Broad sweep to save victims of deluge: Millions of companies worldwide are still generating a vast amount of paper. Tim Bowler reports

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COMPUTERS may now rule the roost in many offices, but good old- fashioned paper documents have yet to go the way of cuneiform clay tablets. For many firms, computerisation has had little impact on the quantity of paper-based documents that they generate.

For big corporations, the sheer volume of paperwork generated annually can run into hundreds of tons. A survey last year by the management consultants Touche Ross found companies can accumulate more than 100lb of paper per person per year. The risk of an office becoming knee-deep in paper is real.

One reason for the proliferation in paperwork is the electronic revolution. The technological advances that have put computer terminals on almost every office desk have also led to the spread of the fax machine, copier and other items of paper-producing office hardware.

By the end of this year, there will be some 30 million fax machines worldwide. Four-fifths of all faxes are written at a computer, with only two in 100 then sent directly from the terminal. Most of us write, then print out the document and fax it to its destination, thus generating yet more paper.

But as office systems become more integrated, this is now changing. Local Area Network, or LAN, fax servers and external fax-modems are giving computer users the ability to send and receive faxes.

Personal computers and fax machines are also being combined into single systems, thus cancelling the need for a separate fax machine. The most sophisticated examples of this integration are the fax devices that link up to laser printers.

Hewlett-Packard, for example, markets what it calls the LaserJet Fax for its own series of laser jet printers. It allows you to print incoming faxes on the printer, as well as sending anything you write on-screen as a fax.

The humble photocopier is changing too. As desktop publishing becomes more common, companies are demanding more from their copiers. In a survey of the UK copier market, Kodak Office Imaging found that two out of five users said full colour copying was now essential. Allied to this is a rising demand for copier-printers and open systems that can be easily linked to mainframe computers or networked personal computers.

All this integration might finally cut the paperwork which is generated, but still leaves the problem of storing existing documents. Documents can often prove impossible to find and the work needs to be done again.

This is where document imaging processing comes in. DIP allows the storage of tens of thousands of documents on a single optical disk. Systems currently on the market allow the user either to bring up the image of a required document on a computer screen, print, fax and copy it, or distribute it to other users in the system.

DIP is part of what have been termed electronic document management systems, which are aimed at looking after documents from their creation to their final storage in the corporate archives. The idea is that while the office may never be paperless, it might just become slightly more paper-free.