At the beginning of April, Managed IT joined Alaris and 125 of its partners at the EMEA Alaris Partner Summit 2019 in Warsaw, Poland. There, James Goulding caught up with Alaris President & General Manager Don Lofstrom, who reflected on a better than expected 2018 and outlined his plans to drive further growth by riding on the coat-tails of emerging technologies like AI and machine learning
There are many ways to start an interview. A good opening gambit is to ask a company about last year’s performance. It lets the interviewer and interviewee ease themselves into a discussion, it provides context, it highlights topics to return to, it suggests a possible framework for the interview to come. The question’s neutrality provides scope to put a positive spin on events, no matter what sort of year the company has just had.
In fact, Alaris had a good 2018, so there was much for Alaris President & General Manager Don Lofstrom to look back on positively. But he only wanted to talk about the future, about how the company was elevating the scanner value proposition and about how the excellent scan quality achieved by Alaris hardware and software – an important selling point that can be overlooked – had achieved new relevance in an era of robotic process automation (RPA) and AI.
Most of all, he wanted to talk about how Alaris’s system on a chip (SOC) architecture was opening up new possibilities for the company and enabling it to strengthen its offering in distributed capture – a key growth area in which Alaris has nothing like the market share it enjoys in production capture. That it also supports the company’s strategy to develop an eco-system of hardware and software, wrapped around with solutions, which Alaris and its partners can use to develop specific vertical applications, is another benefit.
Alaris introduced its SOC architecture last year in the S2000 series of distributed image capture and scanning devices. This puts a lot more power into a device, so that it is no longer dependent on a connected PC. In this way, it supports today’s more mobile working culture, the trend for scanning at the edge and more cost-effective deployments, a key requirement in emerging markets.
At the EMEA Alaris Partner Summit 2019, Alaris was showing the next stage in the development of this platform, which it intends to deploy more widely in its portfolio, including in its production scanners as they are refreshed.
Although the new product dominated the partner presentations and took centre stage in the accompanying product showcase, Alaris is initially offering it to a limited number of partners and is anxious not to release too many details (including its name). We will be writing more on it later in the year, but for the time being Lofstrom was willing to talk about it in general terms. In fact, it was the thing he wanted to talk about most; there is clearly a lot of excitement about this product throughout the company.
“The S2000 has been in the marketplace for about a year and we are now in the early stages of developing and launching cloudconnected, scan-to-businessprocess scanning solutions on top of that platform. The new product is not just a purpose-built scanning device; it’s a unique and different type of solution to what has existed in the marketplace before,” he said.
Through a combination of SOC architecture, cloud connectivity, bi-directional communications and automatic set-up, the device brings new capabilities to distributed capture ‘at the edge’, which Alaris will build on by working with partners to develop bespoke applications and business workflows.
“These elements are ideal for fleets of devices set up at many different locations, as someone who is not an IT professional can take the scanner out of the box, scan in a QR code delivered by the partner, from which the device will automatically find the network and within seconds populate workflows into the device. In the case of scanning invoices, the user just has to push a button and the scanner will push the invoice right into a business process, with bidirectional connectivity to do quality control checks and signalling back to the device if there are errors or issues that need to be resolved,” he said.
Preliminary Alaris analysis indicates that this new product could increase the size of the company’s existing addressable market for hardware by as much as 10%. Lofstrom thinks the figure could be even higher.
“One of the use cases we see is in retail, where chains of supermarkets get fresh produce deliveries from local suppliers. These tend to be invoiced locally, packed up and sent via FedEx into central processing. For two weeks, the supermarket doesn’t even know it has received the product. You can imagine the issues this raises: ‘Did we get the right goods for that invoice?’, and then trying to find the person in the supermarket who was there at the point of transaction. The produce department isn’t a place where you will find a PC or even an MFP. They don’t necessarily have the infrastructure there or want the expense of putting in the infrastructure. For them, it is very appealing to have a small footprint, purpose-designed device that they can plug in and connect to the internet, with a push button that connects right into the relevant process. With bi-directional connectivity, they can do the quality checks into back-end systems right at point of introduction, with confirmation that the image is good or nds re-scanning. That wasn’t a scanner market before; it wasn’t even an MFP market. It’s a new market,” he said.
Another application Alaris is already exploring is to use the device alongside an MFP to free up the latter for printing and copying. “An MFP is not always the optimal solution for scanning, so you could see it as complementary to an MFP dealer’s offer that also offers better image quality to drive downstream processes like OCR and better feeding technology to be able to handle multiple document types in a single scanning session,” explained Lofstrom. It is also looking to develop solutions around the identity of the user for information chain of custody.
In line with Alaris’s intention to elevate the value proposition for this product beyond a traditional hardware device, it may offer it on an OPEX basis, with a subscription for the whole solution, including the hardware, service, connectivity and the eco-system used to manage and control the device.
Lofstrom adds that Alaris’s imaging expertise and versatile, reliable paper-handling are selling points for all Alaris devices, as the digitisation of business and the emergence of new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), robotic process automation (RPA) and machine learning continue to change scanning requirements.
“The market has moved on from scanning primarily being scan to archive and this plays to our strengths in terms of image quality, where driving better OCR read rates and downstream effectiveness is increasingly part of where we can make a difference in proof of concept in head-to-head contests,” he said.
Lofstrom says that the emergence of AI, RPA and machine learning are providing a fillip to the scanner market by raising interest at board level and by giving organisations the impetus to fully automate processes.
“As things like RPA and artificial intelligence have come of age, those technologies are front of centre for the CIOs of many large enterprises. The importance of having digital input, high quality digital input, is steadily elevating. Even sophisticated organisations we talk to, like banks, sometimes struggle to drive those engines effectively – some will manually import information into preformatted excel spreadsheets just because they have struggled to get the flow working.
“So, part of what we are focused on is the next level of connectivity into the workflows. It is a point of focus because companies are struggling with it. They want to feed those systems, and very often they will need to feed them with multiple format inputs, digitisation from a scanner, emails and so on. Those, collectively, are in the purview of what we will be looking at in how to connect those systems,” he said.
“The marketplace has traditionally had a focus on speeds and feeds, but the value proposition has moved on from those being the primary selection vectors. Now, people are more interested in image quality, file format, size etc. because they are driving downstream processes and need the OCR engine to work effectively. ‘If I can get high percentages in that, I am truly in the world of automation. I don’t need to invest a lot of human capital to do quality control checks and things like that which become necessary if you don’t get good success rates’.”
New growth areas
In addition to developments in scanning, Alaris is exploring other growth opportunities, in existing and completely new areas. The former includes Managed Content Services, which gives customers greater visibility and control over their entire capture infrastructure and business-critical processes. In many organisations, these are still unmanaged and fragmented, which adds costs to a business and embeds inefficiency and waste. By helping a channel partner audit and optimise the centralised and distributed scanning equipment and processes at the UK operations of an international bank, Alaris experts were able to reduce the number of workflows in its central processing unit by over 90% and half the time needed to complete the daily canning workload from 16 hours to just eight.
Lofstrom adds that Alaris is also planning to make more use of its multi-vendor, global service capability.
“As we go more into solutions and professional services, we are looking at opportunities to leverage that competency in complementary areas. In Europe, for example, the team has been looking at body image scanning systems and the service around that. It’s a wholly different form of imaging technology but something that is becoming more and more popular for people whether they are in weight loss programmes or are looking for customised garments. Those types of systems are becoming more common and need service partners,” he said.
More long-term, Lofstrom is exploring the possibility of taking some of the company’s historical competencies in image science and mechanical systems and applying them to entirely new markets, such as manufacturing quality control systems where a high degree of precision is required.
“It could even be applied in things like 3D printing, where you may be able to do feedback at point of creation. Today, with many 3D printing applications, you go through the production process and don’t know you have issues until it is done. That can result in a lot of time and material waste. If we can provide a feedback loop of whether it is conforming or not, there could be big benefits.”
In the meantime, Alaris is continuing to invest in its channel partners as it seeks to penetrate the scanner and workflow markets more deeply and gain share, particularly in distributed capture.
“We are very much a partnercentric company,” said Lofstrom. “We already have the broadest product range in the industry and with the assistance of our partners we can provide more value in terms of vertical solutions, for solving customer problems in ways that are relevant to them. We provide some of the ingredients with our hardware, software and services and look to our partners to provide the totality of the solution.”