As part of our ongoing coverage of intelligent process automation (aka cognitive capture aka intelligent document processing/IDP), we speak to dozens of software companies who help computers make sense of what used to be a paper document. The software reads an image file of a scanned document, figures out what the document type is (a contract? an invoice? correspondence? etc.), extracts the data from the image, and then passes all that along so the process can continue.
This replaces several human actions and results in faster, more accurate, and more secure business processes. That’s why IDP is suddenly a hot topic; it’s fundamental to automating any process that involves documents.
Where do these images come from? The start-ups in this space tend to pay little or no attention to how that document image was acquired. Their applications sit in wait for a scanned image to come along and then they perform their specific tasks.
In the background – performing the hard grunt work of digital transformation – are humans using document scanners, transforming paper files into machine-readable images. If the scanner isn’t working, the entire process grinds to a halt. According to one scan industry insider, an astounding 90% of scanner support calls involve problems with the device driver. In other words, when it’s time to scan a document using the typical USB-attached scanner, the software can’t “find” the scanner. This is more than annoying for some mission-critical jobs. A healthcare automation expert told us that a nurse often gives up on a scanner if it doesn’t work the first time, and reverts back to paper-pushing.
Why does this happen? The scanner manufacturers develop proprietary drivers to gain a competitive edge which in turn requires additional proprietary software to operate the scanners. Plenty of opportunity for things to go wrong here. Then there is the confusion over which driver one should use. When you purchase a scanner today, chances are it includes no less than four ways to connect it: the manufacturer’s driver, a Windows Image Acquisition (WIA) driver, a TWAIN driver, and a basic scan utility. Why can’t there be one?
Here’s the thing: by 2021 we, the cloud generation, expect document scanning should be plug-and-play, brain-dead simple so we can focus our limited time and energy on the real digital transformation challenges. Today’s cool IDP start-ups cannot be bothered to deal with scanner problems and selecting from an array of drivers. They are in the cloud and want a simple RESTful API to drop into their app work flow, one that acquires a nicely scanned image into the process just in time. Neither can their users be bothered; they simply want the software to recognize their scanner and make a nice image.
Anything that can solve this problem is very welcome. Enter the TWAIN Working Group (TWG), a non-profit team of volunteers who work in the scanner industry and believe in open standards. TWG publishes a list of open driver protocols that allow any scanner to work with any application and return the desired results. They recently launched TWAIN Direct to connect scanners to any cloud app, something that until now was only available through proprietary hardware and software.
As the name implies, TWAIN Direct’s ultimate goal is connecting devices directly to the software app, completely removing the PC from the middle. That’s really important to the new wave of cloud developers; it abstracts the proprietary hardware layer and replaces all the other confusing scanner connectors. Plus it’s free to any developer.
TWAIN Direct works best if the hardware supports the new standard, so TWG is pressing the manufacturers to add this in their next release cycle. This is no small task. Making changes to a scanner model can take several months before it reaches the market.
Xerox/Visioneer were quick to market with new TWAIN Direct models. Alaris (the scanner company formerly known as Kodak), Fujitsu, HP, Epson, Inotec, Plustek, and Microtek are also members of TWG and considering future support for TWAIN Direct. The TWG team rightly recognized this initiative will never succeed if everyone is forced to buy a new scanner, so they came up with a clever workaround named TWAIN Bridge that connects TWAIN/USB scanners to the cloud.
We also spoke with P3iD, a software start-up making middleware that connects TWAIN Direct to cloud apps – or to any enterprise app for that matter. P3iD takes care of the scanning management and hides the messy details from the cloud developer, who only needs to add a few simple API calls to the code. If you’re interested in how TWAIN Direct translates into value for a business process, they’re worth checking out.
For more research on cognitive capture trends: