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Paperless office? Pa. office moves closer

Pa. insurance business nearly eliminates paper

Pa. insurance business nearly eliminates paper

November 02, 2006|by JENNIFER FITCH

WAYNESBORO, Pa. - Christopher Unger's office looks like most in the business world. Its one subtle difference likely goes unnoticed by visitors to the insurance broker's office.

In close proximity to the computer, keyboard and telephone is one pile of paper barely more than a half-inch thick.

And that's the only paper in his office.

"The piles are gone, and the information is so much more accessible," Unger said while scrolling through customers' policies on his computer.

When Advanced Financial Security Inc. opened almost two years ago at the Pa. 997 location, it began to scan documents in hopes of becoming a digital agency. The office today is about 75 percent digital, backs up data three different ways, has eliminated filing and bookkeeping positions, and waits to order paper until it goes on sale.

"I think we are going to see a lot more of this," Unger said.

With banks, the airline industry and even smaller offices like Unger's forgoing tangible documents, industry leaders and analysts can't decide whether an increasingly computer-literate work force, which is producing an estimated 4.5 trillion pieces of paper a year, is any closer to the decades-old concept of a paperless office.

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InfoTrends/CAP Ventures, a consulting and market research firm, said in a March 2006 report that the growth rate of paper sales will begin to slow over the next few years. Cut-size paper sales, distributed overwhelmingly as 8 1/2 inches by 11 inches, totaled more than 5.7 million tons in 2004, InfoTrends/CAP Ventures said.

A Xerox Corp. spokesman said the company hears two schools of thought - one that paper will soon be part of nostalgia and the other that the paperless office is a myth.

Regardless of which is correct, Xerox has focused on innovation since pioneering copier technology in 1959 and has dedicated more than $940 million a year to research and development in five worldwide centers.

"We are the largest distributor of cut-sheet paper in the world," spokesman Bill McKee said.

Now the research and development team is turning out ideas to make documents "smarter" and is examining counterfeiting, coding and electronics to ensure that one day customers no longer have "a dumb piece of paper," McKee said.

Digital paper was first introduced 20 years ago, but the market doesn't yet warrant retail production, McKee said.

Xerox has experimented with sheets of black-and-white microscopic balls that rotate when touched by pens with an electric charge. Researchers in Canada printed organic electronics with flexible digital circuitry.

McKee said Xerox is seeing "tremendous" opportunities with applications that provide variable information. They are used to print multiple versions of catalogs that are distributed based on customers' individual buying desires.

Xerox operates digital repositories that file electronic data instead of paperwork. Those repositories store, for example, a vehicle rental company's customer records.

"Fewer and fewer paper documents are being stored as files. We have actual digital repositories where we're managing entire fleets of documents for customers that'll never be printed on paper," McKee said.

Advanced Financial Security has held onto and filed policies issued on paper within the past seven years.

New policies are scanned at 300 dots per inch, saved as a PDF, backed up by the software, saved on a removable hard drive weekly and backed up to a remote site daily. The double-sided scanner cost the agency $750 and left the copier unused.

"We used to fax everything," Unger said. "I just looked at our phone bill. ... That used to run $40, $50 a month. I think it was $4."

Traditional faxing at Advanced Financial Security has yielded to electronic faxes and e-mail, which McKee said has become the most printed document in offices.

Unger feels the agency might actually be generating more paper than before as it prints documents. The employees print policies for signatures, then scan and shred them.

The hardest part of going paperless is that no one has a "cookbook" for the best way to do it, Unger said.

"It was kind of scary at first," he said. "It's like anything else. There's a learning curve."

However, he thinks software advances and better incorporation of extensible markup language (XML) tags will further edge out paper.

"I think this kind of stuff is going to get a lot easier," Unger said.

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