
What features do production scanners with high staying power and consequently high throughput offer?
High throughput rates presuppose an unobstructed paper flow. With a dependable document feeder and a belt conveyor that handles the paper gently, even extremely dissimilar documents can be processed reliably. To prevent paper clips or staples that have been overlooked from damaging the device, some manufacturers install a particularly scratch-resistant type of special glass. And, if worse comes to worse, it is also essentially important that the user can rely on a competent and readily accessible service team fluent in the language of the country. Another crucial characteristic for proper production scanning is high image quality. The better the image quality, the fewer re-scans will be necessary. Furthermore, high image quality increases the process efficiency of downstream processes, such as for example, OCR applications.
How can the image quality of a scanner be assessed?
High resolution alone is not decisive for obtaining superior images, but rather the combination of camera, optics and lighting. All three must be first-class components and they must be optimally attuned to one another. Besides this, production scanners optimize the captured image directly within the device itself. Important functions here are the deskewing of the documents, the handling of brightness and contrast or the removal of black borders. There are internationally valid guidelines and standards for evaluating the quality of digital images. Within Europe, ISO standard 19264-1 determines the reference values for high image quality and currently only a few manufacturers fulfill these specifications. Users can verify these requirements with the aid of comprehensive test charts.
What other criteria are important in comparing production scanners?
Ergonomic aspects and high usability enable productive operation over longer periods of time and protect the health of the scanning operators. In the meantime, touch-screens have become standard equipment on the device. They serve to facilitate simple and intuitive communication between the scanner and the scanning operator, furnish easily understandable pictograms and unequivocal full text messages and also react to the typical jog and swipe gestures used with smartphones.
What orientation help can you offer users in regard to the subject of price?
Let us focus on the total operating costs. They include costs for wear and spare parts as well as the service life of the components implemented and take into consideration the scanner’s maintenance friendliness. A scanner that has low total operating costs is also constructed in such a way that its configuration can be adjusted to accommodate growing demands. This upgrade capability goes beyond scanning speed. In addition, it comprises new functions and technologies which can be retrofitted by the replacement of components or by software updates.
Is “Made in Germany” still a criterion in making a decision to purchase?
Absolutely. “Made in Germany” is a promise of quality that is reflected in innovative technology, high-grade components and a long service life. But “Made in Germany” also means secure supply chains and quickly procurable spare parts. Hence, the availability of the scanner is ensured. Last but not least, “Made in Germany” guarantees production processes that are environmentally friendly and socially responsible.
Yet all these criteria and features demonstrate that finding the right production scanner is a complex task …
It is indeed. That’s why we make use of a comprehensive “decision matrix” into which we also introduce the scope of our experiences. This matrix already contains well over 100 questions, even some which the user is usually not aware of, but which help him determine his own individual requirements and ascertain what values and key figures are in fact relevant for his decision to purchase.
Would you please tell us about some of the aspects of this “decision matrix?
Among others, the basic questions include: what does the document material look like? What format does it have and what is the weight of the paper? Are there handwritten notes on the documents? How well have the documents been prepared? What scanning staff, how much floor space and how much time will be available? What downstream processes – such as for example, OCR – are planned? And what is the extent of the annual budget? A more surprising example would be the question concerning the prevailing climatic conditions, since both the temperature and the humidity in the scanning room are factors that play a part in reaching an optimum decision to purchase. We plan on making our matrix freely available to the market in the near future. In any case and independent of that, the right recommendation when purchasing a production scanner is to make an appointment for a trial period. The hardest currency in evaluating a scanner and reaching a decision to purchase is still live operation.
Mr. Schuler, thank you very much for this detailed information!
Frank Schuler is the head of Sales Germany at the firm InoTec GmbH Organisationssysteme. InoTec, with seat in Wölfersheim, optimizes the business processes of its customers worldwide with highly dependable production scanners “Made in Germany”. InoTec scanners are employed in all situations in which large volumes of documents must be scanned productively and reliably.