Paperless Manufacturing: Electronic Document Management Reduces Costs and Boosts Productivity

Sept. 19, 2008
Electronic document management can seamlessly integrate with other software program.

The nation's manufacturers produce a lot of paper. Not intentionally, though; documents and files are part of doing business, no matter what a company actually makes. The problem is the cost of physical storage space. All those rooms filled with metal file cabinets cost money, as does employee time spent searching for and filing paper folders.

Looked at this way, electronic document management is a sound economic decision. Digital storage is cheaper than paper, ink, physical space and the manpower assigned to take care of paper piles. The time and money saved storing and retrieving files and folders are significant for most companies (the retention of huge files digitally is pennies on the dollar compared to physical storage costs). However, an even longer-term benefit comes in the form of efficiencies and productivity boosts gained from improved workflow throughout the firm.

Manufacturers all across the country are putting automated electronic document management systems in place to run operations more efficiently. Replacing physical documents with electronic document workflows boost productivity, because electronic document management offers companies much more control and flexibility compared to paper. When documents of all kinds, shapes and sizes, from architectural layouts to the monthly bills are easily viewed, accessed and stored in an electronic document repository (in their original formats), efficiencies soar.

One manufacturer has paperlessly automated its sales process "from start to finish", as Maggie Morgan, Senior Financial Analyst at Corhart Refractories, part of the Saint-Gobain Ceramics Group, says. The company is a worldwide manufacturer of specialty refractory products for the ceramics, metallurgy, foundry, chemical, petrochemical, power generation, waste processing and glass-making industries in 54 countries worldwide. Several years ago, Corhart put into place an electronic document management solution in order to create a workflow process that routes documents throughout the entire sales chain of events. Doing so has "completely eliminated the paper" notes Maggie Morgan, making the entire customer file electronic and easily accessible to anyone involved in the sales process at Corhart.

Corhart no longer needs costly and cumbersome physical space to store paper documents. Today, twenty five employees have access to some 50 electronic cabinets, with defined access parameters making file access private and secure. But the benefits go beyond the elimination of paper piles for Corhart. In Accounts Receivable, an all-electronic customer file means instant access and rapid resolution to any payment issues, from collection or short payment queries to purchase orders. "We are so much better organized and more efficient since we put digital document management into place," notes Maggie Morgan.

Air Vent, Inc., a leading manufacturer, processor and distributor of metals and other engineered materials for building products, vehicular, and other industrial markets, had in place an electronic document management system that eliminated paper record keeping when Gibraltar Industries acquired the firm in 2003. Gibraltar was impressed with digital document management's ability to manage large volumes of documents, optimize workflow, enforce privacy and improve efficiency. All accounting statements, fixed asset reports and other financial documents are stored, backed-up, and accessed electronically at Air Vent. Denise Wright, Financial Staff Assistant at Air Vent, says that her company has seven years worth of documents "at our fingertips", which has eliminated trips to storage warehouses searching for documents in dirty boxes as well as significantly enhancing productivity.

Security is often the weakest link, in the form of lost and missing files along with prying eyes, in a paper-based document environment. With electronic document management, ensuring the data integrity of important documents as well as their retention (for regulatory and disaster recovery purposes) is far more reliable when files and folders are put into one organized and easy-to-use central information repository. As a subsidiary of Gibraltar, a publicly traded company, Air Vent also found electronic document management is a huge help with making audit visits go smoothly.

With an electronic document management system in place, staff based at either HQ or remote locations get the same instant and secure access to client files. An electronic document management system controls who accesses information, audits user activities and enforces rights management set at the cabinet, folder or file level. Collectively, these capabilities make digital documents far more tamperproof and safe than paper based systems. Denise Wright notes that the ability to set specific user access rights ensures the privacy of files and allows Air Vent store sensitive payroll information with confidence.

Corhart's accounting department signed on enthusiastically to electronic document management when it became clear that electronic copies are audit-approved, as well as more secure than paper documents. As the company's Maggie Morgan says, "We can be assured that important customer files -- in their entirety -- are backed up." As electronic signatures become increasingly accepted, Corhart is looking into the technology to use automated electronic workflow approvals for internal quality control, avoiding written signatures entirely. The result: a streamlined quality control process that eliminates the need for paper documents to be routed to different offices.

Manufacturers can best make use of an electronic document solution that provides out-of-the-box functionality with user-friendliness. Key to the success of electronic document management at Air Vent was the choice of high-quality, high-throughput scanning hardware, in this case the Kodak i40 scanner. These scanners were productive -- they required little in the way of oversight or user training. The result was an integrated document management solution provided by Cabinet NG of Huntsville, Ala. that proved so user-friendly and productivity-enhancing that it was introduced into 20 other Gibraltar company locations.

To be competitive, manufacturers must continually innovate to boost productivity and reduce costs. Electronic document management can help manufacturers achieve these goals by constantly adding features and functionality, such as the ability to integrate with other software programs in use at a manufacturing firm. Seamlessly integrating with accounting, CRM and other software means more time savings for individual users, who avoid having to switch between applications. Firm-wide workflow efficiencies are enabled by digital document management that instantly updates critical info such as customer data, product orders, etc. across all systems automatically. Electronic document management quickly can become a key part of a manufacturer's efficiency and productivity efforts, part of "everyday" operations in the words of Denise Wright of Air Vent.

James True is vice president of business development, Cabinet NG, Inc. Cabinet NG automates document management for small enterprises

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