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I.T. in practice: Scan it

Every Issue

Cite as: (2006) 80(12) LIJ, p. 89


Despite the advent of the digital age, practices still need to deal with hard copy documents and that is when scanners come into their own.

It would be easy to dismiss document scanning technology as transitory – a temporary workaround to deal with documents that cannot be emailed (due to loss, age or formatting).

However, many firms acknowledge that a large proportion of incoming documents will, for the foreseeable future, still arrive in hard copy.

Practices with document management systems are maximising the use of the features of some of their systems by using scanners to capture either whole documents, or the text from those documents.

Scanners used to be slow, standalone devices that could only be attached to a single computer. Now, however, they range from a cheap throw-away through to the fully networked office tool integrated with other gadgets such as printers and photocopiers.

Standalone scanners

The cheapest available scanner costs around $100. For that price, it is possible to buy a unit which takes about 45 seconds to scan each page, and the pages need to be fed in one at a time.

Although not appropriate for a professional environment where scanning is going to be a key business process, these small units are good for personal use or as a reliable back-up system.

Some firms also use smaller and cheaper scanners as an initial step into scanning technology, acknowledging that such devices are only for technology familiarisation.

Moving through the scanner product range, the additional features that go with higher costs include faster scan time, better resolution and the ability to scan multiple pages at a time.

About $500 will buy a scanner with reasonable resolution that does a preview scan in about 10 seconds, and a full page scan in about 30 seconds. For about $1100, it is possible to purchase a scanner with a 50-page document feeder.

At the top end of the standalone scanner range are network scanners, which are purpose-built units.

They can cost between $4000 and $5000, have larger document feeders and are integrated directly into the firm’s network facilities. This means that a workgroup can access the scanner without requiring a dedicated computer or person.

Turning a scanned picture into text requires optical character recognition (OCR) software, and most scanners come equipped with this.

This means that the speed of OCR conversion is mostly dependent on computer speed rather than scanner speed. It is possible to purchase OCR software separately to a scanner, and the more sophisticated OCR software is able to take an original scanned image and accurately “rebuild” it as a document, complete with formatting, fonts, headings, etc.

Although OCR software is not perfect, it can save a lot of re-typing.

Multifunction devices

For the smaller office, multifunction devices (MFDs) are great replacements when the old fax machine is retired.

MFDs usually contain a combination of fax, photocopy, scan and print functions. If the print function within an MFD is to be used extensively, then the key decision revolves around speed (inkjet or laser) and presentation (colour or black and white).

The scanner functions on an MFD are similar to a mid-range standalone scanner. MFDs with inbuilt scanners start in price at about $200 (inkjet), $500 (black and white laser) or $1500 (colour laser).

Photocopiers

Many practice photocopiers acquired within the past three to four years have the ability to attach a scanner module which can cost between $600 and $2000 depending on the model and age of the copier. Given that such a purchase is a capital cost, and that most photocopiers are financed, many practices opt for a new photocopier with in-built scanner features rather than purchasing a new module for an old photocopier.

Ask any practice manager to arrange for the acquisition of a new photocopier, and it is likely that they will suddenly find many other pressing tasks to be undertaken, despite (or probably because of) the fact that the photocopier is a mission-critical resource for a legal practice.

Deciding from the bewildering array of apparently similar-featured copiers is a daunting project. In the scanning area, as well as speed and resolution, the main feature decision is the scan image delivery method – by email, direct network storage, or stored in the photocopier itself.

Although many photocopiers now have scanning features, more sophisticated requirements usually necessitate vendor-supplied software modules which may come at a cost.


ADAM REYNOLDS is the principal of Proficio, an independent IT consultant firm.

For more I.T. in practice information, see the contributions of the LIV Legal Practice Management Committee and IT special projects department at http://www.liv.asn.au/members/sections/lpm/it

“To do” List

Before purchasing a scanner, be clear about the anticipated uses and workload for the unit.

Ensure that the version of your document management system supports scanned document import.

Investigate whether an add-on for your existing photocopier will perform scanning functions.

When purchasing a multifunction device, ensure that scanning is one of the functions.

Where there is a high use of scanning functions within an office, allocate a specific computer to have all of the relevant software installed on it.

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