Fast-forward into the files: Innovation: an optical system hopes to overcome problems of time and cost in storing documents

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The Independent Online
As anybody who has set about computerising any aspect of their business knows, it is one thing to accept the benefits of modern technology, quite another to put them into action, writes Roger Trapp.

With administrative matters in particular, this is largely because of the investment in time required to transfer records from their traditional paper form to a database. But the intellectual commitment necessary to accept that something once held in the hand is safe in a database cannot be ignored.

The problem is particularly acute for a company like Bell & Howell which to a large extent relies for its livelihood on persuading people to switch to hi-tech document storage and retrieval. As a result, it is hardly surprising that it is hailing its latest product as 'a significant breakthrough'.

The Copiscan II range of scanning equipment, due to be launched at the CEBIT 93 show in Hanover next month, enables documents to be captured on a database at a rate of up to 84 pages a minute - nearly four times as fast as with existing machines. Its comparatively low price ( pounds 17,250) and compatibility with most personal computers make it highly accessible to a range of offices.

In the words of Richard Austin, managing director of the company's European operations, 'We think it crosses the barrier of price-performance'. The nearest rival, produced by Fujitsu of Japan, costs pounds 58,630. The development, following on from Bell & Howell's earlier innovations in the field, is a tribute to the company's Japanese-like determination to carve out a niche for itself. Convinced that the time and cost of inputing data was the biggest barrier to the growth of optical document storage it set about finding a way through what it called the 'key bottleneck'.

Building on the company's experience in developing high-speed paper transport systems for microfilm cameras, its designers in Chicago have come up with a high-speed scanner engine that, with help from a short paper path, is able to perform tasks more quickly than had previously been thought possible. This, combined with the small number of moving parts, also contributes to another advance.

Unlike previous scanners, the Copiscan II can handle documents of a variety of sizes (up to A3), thicknesses and, most importantly, conditions. As a result, it is able to function in the real world where papers are less likely to be in pristine condition than folded, creased, stapled or torn.

Linking this adaptability to the machine's ability to scan both sides of an A4 document simultaneously makes it especially attractive to insurance companies and other organisations where 'a piece of paper has a particular value', said Mr Austin.

But another technology - the Adaptive Contrast Enhancement, which reveals the company's roots in photography - makes the machinery well suited to a range of other uses, including photographic libraries.

An optional extra on the first model of the Copiscan range, it not only gives the operator confidence that the scan will work, it also automatically adjusts for image quality as each document goes through.

The technology is proving attractive to manufacturers, such as IBM, which want to market the equipment under their own names, as well as systems integrators. It can also be bought separately via one of Bell & Howell's dozen or so European distributors. Mr Austin said he was delighted to see the Japanese - for once - racing to catch up. 'I am very happy that we are capable of competing,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)