In-depth

How businesses can get the most out of a desktop scanner

It’s one thing to buy a desktop scanner for your office; quite another to use it productively. We discover the routes to scanning success

The rise of email and instant messaging may have decimated the morning mail drop, but head into any office and you will still find it littered with paperwork. As more of our time is taken up by reading and responding to digital correspondence, we have less and less to spend processing printed matter.

It's not just about incoming mail, either. Legacy documents often need to be retained for legal compliance or reference, and many organisations invest in secure archive storage for paper-based assets to make sure nothing important gets lost.

These days, though, that's an unnecessary expense. For a low price, you can equip yourself with all the tools you need to digitise and dispose of paper documents today.

That's because scanning hardware is a lot more advanced than it used to be. Picture a desktop scanner and most likely you'll imagine a simple flatbed device; these may still be fine for a small team or solo worker who only needs to scan documents once in a blue moon. But there are many more suitable options for SMBs, with high-speed document feeders and enterprise-grade software that simplifies the process of capturing, digitising, indexing and archiving documentation. In terms of time saved and the potential for increased productivity, a business-class desktop scanner could be one of the smartest investments you make.

Choosing a scanner

Getting the right scanner for your business doesn't necessarily mean splashing out on a high-end model. For small office duties, a consumer-grade all-in-one device could be all you need. The HP Envy 5030, for example, can happily meet the scanning and printing requirements of teams up to half a dozen or so. It has both USB and Wi-Fi connectivity, so it's easy to share its scanning capabilities across several staff, and HP's Instant Ink scheme reduces the hassle of ordering and paying for refills: rather than waiting until your cartridges have run dry, you pay a monthly subscription based on the number of pages you expect to print.

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The price starts at nothing for 15 pages a month or fewer, so if you have only very light printing needs you might never pay for ink again; if you need more, the cost rises through various levels to a maximum of 7.99 for 300 printed pages a month. However you use it, the printer reports back on the number of pages you're printing, allowing HP to dispatch replacement cartridges before your existing ink runs dry.

Consumer vs business scanners

A consumer MFP might be fine for a small office, but if you're scanning dozens of pages every day you'll want to look for a business scanner that's built for a professional workload.Not only will a high-throughput scanner be more robustly built, it will also usually have additional features to improve productivity, such as document hoppers and feeders into which you can load several pages at a time for unattended scanning. Some even have duplexers that can automatically turn pages over for double-sided scanning.

For a medium-sized office, Epson's 1,000 WorkForce DS-970 is a good example of a suitable scanner. It includes a 100-sheet document feeder with a throughput of 85 pages per minute. This can handle paper weights ranging from tissue-thin 27gsm paper to 413gsm card, so it should cope with any type of document -- and it also features a long-paper scanning mode that can handle banners in excess of 6m. Just note that network connectivity is a paid-for extra (230 exc VAT) as are service options, which cover either on-site swap-out or return-to-base cover, starting at 360 for five years.

Desktop sheetfed scanners

The biggest, fastest scanners all have automatic document feeders -- but look around and you'll also find some surprisingly compact scanners with their own feeders. Fujitsu is one of the biggest players here, having captured a large part of the market with its ScanSnap range.

One notable model is the ScanSnap iX1500, which can digitise documents at 30ppm and features a 50-sheet document feeder for unattended scanning. It has an integrated touchscreen for direct control, or you can use the Wi-Fi connection to scan wirelessly from a PC, Mac, iOS or Android device, or scan to the cloud without using a computer.

Other neat functions include feeder guides specifically designed for capturing business cards and receipts, and the ability to capture oversized documents that need to be folded in half before feeding in. What's more, it's technically two scanners in one: dual heads allow it to simultaneously scan the front and back of a document with a single pass, for fuss-free double-sided scanning.

The ScanSnap iX1500 is a lot smarter than a basic desktop scanner so unsurprisingly it's more expensive. However, you could pick it up on Amazon for a very reasonable 425 at the time of writing.

Specialist scanners

So far, so conventional. But what if your business has unusual scanning requirements? Happily, there's a whole range of scanners built to fulfil less common tasks. For example, if you need to capture text from published books, the 4DigitalBooks DL mini has you covered. It not only images the text in a book but mechanically turns its pages for fully unattended scanning. The manufacturer claims that it can handle both hardbacks and soft covers -- including those tightly bound ones that have a tendency to automatically shut themselves as soon as you let go -- and it can even cope with inserts and loose sheets.

A more cheap and cheerful option is the Libreflip project. This works by laying the book on its back, as it would sit on a reader's lap, and dropping a scanning head into the "V" that this forms. A vacuum then picks up two pages -- one on either side of the head -- which are scanned simultaneously before being turned over. In this way it's projected that Libreflip can process 700 to 1,000 pages an hour.

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We say "projected" because Libreflip isn't yet ready to ship. When it is, a kit is expected to cost around 2,500, with a fully constructed system coming in at around 4,000. Alternatively, since the project is open-source, you'll also be able to freely download the full plans, along with detailed instructions and a bill of materials to build your own.

For a truly DIY approach, you can even follow the example of Google engineer Dany Qumsiyeh, who built an automated book scanner for the Google Books project during his spare time, using a domestic vacuum cleaner and parts salvaged from a flatbed scanner. The total cost? Around $1,500. If you want to know more, check out his Google Tech Talk demonstrating his invention.

What if you need to scan microfilm? Allied Images' ST ViewScan 4 combines full-page photography with OCR to turn historic papers and documents into a searchable database. While its most obvious appeal is to public and educational libraries, it's also ripe for deployment in long-established research institutes and ancient corporations, which often in the past turned to microfilm as the most convenient space-saving archive option in the pre-digital era. It's available as either a standalone product or a preconfigured PC, to which you simply need to add your own keyboard and monitor. A mouse is an optional feature as, ideally, it's used with a touch-sensitive display.

Perhaps the most specialist scanner we know of is the WideTEK 36ART-600, a large-format scanner built to capture artworks of up to 222m x 91cm. Because the original items are typically both delicate and valuable, it features a zero-contact design, in which the canvas sits on a platform and slides gently past a downward-facing scanning head. Museums use this type of technology to capture oil, acrylic, charcoal and pastel works, as well as mixed media and collages at 600dpi. That's sufficient to allow considerable enlargements without any discernible loss of quality, and to capture a good likeness of the image's original texture, as well as its tones.

Scanning software solutions

There's clearly a wide range of scanning systems out there that cater for different needs -- but the hardware is only half of the equation. Even an inexpensive scanner can capture images at very high resolutions, but to make the most of its abilities you need the right software.

Free scanning tools

If you're thinking you will make do with the scanning software that's built into Windows, think again: there isn't any. You can download a basic scanning app from the Microsoft Store, but this has no OCR features so it's basically useless for businesses. If you really need to use free software, your best bet might be the standalone OneNote app. This has the ability to recognise the text in documents you scan or photograph. To make use of this feature, place your image on a note, right-click it and select "Copy text from picture". You can then paste the recognised text anywhere you like; if you're happy working within OneNote, we suggest you paste it onto the same page, so that it leads you straight to the original scan when you search.

In all, though, we'd strongly warn you against trying to get by with free or consumer-grade software. When capture and ingestion aren't smoothly integrated into your business processes, staff will be reluctant to index, tag and process documents, resulting in an incomplete, poorly linked and substandard archive. Giving them tools designed for the job at hand reduces the perceived burden and staff will focus more clearly on its benefits -- decluttering their workspace, and helping them locate information quickly and easily.

Professional scanning software

The good news is that there are plenty of business-focused scanning applications that are tailor-made for organisational use.

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For example, the Kofax Express document management software (kofax.com) is used by Exmoor National Park Authority to scan, index and upload all incoming mail to Microsoft SharePoint. Rather than having to deal with a daily incoming paper stream, employees receive a link to a PDF of each scanned document on the server, where it's already archived. The University of Bristol, meanwhile, uses the Kofax software to process documents such as passports, which have to be digitised and retained to comply with immigration requirements.

Kofax has some clever, and very specific, features. Not only can it automatically enhance the readability of text, it can differentiate between pencil-written notes and printed text, allowing it to selectively increase the contrast and readability of the former without muddying the latter. Similarly, edge-detection algorithms allow it to recognise text through highlighter markings, where simpler scanning tools would simply reproduce a solid block, as if the original text had been redacted.

Finding the format

For long-term archival, documents need to be stored in a format that's designed to last. Enter PDF/A, an ISO-standardised version of PDF designed with the specific goal of extended document storage. For this reason it doesn't support advanced features such as JavaScript or encryption, either of which could otherwise prevent documents being opened in the future. It also requires that all fonts be embedded in the file, so that the original formatting is preserved, and mandates that files must be fully annotated with metadata to aid indexing. The specification for PDF/A-4 -- the fourth update to the standard -- is expected to be published before the end of this year.

Most OCR tools are capable of creating PDF/A files; one option is Abbyy's digital document archiving software, which streamlines the whole process of capture, text recognition, tagging and export. What's more, its FineReader Server can process documents for several users simultaneously, so it can serve as a central back-end to multiple scanners or multifunction devices spread across an organisation, with text recognition in 190 different languages. If your staff need to process a steady stream of documents, a system like this could slash the time taken to capture paper-based data, while keeping cost and complexity to a minimum.

TCO and ROI

Investing in the right scanner and software is an expense, but such solutions can quickly pay for themselves. Indeed, as Laserfiche points out, not having a document management system can be disastrous for productivity. A 2012 IDC report found that information workers "spent up to 20% of their time filing and searching through paper documents. On top of that, they wasted over ten hours a week searching for, but not finding, documents, recreating lost documents and on other time-consuming tasks."

These metrics suggest that filing and searching alone could tie up each employee for almost six weeks of the working year. Ensuring that everyone has access to a desktop scanner -- even as part of a humble multifunction device -- can help offices to recoup this lost time, particularly if they're deployed in combination with a document management solution.

Just be aware that a scanner isn't a one-off purchase: like a laser printer or photocopier, a scanner contains key components with limited lifespans. These might include lamps, belts and service packs, not to mention periodic software upgrades.

"Companies with heavy use cases may wind up purchasing 12 consumable and maintenance kits over the first three years they own the scanner, adding thousands of dollars of cost," warns Opex, a specialist in document imaging and mailroom automation. If possible, look for a service deal that includes a all parts, supplies, software licensing and maintenance, so you can put a clear, single figure on the annual cost of your chosen scanning system.

With fewer working days lost to filing, and minimal time wasted on inefficient practices, many companies could write off the cost of their hardware in as little as three years -- so if you haven't already, it's time to get scanning.

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