Scanning the Future Industry Experts, BLI Discuss Trends and Tradition at Scanner TAC Meeting

By Lisa">">Lisa Reider, Senior Product Editor, Scanners and Environmental

For BLI’s second scanner Testing Advisory Committee (TAC) meeting, representatives from Canon, HP, Kodak, Panasonic and Plustek joined forces with one goal in mind—to weigh in on BLI’s current and upcoming test procedures.  The day-long meeting covered a range of topics, including varying methods of testing scan speed, the importance of optical character recognition when evaluating image quality, scan-to-cloud functionality, environmental testing for scanners and the addition of harder document types to the media handling test. While some topics resulted in the need for additional research and discussions, others, such as the new media types to add, were immediately resolved.

Established in 2006, TAC meetings let vendors comment on BLI’s test methods, provide insight into upcoming trends and share information on how different market segments use products in unique ways. TAC meetings, both here and in Europe, touch every aspect of BLI’s work, while giving vendors a chance to interact.

Horn Tooting

The meeting started with an overview of the accomplishments that resulted from input from last year’s TAC, which, among other things, spurred the addition of a total cost of ownership evaluation for scanners, which includes consumable use, warranty coverage and the suggested retail price depreciated over three years. The TCO data, which now holds the most weight in the Value section of each lab report, can also be found on bliQ side-by-side comparisons for devices tested in the past year. Another issue discussed at last year’s meeting was segmentation. Most vendors agreed that products should be grouped by feature set rather than by market segment, since categorizing by segment alone may exclude certain competitive devices. As a result, BLI changed the criteria used to identify competitive models both for lab test reports and bliQ’s side-by-side comparison tool. Once a new device is entered into BLI’s database, it is automatically categorized by operating system, paper size, whether or not it has network functionality and whether or not it has a flatbed. And bliQ users can now search for scanners based on many of these features via the Advanced Search tool.

“The BLI TAC meeting was a great opportunity to learn more about BLI’s extensive product testing program and collaborate with other scanner manufactures to guide BLI’s future testing plans,” said Mark Druziak, Plustek’s director of marketing and business development.  “BLI’s initiative to bring in a group of manufacturers and encourage their suggestions, demonstrates BLI’s commitment to providing the most beneficial data to their subscribers.”

In addition, a new section dedicated to evaluating third-party software titled “Workflow Analysis” was added to BLI’s test reports, along with batch, continuous feed and vertical market tests, and additional productivity testing to measure speed fluctuations with various commonly used features enabled/disabled. All of these changes, which have benefited BLI’s scanner coverage, were implemented thanks to the peer-to-peer discussions made possible by BLI’s TAC meetings. This year’s TAC meeting brought just as many, if not more, industry insights that will change the way BLI tests scanners.

Changing SOP

The meeting also gives BLI a chance to explain current test methods, which is typically where much of the discussion begins. As with last year’s meeting, some vendors questioned BLI’s scan speed test method. However, they had a hard time settling on the best method to use, because the basis for those rated page-per-minute numbers varies with each company. As a result, BLI’s tested speeds may not mesh with scanner rated speeds. While one vendor may include the software’s performance while measuring speed (from the time the Start button in the driver is clicked to the time the scan job reaches its final destination), others may only measure the hardware’s performance (the time required for the scanner to pull pages through the ADF after pressing the Start button on the control panel). There is no industry standard. Thanks to this year’s TAC meeting that may soon no longer be the case.

With input from all the committee members, BLI will work to develop a standard for measuring scanner productivity that will likely vary by market segment and may one day be recognized industry-wide. At the least it will be the fairest or most real-world way of measuring productivity per segment.

“Once again the suggestions from the TAC members have allowed us to design a test that’s equally challenging and fair,” said BLI Senior Test Technician Joe Ellerman. “We’ve gotten important feedback on which aspects of our testing need to be more stringent and which may not be necessary, helping to further strengthen our scanner evaluations.”

Participants also recommended adding more documents to BLI’s existing media-handling test suite. In addition to the usual round of documents, TAC members suggested adding harder-to-scan items such as tri-folded paper and hole-punched documents, as well as A4-size paper because of its importance in international markets.

A small portion of the meeting was dedicated to discussing what constitutes a default setting, since some scan drivers offer multiple defaults, and other defaults may change by region. So the result in upcoming test reports will be a more detailed discussion of various “default” settings used.

Forward Thinking

At this year’s meeting, one of the main focuses was on image quality, as BLI pitched its test ideas to the crowd. Currently BLI’s test reports evaluate scanners’ image processing features, the effectiveness of the color drop-out feature; and, in a separate section, text-based OCR accuracy. But there are many other areas to consider, including color reproduction, line art, background smoothing, and just how effective all of those image enhancing features are. As one participant put it, image quality means different things to different customers. So while one customer might want to accurately match the original color of a photo without having to go through too much post-scan manipulation, another may only care about OCR accuracy, or bleed-through reduction. There are multiple pieces to the image quality puzzle, and thanks to the TAC members, BLI is on its way to completing the picture.

“In addition to staying abreast of industry trends and technology, I want to make sure we’re covering the concerns of customers and painting a realistic picture of scanner operations,” said Lisa Reider, BLI’s senior product editor for scanners. “Being an independent third party sometimes separates us from real-world scan operations, making these industry meetings so valuable.”

At the meeting, BLI also revisited the idea of creating environmental reports for scanners. The reports would be similar to those for copiers and printers, covering topics such as tested energy consumption, warm-up time, environmentally friendly features and noise emissions, as well vendor-provided information on such topics as product recyclability, packaging, chemical use, air emissions, and any applicable eco-labels, or directives. BLI’s environmental reports look at the product and the company as a whole to give the complete environmental picture, compared with the competition. Environmental considerations often factor heavily in international sales, but have yet to make headway in the United States, save for the typical request for ENREGY STAR-qualified devices. But although TAC members were unsure if a more environmentally friendly product could win a bid over a not-so-eco-friendly counterpart, there seemed to be some interest in what an environmental report from BLI would produce.

TAC members also supported BLI’s plans to take a closer look at the cloud scanning capabilities of document scanners, including the steps it takes to scan to the cloud, the type of driver functionality available, and the standard cloud destinations supported by the device out of box. Participants agreed that this rebranded “trend” is most likely here to stay and should be included as a part of the overall workflow evaluation of a scanner.

Singing the Praises

Although a TAC meeting’s primary focus is to discuss BLI’s current and future test methods, private testing, bliQ and other BLI products are also mentioned. And one participant was happy to volunteer a success story in which a commissioned pre-launch test conducted by BLI helped his company correct a flaw in a scanner prior to its public release. Another participant mentioned how bliQ was used by one of its reseller customers to compare scanners. Stories like these show the usefulness of BLI from the viewpoint of both the customer and the manufacturer, helping to validate the time and hard work TAC members have put in to helping BLI create fair and unbiased product evaluations.

“I find the Testing Advisory Committee (TAC) meeting that BLI sponsors to be very valuable to vendors like Kodak,” said Roger Markham, Kodak’s business and marketing manager for distributed capture. “Understanding customers’ needs and the challenges associated with them is critical to product development. The TAC meeting, and the services that BLI provides in general, enables insight to and thinking into how to best serve our customers and for all to keep adding value to our industry.”

“We always aim to offer top-notch products and services that vendors and customers can’t find anywhere else, and hearing praise for our efforts further validates that commitment,” said BLI Managing Director, Tony Polifrone.

This article was originally posted on Buyer">">Buyer’s Laboratory.