Epson Art 0917by Larry Trevarthen, Epson America

Organizations today are focused on eliminating inefficient business processes and replacing them with automated digital workflows. You may be thinking about, or have potentially already started rolling out your digital transformation and automation initiatives. Today there are many tools available to do things better, faster, cheaper and more reliably. These tools range from document management and business process automation solutions, up through business intelligence software.    

Transforming your business from a paper-based workflow to a digital workflow can start with the multifunction printer (MFP) in the corner of your office. Your MFP can already be connected to critical digital workflows in use today, including document repositories, databases, cloud services, email and electronic content management systems. Leveraging its scanning power can be an efficient method of transitioning to a digital workflow. MFPs today are fully functional network and internet-connected devices, and can be completely integrated with industry leading software platforms. This enables manufacturers to harness the power built into this equipment to play an important role in helping customers pave the way toward digital transformation. 

MFPs are easy to use, can be customized to meet the individual needs of specific workers, and can run their own applications to streamline very specific, repetitive tasks. When integrated with your print management solutions, businesses can control and reduce paper consumption to meet their green initiatives and reduce overhead costs. The MFP fits right in with your business’s current digital transformation and automation strategies.

Scanning: the foundation of automation

The MFP’s scanning capability is the beginning of an automated workflow, and is typically the only action that a human needs to engage in as part of the digital automation process. Scanning is the most efficient way to convert hard copy documents to digital form. However, in a basic workflow, simply scanning an image to your computer would still require additional manual processing. Scanners need to be accompanied by a little bit of intelligence to be an optimal on-ramp to your digital investments. 

This is where software comes to lend a helping hand.

Historically, users would have to scan documents to their desktop, adjust the image and then manually move the image to its intended destination. Next, they would need to execute any additional indexing, conversion and processing tasks before they were done. 

Today’s scanners come with integrated image enhancement technology to optimize image quality automatically, reducing processing errors and the need for rescans. Users can leverage applications with the MFP to scan, index, process, share, and route documents to their final destination in their preferred format. In many cases, customized scan profiles can be configured and embedded on the device down to the individual user, so workers can tackle scan jobs simply with the touch of a button. 

Many solutions support embedded applications that connect the device with a specific program. Sometimes that connection is bilateral, and they vary in how deep a user can drill down into a repository from the MFP. Embedded applications afford users the ability to easily customize scans to be saved to a particular folder that can be accessed by multiple users, or to a discrete location on the network. Some connectors do more than others. For instance, some connectors can use indexing information to determine where the document should be routed, or can trigger other workflows based on input.  

Scanners are key to digitizing information stored on paper using optical character recognition (OCR). OCR is responsible for making sense of that information by capturing the hard copy content digitally and transforming it into fully searchable, editable documents. OCR solutions offer the flexibility to capture either the entire document or select document parts, such as an invoice amount or contact information. These OCR solutions also have the ability to search for and read barcodes and specific character strings, and identify the type of document file. Some developers have made their OCR SDKs available for purchase, making it easy for businesses to integrate this technology into scanning workflows directly at the point of capture and to develop custom applications to improve business processes. 

As mentioned in the example above, administrators can train the OCR software to recognize invoice content and deliver the invoice amount (or other pertinent information) to a specific database or application. For example, if a user scans a purchase order, the information can be routed to accounts payable so an invoice can be generated and to a warehouse so the order can be fulfilled.   

Business processes are developed to integrate and improve human interaction. Therefore, it is critical to accurately capture and organize the information to enable people to collaborate on projects, such as creating contracts, proposals, forms and other important business documents. Many MFPs come equipped with PDF editors so users can scan, edit, annotate, and comment on documents with others, regardless of whether they are in a different location. Some even allow your business to use digital signatures to streamline approval processes without having to sacrifice security.

Digital transformation isn’t just about input 

If your MFPs are integrated into your business’s core systems and networks, you’ll need to focus on security. Administrators should implement device management solutions to keep sensitive information from falling into the wrong hands. 

That’s where intelligent device management solutions come into play. They allow administrators to bring together users and the information they need to do their job without sacrificing security concerns. In addition, they reduce the cost and IT burden that come along with managing these solutions. This is a key component for marrying your digital transformation strategy with your fleet of MFPs. 

Device management solutions enable administrators to control which features and functionalities a user or group of users can access. Current MFPs empower administrators to block the accounting document from printing color simplex jobs, for example, but give such permissions to the marketing department. They can also control who can see what information while at the MFP; preventing workers in the marketing department, for example, from being able to access repositories reserved for the human resources department. Such rules are not only important to remain in compliance with regulators, but from preventing a breach that could spell disaster for your businesses. 

Device management also aligns with your current automation strategy. These MFP solutions relieve your IT staff from constantly updating drivers and firmware or wrestling with print servers. Administrators can set the system to automatically notify them when an error occurs, proactively warn staff when consumables are low or notify IT that maintenance is soon required. Ultimately, administrators will have more time to focus on more complicated projects in your digital transformation and automation initiative. 

In a purely paperless world, scanners would be completely useless. But paper has critical benefits and will be around for many years to come, meaning MFPs and scanners will remain office mainstays for the foreseeable future. We are now seeing powerful, intelligent software built to optimize productivity and efficiency being developed around this equipment — at the same time delivering reduced costs and maintaining a secure environment. Implementing a document management system and enhancing your digital workflows is key for business efficiency. Today you can achieve those objectives not only with standalone scanners, but equally with highly functional inkjet or laser MFP devices. 

Larry Trevarthen is director of marketing at Epson America.

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Workflow.