'Low-tech' IT solution for paperwork

Finding vital business information can be a time-consuming and frustrating task. Office personnel, vendors, and customers can generate volumes of paper. Yet, the volume of office information can pale in comparison to the paper records generated by many manufacturing companies. Some companies estimate that knowledge workers (just about anyone using a computer on a regular basis) spend up to 20% ...


Finding vital business information can be a time-consuming and frustrating task. Office personnel, vendors, and customers can generate volumes of paper. Yet, the volume of office information can pale in comparison to the paper records generated by many manufacturing companies. Some companies estimate that knowledge workers (just about anyone using a computer on a regular basis) spend up to 20% of their time just trying to find the paper records they need for their daily tasks. In manufacturing companies the numbers can be worse, with operations personnel locating records for engineers, scientists, and quality personnel. When manufacturing records are kept on paper, it is common to take months to find vital records. This delay is so well-known that the FDA gives companies 18 months to resolve problems; up to 80% of that time is used to find the right paper records.

There is an IT solution to this problem, and it's low-tech compared to many other IT solutions. The IT solution is to scan in every paper record and convert it into a searchable .pdf file. Healthcare, insurance, and legal industries have had to deal with massive amounts of paper, and their requirements have led to the development of high-speed document scanners.

High-speed scanners with standard interfaces are available from multiple sources. These can scan hundreds of pages at more than 60 pages per minute using document feeders. They also can be connected to an application server to automatically create a useful file name, set document properties, and save the scanned document into the proper folder. The files can be saved on simple file servers, document servers, or collaboration servers such as Microsoft SharePoint. All of these storage methods should be integrated with a search engine, letting personnel quickly find the right data.

The best part of this solution is that the operational cost can be low. A typical installation, using existing file or collaboration servers, can have an operational cost of less than a few dollars per scanned record—and scanned records can be large, with batch records amounting to more than 100 pages. Typical paper documents that should be scanned in a manufacturing environment include maintenance records, production records, laboratory records, and inventory records.

Can it work here?

A quick way to see if this low-tech IT solution will help your bottom line is to perform a small intra-company survey. Identify those that are making the information requests and find out how much time they waste trying to obtain the paper-based data they need. Identify the people actually searching for the right paper records and find out how much time they spend searching. On-line access to that data can easily save 80% of the time, giving you with a quick estimate of savings.

Once you have started the project to scan in all records, then the next step is to standardize names and terminology. You can start by developing and implementing standardized names for equipment tags, product quality attributes, process parameters, process data tags, operator identification, and operations or manufacturing method names.

Standardized names will simplify searches and assist in cross-site investigations and studies. Companies that have implemented a standard scanning procedure and naming conventions have found that it is invaluable in Six Sigma and Lean manufacturing projects, reducing the data collection time significantly.

Remember, the online records do not replace the paper records. Often the paper records are needed for regulatory and legal reasons, but online records reduce the need to index, search, and otherwise use paper records. If you are still drowning in manufacturing paperwork, then it is time to look at document scanning to help solve your paperwork problem.

Author Information

Dennis Brandl is president of BR&L Consulting in Cary, NC, which focuses on manufacturing IT. Reach him at dbrandl@brlconsulting.com .

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