Color Imaging Now Is Viable
By Steven Welk
IT'S BEEN LESS than a year since affordable production-speed, color document scanning has been widely available. Already, the conversation in the imaging marketplace is rapidly shifting from "convince me that color capture works" to "how can my work process benefit from color." Analysts predict that by 2004, approximately half of the total mid-range scanners sold in all "vertical" markets -- including insurance, finance, and the legal profession -- will offer color.
Over the past decade, the legal profession has completely retooled the way it manages discovery documents, by adopting large-scale scanning rather than storing files in banker's boxes and file cabinets.
With scanners, legal workers can sit at a computer and quickly access digitally imaged documents at the click of a mouse, without endlessly rummaging through boxes only to then sit and make photocopies. Files can be scanned once and made available on-screen to multiple users quickly and efficiently. This minimizes loss or mis-filing of critical documents.
Quite simply, law firms have found that the operational benefits of scanning (whether performed in-house or through a service bureau) are worth the expense. Wholesale document scanning has become so popular, in fact, that many have forgotten that there was once a strong argument against it.
In the late '80s, many decision-makers resisted production-level scanning for one significant reason -- scanned images could only be seen in high contrast black and white (referred to as "bi-tonal") or gradations of gray (referred to as "grayscale"). They were very concerned about the fact that all color attributes were completely lost in the imaging process.
Ironically, few of today's IT pros now remember that there was ever a concern about losing color functionality in the production scanning process. In many ways, we have become so accustomed to seeing our digitally imaged documents in black and white that we've forgotten about the myriad of benefits provided by color.
But human beings see in color; it adds an intrinsic value to the way we interact with information -- both real world and digital. Color capture improves user comprehension; reduces error; and allows legal workers to "see" everything on a digital image just as they would on a hard copy page.
For example, color enables users to see hand-written margin notes, changes to original documents such as white outs or bleaching, highlights, photos (e.g., property damage and real estate images), diagrams (e.g., traffic accidents, schematics, and patent drawings), as well as signatures, seals, stamps, watermarking, security printing on financial and fiduciary instruments, and color-coded markings on titles, property and facility maps. In addition, color is the benchmark for Web-enabled processes, allowing for better use of Internet-related applications.
Over the past two years, improvements in storage and compression techniques, coupled with decreases in color scanner costs, have lead to a dramatic color scanning increase in markets such as insurance and financial services. With color scanner prices now in the $24,000 to $35,000 range and falling, the legal industry can be expected to embrace color scanning in the near future.
Software vendors, for their part, have accelerated the adoption process by color-enabling their systems to complement scanning advances. Several prominent vendors in capture, document management and forms processing areas now support color. In addition, software vendors have begun implementing strategies for the OCR/ICR processing of color documents, meaning that color will soon help improve this often troublesome process.
Early adopters are finding that transitioning to color capture isn't nearly as difficult as they'd expected, because today's color scanners can output images in black and white as well as full-color.
This means that users don't need to fully make the switch from black and white to color in one step. Because color scanners have a bi-tonal capability, they also are well suited for applications that might be black and white imaging-centric.
Of particular interest to small firm environments with limited space is the increasingly small size of scanners. Production color scanners now are available in portable, desktop models. This can be especially helpful in litigation, where discovery documents are often acquired by going to the various sites where the documents are located. At about 60 pounds, new color scanners weigh the same or less than similar black and white, mid-volume models.
Color scanning can be integrated into a firm's operations without an overwhelming increase in storage needs. In fact, 100 dpi color images consistently rate "more acceptable" to end-users than 200-dpi and 300 dpi bi-tonal and gray scale images -- meaning that they require only a modest amount more file storage space than black and white images. Most desktop color monitors display less than 100-dpi in color and, therefore, storage of resolutions greater than 100 dpi isn't required for images being scanned for future viewing.
When it comes to the actual image capture process, color scanning reduces total scanning time and lowers the cost of document capture. Capture productivity is improved by color technology at three different stages: pre-scan, during scanning, and post-scan. In each case, images become available sooner with less operator involvement.
Pre-Scan: Color saves time and labor by reducing the need to presort incoming documents by color types or backgrounds to optimize scanner settings. With black-and-white, "challenging" documents need to be repetitively reproduced on a copier until an "acceptable" looking image is achieve that can be scanned.
Scanning: Documents can be automatically scanned correctly on the first pass, without interruptions. This takes the guesswork out of the scanning process, allowing the operator to concentrate on the scanning process and get more work done.
Post-Scan: Because color captures all of the image nuances, including highlighting and light pen or pencil, the operator does not have to determine what image content is more important to preserve. In bi-tonal scanning, on the other hand, some content may need to be sacrificed in order to obtain the best overall image quality.
Because users don't need to pre-sort documents by hand into special scanner-friendly batches based on document attributes (as they do with black and white scanning), there is no labor-intensive need to resort documents back into their original order for re-filing after they've been scanned.
Because color capture can have such a positive impact on labor-intensive document preparation and post-scanning document handling, the costs associated with implementing color scanning are partially recouped by its adoption.
Law firms should remember that in the total cost of scanning (labor, training, capital, maintenance and space), labor weighs in as the largest cost component, accounting for nearly three-quarters of all costs. Therefore, reducing labor is the single best way to reduce overall scanning costs.
And because operating a color scanner requires far fewer technical decisions than a conventional scanner, non-technological workers can be trained and scanning tasks can be assigned to a greater number of individuals. In addition, training cycles and overall system implementation can be reduced dramatically with color capture.
Stephen Welk is worldwide marketing manager for mid-volume scanners, at the document imaging division of Eastman Kodak. He is based in Rochester, N.Y.