Digital Pen Reduces Form-Processing Costs

By Drew Robb | Posted July 26, 2004

Forms, forms, forms. The scourge of the small business owner. The enemy of the entrepreneur. The curse of the creative mind. Can't live with them, can't do business without them.

Despite the hype about the paperless society, Americans fill out 100 billion forms every year. According to analyst firm CAP Ventures, each form costs about five cents to print and almost a dollar to process. The reason for such high cost isn't high wages; it's in the time it takes to re-key, fax or scan a form's data and enter it into a digital system. Businesses employ an army of clerks and temps to capture the valuable information, remove errors and input it to the system.

Enter the HP Digital Pen as a way to reduce the tedium and cost of form processing. It's part of the HP Forms Automation Systemthat's designed to streamline the document workflow for processing paper forms. Workers write information on physical paper forms using a digital pen that records the handwritten data electronically. A computer subsequently transfers the captured data to a server application for processing. The benefits of this kind of system include much faster processing, significantly reduced costs, greater efficiency, and the ability to integrate paper forms with other business systems or databases.

A study by CAP ventures compared this new system with traditional form processing methods. A manual process (fill form, mail or fax, receive, prepare it, keyboard entry, quality control and data entry) takes three-to-four weeks at $1.23 per page. A similar scanner-based workflow takes one-to-three weeks at a cost of 91 cents per page. The HP Forms Automation System, on the other hand, costs 20-25 cents per page and takes anywhere from a few minutes up to a couple of hours.

System Components
The basic elements of the system include:

    • An HP printer to print digital forms on demand. While the printer prints the customized form onto standard office paper, it also lays down a unique background dot pattern.

  • Digital Pen. It uses a built-in camera to electronically capture all information written on the digital form. The pen locates the information by recording the ink strokes against the background pattern.
  • Form Processing. The pen transfers its stored information to your database. A wealth of software, of course, makes this possible.


Sample of the background dot pattern.
The dotted background pattern lets the HP system decipher what's been written on each form.

Digital Pen Demo
We tried the pen and came away impressed. It's about the size of a large highlighter and has a regular ballpoint pen tip at the bottom. As you write on the form, a camera records the pen strokes. When you have completed the form, you mark an icon on the bottom right-hand corner of the page to tell the pen you've finished.

Keep filling out forms in a similar fashion until you are done. The pen stores up to 100 forms (depending on their size and complexity). Then put the pen in its docking station to upload the data to your computer for transmission to the database. Or you can set it up to go directly to the database, depending on the size of your operation. The pen's battery lasts any where from 2.5 hours of continuous writing time to eight hours of standard use. It recharges whenever it's in the docking station.

The form we used was an Emergency Department Nursing Record. It came pre-filled with the person's name, address and other details (Note: you can set up the system to enter data on the forms automatically without having to re-key it).

We marked the doctor's name, the type of accident and treatment administered. It also had charts to mark the details of the car accident, the sites of injury and other details. Certain fields such as "Doctor's Name" have a predefined list of names so the system can find a match easily even in the face of poor handwriting.


Docking station
Each pen has its own dock for transferring data and recharging its battery.

After docking the pen, a screenshot of the form &#151 containing the exact markings we had made &#151 appears almost instantly. One more click and all the data compresses into a database record format. No re-keying, everything accurate. Along with the digital record, you can also keep the forms as a backup record, or for legal/regulatory purposes.

Digital Economics
Of course, this kind of system isn't right for all small businesses. A company would have to process either a large number of paper forms or one or two long forms that the business depends upon (either that or the government would shut you down if you didn't use them). Small businesses operating in healthcare, finance, manufacturing and the public sector are the most likely to benefit from this system. But it could equally apply to a sales or service fleet where paperwork is the constant complaint of a disgruntled workforce.

One common thread among companies using this method is mobility. People on the move who have to leave a paper trail behind them are quick to adopt any new system that promises to cut out constant faxing or trips to the office to hand in the days collection of paper.


Filling out forms
The pen records all the information as you fill in each form.

In terms of costs, Gilbert Wong, a technical consultant for digital pen and paper at HP, says the HP software costs $45,000 and the digital pens are $200 each. A printer costs from $500 up to $15,000 (depending on the needs of the business) and HP charges 25 cents per form, purchased in prepaid batches of 50,000. There may also be servers, networking gear and other infrastructure elements to add to the equation.

While the price tag may move it out of the range of most small businesses, there is an alternative. Pace Business Solutions, for example, can host the system for you. Pace is a systems integrator that specializes in form automation. According to President Joe Tornabene, you might expect to pay up to $30,000 in upfront costs if you have demanding form and accuracy needs. This includes 10 pens and a $2000 printer. Now factor in 1000 pages for $450 and you can get an idea of the economics of this approach. If a business doesn't require as much in terms of customization and verification, Tornabene says the initial costs can drop as low as $5000.

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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