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A Big Step Closer to the Paperless Office

COMPUTER FILE / RICHARD O'REILLY

February 24, 1994|RICHARD O'REILLY | RICHARD O'REILLY is director of computer analysis for The Times

The first time I looked at LaserFiche document management software from Compulink Management Center Inc., a small Torrance developer, it wasn't much competition for the ubiquitous office filing cabinet.

That was five years ago, and it cost about $45,000 to get started, including the software, special scanner, high-resolution monitor, special processing upgrade cards and what was then a top-of-the-line 386 PC. And you needed a lot of desktop space to hold all the gear.

Today you can get started for $895 with a much-improved version of the software and a speedy little scanner that takes about as much room on your desk as a telephone. You supply the Windows-equipped 386 or more powerful computer on which it runs.

LaserFiche still isn't as cheap as a filing cabinet, but it is certainly a viable competitor.

The premise of document management (and there are a variety of products competing with LaserFiche) is simple: Instead of storing paper, which takes a lot of room and is costly to file and retrieve, you take an electronic picture of documents with a scanner. Then you can index the images under multiple categories for easy retrieval.

You also run them through an optical character-recognition process that turns the electronic image into a computer text file and indexes every word in the document. Later you can find all documents that contain particular words or phrases. You can even print a facsimile of the original document from the stored image, re-creating paper when you need it.

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You might think you could do all of that with an inexpensive hand scanner and the software that comes with it, and you could--sort of. But what you get with a package such as LaserFiche is a complete system for managing documents, including an incremental upgrade path that allows your system to grow in capacity and processing power as your needs grow. The entry-level $895 LaserFiche system from Compulink ((310) 212-5465) consists of a program called LaserFiche MinuteFile for Windows, along with the Leo Scan 610 scanner with interface card and cables.

The scanner will accept up to 10 pages at a time and will feed their images into your computer at a rate of six pages a minute. That's considerably faster than the performance of low-priced flatbed scanners, which are designed more for capturing photos and graphic images for desktop publishing activities than for document management needs.

LaserFiche MinuteFile handles the whole process, from scanning to categorizing to optical character recognition to full-text indexing to document search and retrieval. On the 66-megahertz, 486-equipped computer I used for testing, I was able to do the whole job on a 16-page, double-sided document in 8 minutes, 28 seconds.

That included time it took to turn the bundle of eight pages over and put them back in the scanner feeder, and the time to type indexing categories into the blank spaces provided on the screen. It also included the time for the program to perform optical character recognition and index every word in the document.

The result was near-perfect character recognition and images that could be printed with nearly the quality of the originals. The scanning resolution was 300 dots per inch.

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You need a lot of disk storage space for document management, but even that has become more practical these days, with gigabyte-sized hard drives available for less than $1,000. You can expect each scanned image of a letter-size page to take about 50 kilobytes of disk storage, an OCR text file from the page takes another four kilobytes and an index needs about two kilobytes per page. That means you could store about 17,800 documents on a one-gigabyte drive or 1,780 documents on a 100-megabyte drive.

The program itself needs three megabytes of storage, modest for a Windows program these days. You can reduce document storage requirements by deleting page images after they've gone through the OCR process if the text, rather than its appearance on the page, is all you need.

Limitations of the entry-level system are that it is confined to a stand-alone PC and it has only one generalized set of indexing categories by which to identify documents. The next step up is called LaserFiche Executive ($1,495), and it allows you to create many kinds of document types, each with its own set of indexing categories. For instance, you could have one set of categories to identify personnel records, another for clients, others for various kinds of research projects, etc.

Higher-performance systems are also available to serve a work group on a Novell local area network, or to function as a document management system complete with multiple hard disk storage jukeboxes and connected to multiple departmental networks.

Making the transition from paper and filing cabinets to electronic images, text files and indexes is one of those critical decisions that can either enhance a business or create a lot of grief, so careful research is needed.

One important factor to explore is whether the system you choose can grow as your needs grow. You don't want to have to convert thousands of pages of electronic document files to another system down the road if you can avoid it.

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