Image Quality, Automated Indexing Smooth The Road To Imaging Sale
Systems integrator TwinStar, Inc. met a motor carrier financial cooperative's need for speed with an integrated document processing solution that has captured the attention of co-op members.
Providers of outsourced services make a living by being able to do some task more efficiently than a customer can do it himself. In the case of Allied Carriers Exchange, Inc. (Denver), a nonprofit financial cooperative, that means being able to provide accounts receivable services for the trucking industry. Allied provides billing and collection services to clients as well as extending financing to cover the "float" between signing contracts and receiving payments. As a result, the cooperative requires accurate records in order to provide services to clients as well as to realize payment sooner and reduce the length of the float.
For many years, Allied had been microfilming statements and related documentation. This system required a sizable amount of labor in both filming and retrieval. Response to customer service issues took as long as two weeks because of the need to locate, print, and send documents. "Microfilm was very workable, but a dead end in terms of functionality," says John Church, Allied's senior VP and CIO. "We needed greater capability in order to remain competitive." In fact, Allied had considered a digital solution in the early 1990s, but at that time the high cost and limited functionality didn't justify the investment. In the meantime, Allied had been monitoring technological developments, especially those that could integrate into an existing IBM AS/400 (now iSeries) server environment.
It was Allied's relationship with IBM that brought TwinStar, Inc. (Denver), an integrator of content management and document imaging solutions, to Allied's attention. As an IBM authorized solution provider, TwinStar was informed of the opportunity, which fell within its area of expertise. According to Steve Gaumond, TwinStar's president, reliable automated indexing and optimal image quality were Allied's key requirements in a digital solution to replace microfilm. "They were concerned that they wouldn't be able to scan and index quickly enough to accommodate 15,000 pages or more each day," says Gaumond. "If there was going to be a lot of data entry, they didn't think they could implement the system at all. Microfilm was actually quicker for them in this regard because they would sort and physically prepare the documents before filming and mark the reels, allowing them to skip any data entry." The quality of the images is important because many of them are faxed in response to inquiries, and in some cases, faxing reduces readability.
Put Data Entry Functions On Cruise Control
TwinStar recommended Bell & Howell's 8080S production scanner with integrated VRS (Virtual ReScan) supported by Kofax' Ascent Capture. The 8080S is a simplex scanner which can accommodate documents ranging in size from 2.6 inches square to tabloid size. It runs at speeds of 65 to 80 pages per minute. VRS automatically adjusts skewed images and regulates brightness, contrast, and clarity to improve image quality. Allied uses several standard forms, which Ascent can identify based on bar codes. Ascent can also validate and extract data from the forms and release it to IBM's Content Manager. The data that is gathered is used to automatically index the images with little human intervention.
Another feature that reduces the amount of labor associated with the scanning process is VRS' ability to communicate with Ascent Capture. VRS can detect paper jams, folded corners and multiple feeds. For instance, if multiple documents are fed into the scanner, the user is alerted at the desktop. This eliminates dependence on a designated scanner operator.
Aged files are archived in an IBM 3995 optical library with multifunction drives. MO (magneto-optical) was chosen because it is a medium supported by Content Manager and AS/400. The media itself is 5.25-inch CCW (continuous composite WORM [write once read many]) which has a shelf life estimated at 150 years. Gaumond says that it is preferable to magnetic tape which has a life span closer to 10 years and more I/O (input/output) errors than the optical discs.
The functionality of the system and the success with automated data entry using bar codes encouraged Allied to make another change to its business process. The cooperative is now creating its own computer-generated forms with integrated bar codes that are recognized by Ascent. Not only does this reduce the cost associated with printing, Allied now has more control over the content of the forms and can modify them at its own convenience.
"Compared to the annualized costs of our microfilm solution over a five-year period, the costs for our digital system are about the same or slightly less," notes Church. "But it's not just maintaining the status quo. We're scanning 10,000 documents a day in less time than it took to process 2,000 or 3,000. Our scanning volume has increased because we're making the solution a part of our entire operation and scanning images that were previously not microfilmed." Now when customers or members call for information, they get an immediate response, including when a load was shipped, who signed for it, and where it was delivered. In the past, Church estimates that gathering all that information may have taken as long as two weeks, during which time a customer would withhold payment.
Nice Guys Don't Finish Last
Allied's evaluation was an extremely thorough one, according to Gaumond. During the one-year sales cycle, Allied evaluated a number of providers. Church admits that other integrators offered functionality and expertise with IBM hardware, but TwinStar's approach to a business partnership was better. "One vendor we started to work with had a well-known product and we had obtained pricing and quotes. When we pressed him for more specific information, he said I didn't know what I was talking about and the relationship became adversarial. We opted not to work with him at all. Because TwinStar treated us as partners, we felt confident they were the right choice. The decision was based not just on knowledge and expertise, but also because they were the kind of business partner that we wanted."
"Having a good customer relationship is 80% of the battle," comments Gaumond. "It makes it much easier to know the requirements and set expectations. I probably could make more money in the short run as a black box provider, but we get the best results when we ask a customer to roll up his sleeves and get involved in the implementation process." Customer involvement can also reduce post-implementation training. Systems administrator training took less than three days, and some programmer training was spread across a couple of weeks. Gaumond estimates that it took a total of about 90 days to implement the solution. "It was more a matter of configuration than programming," he comments. That is because the component products have compatible APIs (application programming interfaces), release scripts, and enabling programs.
TwinStar has found that this kind of solution is appealing to other large trucking businesses and even some smaller ones. The functionality it offers appeals to countless industries that have to worry about maintaining data from paper documents. This account specifically has already created some interest in other corners. "As part of the annual audit process, some of the co-op members and bankers toured the facility," reports Church. "They were so impressed that I received a call the next day from one of the organizations that wanted to know how to contact TwinStar."