Automation hasn"t eliminated Jamie Renfro's job, but it has helped her work twice as fast. Renfro manages accounts payable at Squires-Belt Material Co., a one-location specialty dealer in San Diego that bought software to scan documents and to "read" documents through optical character recognition (OCR).
Now she can e-mail the purchasing officer about discrepencies between invoices and purchase orders without having to trudge over and see her counterpart. Now she has computer assistance in spotting errors. And now she can do her thrice-monthly check run in one day rather than two.
"It definitely has been beneficial," Renfro says. "I have been able to take on other responsibilities."
Scanners and OCR make it easier for the back office to collect, process, and store information. By storing and distributing the newly captured information in a document-management system, companies can eliminate paperwork and even redesign their business processes.
Scanners and OCR perform related but quite different services. Using a scanner, dealers can convert documents into PDF (portable document format) files so they can be stored and distributed electronically. OCR software then "reads" those scanned paper files as well as documents delivered electronically. Renfro uses AP Assist scanning and OCR software to scan invoices and then read the documents, moving key information from those files to Squires-Belt"s accounting system.
Erie Materials in Syracuse, N.Y., turned to WorldView's document management service in 2002. With a scanner at each of 10 branches and four in corporate headquarters, Erie processes paper through WorldView and passes it along to its DMSi ERP system. Rose Townsend, the company's director of information services, says WorldView eliminates most work required to keep the various documents for a job together at all stages of the workflow–formerly a manual process involving staples, paper clips, and boxes.
"We don't touch the paper nearly as much as we used to," she says.
Scanning adds some work, though. OCR systems must be taught where to look on a document to pull the information desired. Folks do this by creating a different template for every possible invoice. If you have scores of suppliers, you"ll need to develop scores of templates.
In addition, the people scanning the documents must check its accuracy until an adequate degree of confidence is reached. Townsend says Erie"s scanner operators check to see that scanned images are readable, since faint or color originals might not be legible without adjusting contrast and brightness. Renfro says as many as five out of every 10 invoices might not get read perfectly, sometimes for reasons as simple as the vendor"s use of a new printer. Still, there"s a big savings in the time needed to adjust a scan compared with the time needed to type in everything from scratch.
Raymond Building Supply in North Fort Myers, Fla., achieved major workflow efficiencies by replacing its decades-old Activant ECS Pro system with bisTrack last November, according to process analyst Candy Loweke. Now, most of the company's documents begin and end their lives in bisTrack, though OCR is performed on some that are stored in Microsoft SharePoint, which the company uses to route collaborative documents such as blueprints. BisTrack takes over once a formal quote is generated.
Scanning is starting to branch out from its foothold in dealer accounts payable and receivable systems. Pat Heffernan, general manager for productivity solutions and services at WorldView's sister company, DMSi Software, says some customers have added scanning of credit applications and human-resource documents. And scanners are showing up in more warehouses, he says.
The main draw remains cutting paper to speed up workflow. "There's not much of a downside to scanning," says John LaFave of Spruce Computer Systems. "It's a little bit of work, but it's far less work than the alternative."
–David Essex has covered technology for 24 years.