How to Tame the Paper Tiger

Talk about data storage these days and the conversation quickly veers toward the digital realm. But the fact is, we still have a fixation with paper: computer printouts, photocopies, logbooks and maintenance records, even magazines.

Instead of eliminating paper, the popularity of computers has cluttered our offices with even more.

And the more paper you create, the harder it is to keep track of it: a recent Coopers & Lybrand study showed that 7.5% of all business documents are lost.

More and more truck fleets are avoiding the clutter and precious man-hours used to find important data by creating a digital image of their paper documents and storing them electronically.

The idea is by no means new: large corporations and libraries started putting documents on microfilm in the 1930s.

And large fleets have used some form of imaging for years-usually tied into a large mainframe computer system.

But costs have come down to where these systems are more affordable and practical for smaller companies. And increased computing power makes it easier to run systems on an off-the-shelf PC network.

The benefits are many. In a well-organized database, storing documents electronically lets you access them quickly, which helps keep customers happy, and makes it easier to restrict access to certain documents, which enhances security. Scanning trip-related documents directly into a database speeds up processing so you can shorten your billing cycle, and fewer keystrokes mean fewer errors and omitted entries.

Of course, digitized documents take up less office real estate: information can be stored in a fraction of the space.


A basic document imaging system consists of several components:

A computer workstation dedicated to scanning documents. A large monitor (17 inches or more) should be used so that images can be checked for quality before being committed to optical disc storage.

A high-speed scanner that can be operated in both flatbed and automatic document feeder mode so you can scan wrinkled and odd-sized paper if needed.

The speed you get will depend on the quantity of documents that need to be scanned and how much you want to pay. A $10,000 scanner might do 50 pages a minute; you’ll pay more for greater speed and capability.

A commercial-grade laser printer to print scanned documents when needed. Again, the higher the speed, the higher the price.

An optical storage system, often called a “jukebox,” which houses optical discs or “platters.” Information can typically be retrieved by a linked computer in 15 seconds or less. A typical 1.3-gigabyte platter holds around 30,000 pages. So a 22-platter jukebox can hold more than 50 four-drawer filing cabinets worth of paper documents.

Modems built into computers allow documents to be faxed or e-mailed from the desktop.

All of the above hardware is typically linked on a local area network. As they come in, documents such as bills of lading, fuel receipts, proof of delivery, claims, weight tickets, driver logs, etc., are fed into the scanner and are indexed so that they can easily be retrieved. The scanned documents are typically stored on a main computer (file server) and downloaded to optical discs when they aren’t needed as often (typically after 90 days).

Technologies such as Computer Output to Laser Disc (COLD) and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) can be used to automate indexing and compress data to make storage more efficient.


Once in the system, documents can easily be pulled up on a screen for billing or reference. Depending on the software and computer platform, numerous documents can often be displayed at once in separate windows.

In a technique called “screen scraping,” a different application is brought up on the screen and a load number from it is used to index a document. Part or all of a document can be e-mailed or faxed directly to a shipper with just a few keystrokes.

In essence, that’s how it works at Al’s Cartage Ltd., a Kitchener, Ont.-based less-than-truckload specialist. The company uses a document imaging system to process about 2000 bills of lading and proof of delivery slips each day.

“Bills of lading and PODs are in high demand-at any given time, the traffic department, accounting, and sales all are looking for the same piece of paper,” says Roger Hoppenrath, office manager at Al’s Cartage.

At Al’s, when the driver hands in his documentation, it’s scanned into the system and made available across the company’s MI3MS 3000 network. It can be accessed by various departments, or faxed or e-mailed to an inquiring customer right from a desktop.

Considering hardware, software, and training, Al’s invested about $100,000 in the system (supplied by Woodbridge, Ont.-based DocuCom Imaging Solutions).

“Once the hardware and software are in, and you’ve completed your training, your costs drop off and you start to see a payback right away,” Hoppenrath says.

In the future, Al’s plans to house all of a client’s file on the network and use it to process billings.

Indeed, fleets that have installed imaging systems say the biggest bottom-line benefit is faster billing cycles.

“Literally, anything that can be produced on paper-and misplaced-is a candidate to be scanned and stored electronically,” Hoppenrath says.

“Look around you and you’ll no doubt see the possibilities stacked up in piles.”

Have your say

This is a moderated forum. Comments will no longer be published unless they are accompanied by a first and last name and a verifiable email address. (Today's Trucking will not publish or share the email address.) Profane language and content deemed to be libelous, racist, or threatening in nature will not be published under any circumstances.