Make Magic With New Imaging Technologies
Advances in document capture, workflow, and other imaging technologies create a new pool of potential customers by increasing functionality and decreasing costs to the end user.
When magician David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty vanish, spectators were awed. While there is a technical explanation for why onlookers saw what they thought they saw, it sure looked like magic. Unfortunately audiences aren't impressed for long and Copperfield has to keep outperforming himself, making increasingly larger and more complex items - such as the Orient Express - vanish. Otherwise, the network execs will be calling Lance Burton the next time they are looking for prime-time ratings. Imaging VARs like KeyMark, Inc. (Greenville, SC) are under similar pressure to differentiate themselves in the marketplace by constantly expanding their repertoire of solutions. KeyMark's Jim Henderson, president, and Jim Wanner, CEO, do this by being on the cutting edge of technologies that give end users the illusion that document capture and workflow are easier than pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Being early adopters of advances in imaging allows KeyMark to do something truly magical: maintain an annual sales growth rate of 30% or more every year since it was founded in 1996.
Conjuring Order In A Chaotic Paper World
The lives of imaging VARs would be far less complicated if only the world - or at least certain industries - would agree to use a standard form. Then an application could be easily set up to recognize elements such as names, purchase order numbers, and codes for medical procedures. The reality is that most companies deal with a vast number of different forms that are supposed to address the same purpose. In fact, Wanner reports that Cameron & Barkley, a distributor of electrical products and maintenance supplies, deals with about 80,000 vendors. In a traditional forms processing solution, a template is created for every individual form, a process which takes about two or three days. For a customer like Cameron & Barkley, such a system would be prohibitively expensive and impractical. In addition to being unmanageable, it would require creation of another template every time one of the vendors decided to use a new form.
Realizing that it could open this previously untapped market of high transaction companies, KeyMark began offering the unstructured forms capability offered by Microsystems Technology, Inc. in mid-2001. Instead of being dependent on placement of information on a form (i.e. template-driven), unstructured forms processing technology captures data based on other criteria such as keywords or appearance. For example, any number that looks like (814) 838-0025 is probably a phone number. "With unstructured forms technology we can set up a basic routine for capturing relevant data in about a month. That solution will accommodate 90% of the forms it encounters, and about 80% of those will be processed automatically without any human intervention. That rate gets higher week by week as we tweak the form and it 'learns' how to handle certain documents," says Wanner. In the case of an accounts payable client, that tweaking might involve how the system handles vendor lookup from the database or how it deals with multiple "remit to" addresses for a single vendor.
As KeyMark enjoys the benefits of being able to deal with a virtually unlimited variety of forms, it can also offer customers increasingly higher recognition rates. Wanner and Henderson say that less than two years ago OCR (optical character recognition) accuracy rates were approximately 94% for machine print and 72% for hand print. "Now the accuracy rate is almost 100% for machine print and somewhere around 93% for hand print," comments Wanner. "Plus we can do an intelligent search of a document with full-text OCR, which we couldn't do previously."
Being able to process more types of forms with higher accuracy means less human intervention. It cuts down on the labor required to perform the tasks and, for many imaging customers, faster document processing means they realize funds sooner. "Any customer who's looking at forms processing either has to pay somebody, wants to get paid, or has to meet a legal requirement," says Henderson. "In all those environments, accuracy and speed are critical requirements."
Validation And Workflow Are More Than Smoke And Mirrors
But even with throughput of more than 60% and recognition rates over 90%, human intervention can never be completely eliminated. In any scenario there will always be exceptions, those documents that don't fit the template closely enough to be posted without someone taking a look at them. For instance, an anesthesia code on an insurance document can be based on minutes, units, or cubic centimeters, so that field can't be easily identified without actually looking at it. Some environments even require that a human visually verify a particularly important field. That means that savvy VARs like KeyMark look for ways to make that intervention as easy and productive as possible.
"Even EDI (electronic data interchange) will have some errors," says Wanner. "We are currently processing paper forms at about two-thirds the quality of EDI, meaning that they can be automatically posted to the mainframe. There are still people doing the verification, but there's no massive exception process. For a client who's processing 4,000 forms a month, reducing the number of keystrokes can save as much as $31,000 a month."
Recent developments in the widely used VB (Visual Basic) scripting language allow for validation of data as recognition is being performed. "In the past, data would be electronically read off the form and posted to the mainframe. The mainframe would generate a printout and the greenbars (green and white striped computer printouts) would have to be matched to the documents. For most users that procedure was only about 10% to 15% faster than a manual data entry process," estimates Wanner.
Not only does validation using VB scripts increase accuracy, but interactive scripting maintains the mainframe look and feel for end users while providing real-time feedback as data is being entered. "Before interactive scripting, data would be validated either before or after a human looked at it, but the user never saw the data as it would appear in the output, so it was impossible for someone to sign off on an action," says Wanner. "That sounds like a minor issue, but it's important to companies that log data before and after a human sees it. Managers can see where errors are occurring and track fields that seem to be problematic and share that feedback with employees."
"VB enhancements also allow for validation on-the-fly," adds Henderson. "If a certain piece of data, such as a code on a HCFA (Health Care Financing Administration) form always comes in a certain way or a limited number of acceptable ways, a script can be written to change that automatically." For example, the system could recognize that A8C is probably an error if the standard code is ABC.
Beyond validation, KeyMark is able to offer customers a total workflow solution at a lower price point than ever before. Simply put, workflow automates the handling and routing of documents or images to digital inboxes for approval or action. For example, a completed credit application can be directed to the individual or group who approves them.
Wanner estimates that the cost of creating a customized workflow has been cut in half in the last 18 months. An out-of-the-box solution that can be configured cuts time to market as compared to one that has to be written from the ground up. When administration, exception processing, and interfaces are all simplified, VARs invest less in implementation time and lower costs for the end user.
Lower acquisition costs mean that it is easier to convince people to buy and creates opportunity among customers with more modest budgets. "It used to be that an average production scanning operation was $120,000 - just for the scanning. Now we can offer complete scanning and workflow for $350,000," contends Wanner. "Less than two years ago, that same solution might have cost $800,000 to $1.2 million. Very few companies can buy a digital solution at that level, so bringing the cost down increases the number of potential prospects." Wanner and Henderson also benefit from being able to offer customers a payback period of 15 months or less, as opposed to the previous estimate of about 30 months.
Hardware Sets The Stage For Ongoing Success
Advances in software have been bolstered by improvements in hardware. Machines that open mail work faster and handle a wider variety of envelope sizes than ever. Once those envelopes are opened, the output quality of production scanners increases exponentially, even as the prices are decreasing. "Scanners do so much more cleanup than before with technology like [Kodak's] Perfect Page," notes Henderson. "The image quality is better and there is much less noise. Last year we could handle images that were skewed maybe 5°. Now it's up to as much as 30°." These improvements reduce labor associated with rescanning and improved output means better accuracy from recognition software.
Scanner vendors are also driving the adoption of color scanning by virtually eliminating the price differences between color and bi-tonal. As a result, KeyMark is installing color scanners wherever it's practical, even though few existing software applications leverage color image capture. Currently, most of those scanners are operating in a bi-tonal mode, but when software products and OCR engines begin to process color, KeyMark plans to enter that market early too.
Before The Curtain Goes Up On A New Imaging Solution
Being an early adopter can be tricky, but KeyMark looks for solutions that are relatively low risk, are likely to benefit its customers, and have the potential to generate profit. "We have been involved in enough new stuff that we have developed an ability to identify the real issues and figure out how to avoid potential problems," says Wanner. "But it really comes down to relationships with customers and vendors."
"We find that it's better to be up-front about a change we're making and lay out appropriate expectations," adds Henderson. "It's much better to warn customers about possible problems than to have them come up unexpectedly. We try to set realistic expectations and build in some leeway for iteration."
An important aspect of vendor support is training, an element that KeyMark uses extensively. "Per capita, we probably spend more on training than any company our size," comments Wanner. He estimates that in 2001 KeyMark spent $60,000 on training in forms processing software and a similar amount for workflow. That's in addition to travel costs and other expenses. This expertise is offered not just to engineers, but also to salespeople to improve their ability to communicate the realities of a solution to a customer.
Like most illusions, making document imaging solutions look easy takes a lot of work behind the scenes. Those rehearsals are beginning to pay off as KeyMark prepares to take its highly successful act on the road with satellite operations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. "At one time, our goal was to be the premiere imaging VAR in South Carolina," says Henderson. "Now we've set our sights on being a real presence in the entire Eastern region."