The Total Cost of Scanning:
A Framework for Analysis and Improvement
By Anthony Barbeau
As any good records manager knows, document capture involves more than simply feeding documents into a scanner at one end and getting digital images on a computer screen at the other. Likewise, controlling the costs of document capture goes far beyond buying the least expensive scanner with a high enough rated transport speed to handle an organizations workload.
But how many managers take a sufficiently broad "systems view" of the document capture process? And how many recognize that decisions made at every step - especially in the purchase of the scanner itself - will affect costs throughout the system? In fact, the failure to view document capture as an interrelated system, and to purchase equipment and software with the system in mind, is often the cause of higher-than-expected scanning costs. These costs include the "cost of poor quality," which an organization might incur months or even years after a document has been scanned, when the document is found to be unreadable and unusable.
From the input of paper documents to the output of digital images, there are eight major steps in the document capture value chain. Every step offers opportunities for cost reduction and efficiency improvement. The steps are shown in Figure 1.
Steps in the Document Capture Process
Staple and paper clip removal, damage repair, sorting, batching.
Feeding scanner, clearing jams, cleaning and maintenance.
Convert documents to digital form. Document output and disposition (documents filed away, disposed of, or held for rescanning).
Adjustments and corrections made to the scan (compensating, filtering, noise removal, binarization).
Images deskewed, cropped and rotated; borders removed.
Image quality verified. If necessary, documents sent back to the document input stage for rescanning.
Indexing and Extraction
Document capture software does its work: forms recognition, data capture, optical character recognition, indexing, input into databases, information extraction. Digital document might be combined with other information. Images put into proper file formats and organized into directory structures.
Export and delivery
Images routed and presented to the system for workflow and database management. Storage for later access.
Note that only three of these steps - document input, image capture, and image formation - are part of the actual "scanning" procedure. Preparation occurs before scanning, while all of the steps after image enhancement - quality assurance, indexing and extraction, and export and delivery - can be grouped in the category of "post-scan processing."
It can be instructive to consider the costs associated with each of these three categories - preparation, scanning and post-scan processing - over a three-year period in a mid-volume scanning environment. Surprisingly, the costs associated with scanning, including the purchase and maintenance of the scanner itself (about $25,000), will represent only about 24 percent of total document capture costs. (In a high-volume document capture environment these costs drop to only 10-15 percent of the total.)
The preparation stage, however, represents about 37 percent of total document capture costs. Even though capital outlays are small, involving only the purchase of tables and, at most, a document jogger, the combination of labor costs and charges for expensive office space dwarf the costs of scanning.
The post-scan processing stages incur the highest costs of all, at 39 percent. These operations are much more labor-intensive than scanning, and the space requirements are more than double.
The Costs of Quality
A complete examination of document capture costs should also consider the thorny issues related to the cost of poor quality. These problems tend to appear during or after post-scan processing and are often harder to quantify because they are scattered over a variety of functions.
The costs of quality can be categorized into three groups:
Internal failure costs are those associated with defects (errors, nonconformance, etc.) found in the process and include such items as rescans. External failure costs are associated with defects found after the process has been completed. An example of this would be an unreadable image found by a customer service representative while performing his or her job. In this case, special action must be taken after the defect is found, such as requesting an original copy of the document, in order to provide the required level of customer service.
Appraisal costs are incurred in determining the degree to which a scanned document conforms to quality requirements. In the world of manufacturing, this generally involves inspection and audits. In document capture, it means image quality assurance prior to release.
Finally, prevention costs are related to the activities that keep failure and appraisal costs to a minimum, such as time spent cleaning a scanner to prevent jams and maintain high image quality.
The Scanner is the Key
The best way to avoid these kinds of costs is to invest in scanners and image processing software that will provide high-quality images in the first place. Purchasing a scanner that employs dynamic image processing technology which helps bring out information in low contrast originals and reduces the need for pre-sorting documents and subsequently scanning with different contrast and threshold settings will pay off in the long run. Likewise, it makes sense to purchase scanners that feature automatic deskewing, border removal, and other features that ensure clean, crisp usable images. The up-front investment in quality will reduce the need for rescans, speed up the quality assurance step in the value chain and minimize the chance that a poor quality image will slip through undetected, creating problems down the road.
Investing in quality can also have a favorable impact on costs associated with document preparation. Scanners capable of reading barcodes can reduce the need for batching and separating documents. When the scanner reads the barcode, the digital image is automatically batched, so the separating process is largely automated.
In many other ways, the scanner itself is the key to cost reductions throughout the document capture process. For example, one way to reduce labor costs would be to replace two low-volume scanners with one high-speed, high-volume machine, eliminating the need for one operator. Other opportunities for cost reduction are less obvious. A scanner might have a low price and a high rated transport speed. But buyers must also consider the time-intensive work involved in clearing paper jams, photocopying torn pages, removing sheets from oversized plastic protectors and other laborious chores like removing and cleaning feed rollers. These hidden factors are as important to the bottom line as the more obvious retail price and pages per minute rating.
A scanner will be less costly to operate over time if:
Other Cost Factors
Several other factors also contribute to the overall cost of scanning, though these factors are often not considered when a purchasing decision is made.
Managers sometimes overlook the question of throughput. Most vendors determine their throughput rate by measuring the raw transport speed, a theoretical maximum speed with everything operating perfectlyincluding the person feeding documents into the scanner. But rated transport speed does not account for gaps between documents, slowdowns that result when different types of documents are scanned, when batches are different sizes, whether documents are in landscape or portrait mode, or operator productivity. Some operators, and some scanners, are significantly more productive than others. A far better comparison than raw transport speed is a measure of productivity: How long does it take to scan standard batches of mixed documents? This measure takes into consideration limitations in the feeder, delays due to jam clearance and re-scans, and restrictions in the scanners electronics that result in lag times to process and deliver images to the host.
Meanwhile, managers must consider whether important accessories are part of the scanners price or must be purchased separately before the scanner is "fully functional." These accessories can include automatic document feeders - which can have a big impact on worker productivity and interface boards. A video board, which is required for many scanner interfaces, can cost up to $6,000. Duplex scanners that simultaneously scan both sides of a document require two boards. On the other hand, a scanner that uses a SCSI interface requires only a SCSI card costing about $150, if its not already built in to the computer.
Finally, scanner buyers should consider how well the scanner will hold up over the months and years. Few manufacturers assign or, more importantly, publish an estimated life for a piece of equipment. This useful life is not the time between belt changes or cleanings, but the life before repair is no longer economically feasible. A more expensive scanner might offer considerably more value if it lasts three times as long as a low-end model, which might also require more frequent service calls.
Determining the total cost of scanning is more than a simple equation. But as a rule of thumb, managers seeking to reduce overall document capture costs would do well to invest in high-quality scanning equipment, as long as that equipment helps them reduce preparation and post-scan processing costs. Robust document feeders, high image quality, and productivity features such as barcode readers can help reduce those costs and thus alter the value equation. In the long run, better scanners save significant money, often more than covering their price premiums through lower labor costs alone.
Anthony Barbeau is Worldwide Marketing Manager for Mid-Volume Scanners with the Business Imaging Systems Division of Eastman Kodak Co.
Document Capture Costs: An Example
Calculations are based on the following: