Digital Paper

Looking for a quick payback? Digital paper's an investment stacked in your favor. When the Pennsylvania Treasury's Bureau of Unemployment Compensation Disbursements learned the computer system they were using to process benefit checks was not Y2K compliant, they were forced to replace the system with a more efficient document management and imaging system.

By Dave Harrold, CONTROL ENGINEERING September 1, 2000
  • Business

  • Communications

  • Information systems & technology

  • Management information systems

  • Productivity, management, and control

  • Software and information integration

Electronic ink and e-Books

Looking for a quick payback? Digital paper’s an investment stacked in your favor. When the Pennsylvania Treasury’s Bureau of Unemployment Compensation Disbursements learned the computer system they were using to process benefit checks was not Y2K compliant, they were forced to replace the system with a more efficient document management and imaging system. Checks printed on the old system had to be microfiched five times. Returning cancelled checks required six to eight hours to get through a document sorter where information was extracted and reconciled. The new system captures images of printed checks and reconciles returning checks in a fraction of that time. The results: just over half of the $1,000,000 invested has been recouped in the first three months of use.

In 1979 U.S. News & World Report predicted that during the 1980s “computers will create a ‘paperless’ office.” Of course not everyone, including computer giant IBM, bought into the notion of a paperless office, and today we know the prediction was folly.

Arnold Brown, chairman and analyst of the New York-based consulting firm Weiner, Edrich, Brown Inc. explains it this way, “The fact of the matter is in human society, technology doesn’t replace things: it layers on top of them.”

For many of us, proofing, editing, commenting, and just simply comprehending what we read is best done with paper.

E-mail is a prime example. How often do we print an e-mail message and physically file it in a cabinet for future reference? According to the American Forest and Paper Association, apparently quite often. In 1986 2.5 million tons of office-paper were shipped, by 1998 office paper shipments had reached 4.6 million tons.

Where does all the paper go?

The Government Printing Office (GPO), which meets about half the federal government’s printing needs, says it handles more than 27,500 tons of paper annually and estimates an additional 100,000 tons of paper are used by its outside contractors each year. Additionally, more than 21 million documents, about 924 gigabytes of information, are retrieved each month from the GPO website. How many of these documents get printed is anybody’s guess.

Paper consumption is not limited to government and old-line companies. In his book Business @ The Speed of Thought, Bill Gates, ceo of Microsoft, shares that in 1996 Microsoft printed 350,000 copies of sales reports, and maintained over 1,000 printed forms including 114 just for procurement. Responding to Mr. Gates mandate to reduce paper use, Microsoft estimated that during 1997-98 reduced paper use, improved first-pass information accuracy, and increased productivity combined to deliver $40 million to Microsoft’s bottom line.

Focusing on paper usage problems is not a conspiracy to replace real paper with digital paper, though that is being pursued. (See sidebar Electronic ink and e-Books.) This is all about using technology to improve how documents are stored and handled, and a glance around most any company, plant, or shop floor will likely reveal opportunities to better manage documents, and ensure the documents we print are the latest and greatest.

Disseminating information

There is no clear definition of document management, but its real goal is the accurate, reliable, and timely disseminate of information. Some believe the dissemination of information is best achieved as a point solution where software designed for a particular part of the business is deployed with little regard for other parts of the business. Others believe information dissemination should remain a part of the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) space, and still others believe custom portals provided by an application service provider offer the best information dissemination solution. The truth is, in a manufacturing/production environment, where close collaboration with customers and suppliers is necessary, the best solution incorporates all three approaches (See Document Management System Anatomy diagram).

The plant/shop floor might justify a point solution that disseminates the latest documentation related to numerical control programs, tool lists, setup sheets, drawings, customer orders, returned merchandise authorization, and other important details required to run an efficient operation. However, choose plant/shop floor solutions that aren’t islands. They should use and support a wide variety of standard document exchange formats and provide easy connectivity with other document management systems.

In practice, the plant/shop floor point solution may be at the bottom-most rung in a document management hierarchy, where only the information necessary for the next 24 to 48 hours of production resides in the plant/shop-floor system. In a highly optimized enterprise, new production information would be automatically downloaded to the plant/shop-floor system coincident with new production schedules. That said, the plant/shop-floor system should not be so naïve as to accept any download, at any old time. Safeguards are required to ensure new information dissemination doesn’t overwrite “in-use” information.

Similarly, in-use information should be protected against unknown and unapproved updates caused by engineering changes/improvements. A real fiasco could occur if the last third of a customer’s order differed from the first two thirds because an unknown document update took place.

When it comes time to integrate document management using an ERP system, there are a whole new set of considerations.

First and foremost, document-management as an integral module from an ERP provider is still a relatively new offering. Most successful implementations have integrated third-party document management software solutions into existing ERP solutions. That may change over time, but for now you should seek out document management providers who have successfully integrated their application into the same ERP system you use. And don’t take their word for it; ask for references, and check them out.

Although ERP integrated document management systems provide reductions in labor, that’s not the primary motivation. The main benefits are the accuracy of bid packages, timeliness of customer and supplier information, and faster processing of paperwork; which allows timely dissemination of information, bills to be paid on time, and discounts to be collected.

Reconciling differences

Thousands of companies conform to document control guidelines outlined by regulatory agencies such as ISO, OSHA, EPA, FDA, and others by implementing extensive compliance procedures.

One of the problems in meeting regulatory compliance with hardcopy procedures is no fool-proof way exist to guarantee that every employee is aware of and following the latest procedures. Adding to the compliance complexity is the plethora of document generators (customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders, public, government, etc.), document sources (Word, WordPerfect, Excel, Lotus, AutoDesk, Visio, etc.), and document formats (e-mail, fax, word processing, spreadsheets, drawings, graphics, photos, databases, etc.). And don’t forget there still are plenty of handwritten and hardcopy documents created every day.

A good document management system must be capable of eloquently handling all these complexities in a way that remains transparent to users. Is that possible you ask? The answer to that question has changed in the past two or three years.

Today’s document management technologies have made leapfrog advances over what was available just four or five years ago.

For example, by law The Federal Census Bureau must compile and report data on nearly 300 million people living in the U.S. by Dec. 31, 2000. To complete this monumental task, The Census Bureau installed some new equipment and connected it with equipment owned and operated by contractors. The Census Bureau starting point was to develop a database of every address in the U.S. Given the current U.S. housing boom that means new addresses appear every day, requiring field employees to canvas areas with an address list and note changes and/or additions. Hopefully, when all the census forms are completed and returned (they were due this past April), every person (citizen or not) living in the U.S. will be matched with the correct April 1, 2000, place of residence.

When completed forms arrive at a data capture center, they go through a two-step process: a high-speed (30,000 envelopes per hour) check-in, and a data capture operation. Each form contains a unique bar code that can be read through the envelope window. After the initial scan, both short and long (pamphlet) forms are removed from the envelope, prepared, scanned, sorted, and checked into the census database as ASCII data using dual-sided scanners with optical character recognition software. Through the entire process, The Census Bureau has attempted to minimize the amount of printed material it produces by providing access to census data using a secure Internet connection and standard web browsers.

Like most other industries, Internet and web technologies are enabling document management supplier/solution companies to make giant leaps forward in intricately linking the distribution of documents needed to manage business processes. These include product data, knowledge, online marketplace, manufacturing, customer and supplier relationships, and other business planning and execution activities. In short, web technologies combined with efficient document management services are key to delivering the widely heralded business-to-business vision.

Spend to save

Even when information dissemination requirements are smaller and/or less complex than The Pennsylvania Treasury’s Bureau, Microsoft, or The Federal Census Bureau, there is money to be saved with a document management solution.

For example, Metal Form (Kent, Wa.) provides precision machine parts and assemblies to various industries, including aerospace. Metal Form machinist Steve Stewart says their document management system saved an hour on each part setup.

“Previously, in a typical four to five hour setup, we’d spend about one hour getting all the papers—tools lists, work instructions, etc.—we needed together. And even when we had all the documents together, changes were often hard to read and it was difficult to keep all the documents up-to-date. Now, we can find the documents instantly and we know that we’ve got the most current, approved versions,” Mr. Stewart explains.

Digital paper is the title; document management or information dissemination is the subject. Improving productivity and saving money are what it’s all about.

Electronic ink and e-Books

There are those among us who see traditional paper and print being replaced by electronic ink to form electronic books.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, professor Jacobeson and his colleagues are developing electronic ink technology – where the page is wiped clean and instantly “reprinted” at the touch of a button. Professor Jacobeson envisions a form factor that more closely resembles a traditional paper book than a computer, but with buttons on the spine. Push a button: War and Peace appears. Push another button: The Bible .

The process involves coating paper with a substance made of millions of microscopic capsules with dark pigments, white particles, and electrons. When a negative charge is applied, the dark pigments are exposed and text appears. A positive charge energizes the white particles—a blank page.

Working on a similar idea, but using an entirely different approach is occurring at Microsoft (Redmond, Wa.) in a project called “ClearType.”

In the beginning, the ClearType project team was frustrated that computer screens were only capable of displaying 80 to 106 dots per inch, far too large to accurately and clearly display the small (9- and 10-point) font sizes easily produced by laser printers capable of 600 to 1,200 dots per inch. Not willing to wait five or 10 years for new liquid crystal display (LCD) technology, the team set out to divide each pixel into three sub-pixels (red, green, and blue). The result, when a page of ClearType text appears on a LCD screen, there is no question, the ClearType text is much clearer and easier to read.

Since ClearType has been announced and demonstrated, the ClearType project team has been working with industry and publishers to develop open e-Book standards.

For those readers wanting a more traditional book look and feel, already a few hardware vendors are developing specialized devices that can load and display e-Book text. The Microsoft ClearType team predicts that within the next 2.5 years e-Books will become widespread, and you will feel just as comfortable curling up with an e-Book as you do a paperback novel.

Whether it’s electronic ink or e-Books, it may not be too long before your daily newspaper is always on the breakfast table, and today’s news is waiting to be read.