The Importance of Large Format Scanner Training.

Large Format Scanner Training

Today's wide format scanners give better results than ever before. But just how easy is it to achieve good quality scanned images? Is it as easy as the sales brochures lead us to believe? We don't think so. Our analysis shows that some large format scanner owners rarely if ever get good results. Many scans created today are dross.

During the 15 years we were selling raster to vector conversion software, we were emailed 1000s of scanned images, most of which were poor quality "problem" images created on very expensive wide format scanners. On the basis of these drawings, there is a huge need for wide format scanner training.

If scans of your technical drawings are important, then getting professional large format scanner training to improve their scanned image quality is the best way to shorten the learning curve and impress those clients and colleagues you share them with.

It is clear to us that many scanner owners do not think image quality is important! Two reasons for this are ignorance and indifference. This article is for those who care enough to want to get the very best from an expensive investment in a wide format scanner.

The problem with large format scanning

We have an archive of several thousand wide format scans collected over 13 years. In preparing this article we made a study of these scanned images. Some were made 20 years ago, some yesterday. Almost all their owners thought them "good enough".

Almost all of these scans were made on expensive, relatively modern CCD scanners capable of excellent results. A study of them shows that the majority of the scans are of poor or worse quality. It is clear to us that the operators who made these scans simply did not have the skill, the time or the inclination to use the scanner effectively.

Among the worst of the images we have seen is one scanned so skew a large part of the image was missing! We believe that there is a huge need for basic and or advanced large format scanner training to improve the level of operator skill and with it the time taken to achieve a quality result worth saving and distributing. If it is not worth doing well, then what is the point?

We assume that your drawings are a valuable resource, important enough to warrant buying a scanner the equivalent cost of a small car. Imagine buying a car and not learning to drive! Or failing to ensure that the designated driver has some proof of competence, like a driving licence! Unfortunately, there is no scanned image police force, only clients and colleagues to think the worst of your poor quality scans!

Why do we get poor quality scans?

All the major wide format scanner manufacturers claim ease of use as a major selling point. It is one of the reasons why so many poor quality images exist. Gullible buyers believe the manufacturers' claims that scanning a simple matter of buying their product and its software, pressing a button or two and hey presto, the perfect scan!

But based on our experience, unskilled operators are more likley to produce the following examples of poor quality scans most of which are unsuitable for archiving, let alone any future use such as raster to vector conversion:

Many managers in companies that should know better buy into this view that scanning is relatively simple and straightforward. For this reason, they see no reason to invest in the unwelcome extra cost of professional large format scanner training. Many managers believe that as long as a scan looks okay, it is okay. But without wide format scanner training managers are unable to judge what good image quality looks like.

For an introduction to scanned image quality, see: Creating high quality scans for raster to vector conversion.

The first reason why we see so many poor quality images is because scanner operators often struggle to use this supposedly easy but in reality complex piece of equipment and secondly, they and their bosses don't really know what it is they are trying to achieve. Most operators simply do not understand the requirements of image quality and how it affects different activities, like archiving, copying and raster to vector conversion which may all have different needs.

For example, a quick and simple copy for viewing can be as good or as poor as you need it to be but if you are scanning for raster to vector conversion then it must be just about as good as the scanner is capable of. But no-one explained this to the operator. And presumably no-one explained to management that when you scan your precious drawings at a very low resolution for archiving purposes you make it impossible to use them in future at a higher, sharper resolution. The only solution is to scan the drawings again. Unfortunately, they were shredded months ago.

Ignorance, indifference and a lack of a training budget are the main reasons why poor quality scanned images proliferate today. Other reasons are historic.

Many old drawings, particularly those that were archived in their thousands in the 1980s and 1990s were scanned at 200 dpi resolution or lower in order for the operator to gain the benefit of production speed - and for management to recover the space from the plan room sooner rather than later. But a resolution of 200 dpi is too low for most technical drawings to provide any quality, as we descibed above. If you want to capture fine detail and separate closely spaced parallel lines your drawings require a higher resolution. This means that they will be scanned slower. More haste, less speed.

Training can teach these basic rules which are broken everyday.

Many of our archived scans were made by so-called experts, professional scanning bureaus and document archivers, who should know that when good quality scans are required scanning is both a complicated and a time-consuming process. But slower scanning means less profit for many scanning service bureaus who often quote on doing a single batch of several thousand images rather than one at a time. For them to profit, the job must be done as quickly as possible. This means at a low resolution.

With time being money, none of this bodes well for scanned image quality.

Many scanning bureau services take short-cuts that produce visually passable but not genuine good quality results. The so-called experts in professional scanning bureaus are responsible for much of the dross cluttering digital archives. I am reminded of the scanner bureau owner who told me "I make all scans at 200 dpi. It's quicker. The punters can't tell the difference!". That punter is you. You just gambled and lost!

We do not exaggerate the difficulties and imperfections of wide format scanning. We have seen experienced technicians and demo-jockeys in large format scanner manufacturing companies struggle to get good results from some of our supplied drawings. These are experienced people with years of familiarity with their scanners and software. Even they can struggle to get just an average result sometimes. Imagine then what the uninitiated first-time scanner user creates with similar images!

One additional complication is the belief that because large format scanning is so easy it requires no brains. Thus the responsibility of scanning a company's technical drawings - and so influencing the image of the company among some often very important designers, partners and clients - falls to the least qualified and motivated in the office. Many companies will give scanning work to temporary workers doing a few weeks Youth Training Scheme just to keep them occupied with "something simple".

Looked at like this, it's easy to see why so many scans created over the last 20 years and stored in archives today are dross! If unskilled scanner operators continue to scan like this - as they have done in the past and as we see them doing so everyday - the improvements in today's large format scanners will not be realized. Dross will be perpetuated in your organization by your operators or your suppliers.

The solution lies in motivation and wide format scanner training.

Training is the way forward.

Despite what salespeople claim about ease-of-use and quick quality results, even state-of-the-art scanning technology cannot produce miracles or even average quality scans when used badly or without attention to individual drawing detail on difficult images.

Because wide format scanners are easy to use badly most operators can achieve a quick half decent result, something that looks good, a visual approximation of the original paper drawing. The problem is that scans that look good are not necessarily as sharp, clean or as detailed as they should be. The trick is to know what to look for.

Good large format scanner training should provide this insight.

Here are some examples of high quality scans that can be converted using a raster to vector converter:

Suitable for raster to vector conversion - clean and clear with separated text Suitable for raster to vector conversion - separated parallel entities
High quality scans comprising unbroken entities and smooth curves. Text characters and parallel entities are separated by clean white space.

Getting a better than average scanned image quality result will take an untrained user some time, a precious commodity that pressured CAD or scanner operators seldom have. Training promises a short-cut to the knowledge that makes good quality scans more likely in less time. Getting better results quicker is the goal of all training exercises.

In our experience it is urgency that puts the single biggest brake on enhancing image quality. To the hurried the best compromise scan will do. Most will simply tweak the settings that are already in place however inappropriate they are. Thus you have top-of-the range large format scanners capable of excellent quality used to create inferior quality scans, ones we categories in our image database as "Why Bother".

Training must show the operator good reasons why to bother.

Not everyone needs training. For some, large format scanners are not difficult to use. Many are able to teach themselves how to scan. But if you do, when you make mistakes you will need to experiment to find ways of improving the results. This takes time. In practice the temptation is to accept the second or third attempt to improve the results even if unsatisfactory because operator has more urgent things to do, like his real job.

If you have an enquiring mind and a desire for excellence, you will want to spend time experimenting with different types of drawings and scanner settings. Its a slow process but a certain way to learn how to get good results. During this process you will discover that experience is learning you have made the same mistake before. The benefit of training is that it will shorten the learning curve by introducing you to the fruits of someone else's experience. Training is a shortcut to knowledge.

No doubt many wide format scanner operators will be wondering what all the fuss is about. Why bother with scanned image quality?

Paper drawings are valuable resource. Much labour went into producing some to the highest technical drafting standards of the day. Any company purchasing an expensive large format scanner to capture technical drawings today owes it to itself, the documents and the souls of long-departed draftsmen to scan them with the precision and attention to detail and quality which they deserve.

The control of scanned image quality should be a management concern. If the ignorant or lazy employee is not instructed to care about scanned image quality and is not shown how to achieve it by fully utilizing the scanner's potential, an expensive company asset, the result will be poor quality scans which will in turn create a negative impression among recipients of the scans of the company, its competence and services.

"Oh dear. You want to see that rubbish scan we got from.... It's worse than useless!"

It is the job of management to educate the ignorant, confront the lazy, demand quality from its employees, ensure the maximum use of assets and in the process safeguard the company's image, be it on paper, disk or in the impressionable minds of clients and customers. If your drawings are valuable to you and you have bought an expensive scanner to achieve quality results, then your drawings deserve to be scanned properly to the highest quality. Nothing but the best scan quality should do.

If real scanned image quality is important to you, you should at least invest in basic training that will jump-start clueless operators and turn them into more knowledgeable, productive and valuable company assets!

Benefits for management from wide format scanner training:

The first and most obvious reason for large format scanner training is to ensure that your drawings will be more quickly and efficiently saved to a higher standard that will make them truly useful in future, as well as more suited to the needs of you and customers today. Among the benefits you can expect to derive are:

Saves time and money
Once the training is over you should be able to proceed to more productive scanning almost immediately.

Makes the best use of company talent and resources
What is the point of having skilled architects, engineers and other professionals or highly paid staff wasting hours of their time trying to work out how to get a decent scan? With training they can be back at their desk and working productively in minutes.

Identifies those users with the greater talent for scanning
Some staff may have a potential knack for scanning, others may just be boneheads. Training should identify the more practical users who are best able to develop an appreciation for the finer subtleties of adjusting the scanner's settings and using the software to achieve an enhanced result. It would be better to give these operators your most important scanning jobs.

Ensures consistent scanned image quality
If your staff know what to aim for they have a chance of hitting the target. Training points scanner users in the right direction, outlines the basics steps needed to archive scanned image quality which if followed will provide consistent results subject to the quality of the drawings being scanned. It is often those without training who take shortcuts and get lost in the woods. Archives are full of their aimless wanderings.

Identifies those areas that you need to concentrate on
To some extent the steps required to scan dirty blue print or monochrome technical drawings on tracing paper or mylar are different to those for color maps and artwork. Training can focus on what your company does most often and give your team a head start in getting good results in these areas. Knowledge of how to scan one type of drawing well can impact positively into other less frequently visited areas.

Generates more effective / productive efforts
By saving time and giving better results your services, company or department will look more productive and impressive to your clients and or boss. With no excuses and no delays, just good quality scans within the workflow, you're a quality assured large format go-getter rather than a gopher going through the motions.

Clarifies the process of scanning within the workflow
Trainees will better understand the work of their department and the goals of the company. What is it exactly that you want to achieve? How do you go about making it happen? While poor scans are unlikely to bring your company crashing down, an acceptance of second or third-rate work makes a contribution to the overall rot. Understanding and improving a team's part in the workflow strengthens the business.

Develops large format communications skills
Scanners may be a mystery to your staff right now. Training removes the mumbles and introduces the language of large format scanning. With the right words and concepts your staff will have the confidence to discuss wide format scanning issues competently with other members of the team, IT staff, management, the scanner provider and their technical support and warranty supplier.

Building teams
Training can build teams by bonding individuals into a group, expand the trainees knowledge of the company, teach them to trust in the skills of others and create a monitoring system whereby trainees are able to judge each others' output as good, bad or indifferent scan quality.

Choosing the right large format training professional

Finding the right professional to do your wide format scanner training can be difficult and may require some sort-off review.

There are essentially two types of trainer. The first are independent CAD and scanner trainers who may do scanning commercially. The second are large format scanner resellers and their distributors.

Both have individual merits but only people who scan commercially have real hands-on experience with everyday scanning matters. With independent CAD and scanner trainers you need to establish that they use and are familiar with the scanner and software you own or will buy.

As there is no industry-standard large format scanning software, you must employ a trainer with skills in the software you have. Theoretical knowledge, as in the sort offered by the scanner salesperson, may concentate on clever sales features rather than practical benefits. To benefit from training in a meaningful way, get someone who can offer practical scanning techniques, tips and short-cuts taken from working experience with the software you use.

Training may be offered free or paid-for by your scanner supplier. While most scanner resellers can demo and sell you a scanner it is possible that they have never produced a scan commercially and do not have the in-depth skills to offer scanner training based on your real world practices. As a result, they may refer you to their distributor for training. It is by no means certain that a distributor can offer more competent advice. Generally, however, you would expect them to do so.

Objectives
A training program should include a clear definition of what it is going to set out to achieve. A seasoned scanner operator will know what to impart to trainees.

CAD operators need to be made to understand what constitutes good scanned image quality. Training must include paper drawing interrogation i.e. examining a paper drawing before scanning in order to detect "issues"; practical scanning; image editing with thresholding if it is a technical drawing; the need for post-scan interrogation of the image by zooming into it, etc.; and instructions on how to select and change settings in order to maximize the best scanned results.

Evaluate their experience
Try to get someone who genuinely scans for a living. Avoid academics who may be impractical and product sales instructors who only know one, their own, proprietary process from a theoretical point of view.

Get a trainer capable of showing you how to achieve fine individual drawing quality, even if your requirement is to scan thousands of similar drawings quickly. Among the thousands will be many drawings, perhaps a majority, that will benefit from greater individual attention.

Insist on referrals from previous trainees
Good trainers will have no fear of recommending you to their previous clients.

A good trainer will have left the trainees feeling good and optimistic about scanning in general and what they have learned in particular. A good trainer will be endorsed by the trainees. Check with those supplying references as to what training has proven to be useful and practical. Has any training been discarded as theoretical, unnecessary or simply bad advice?

Confirm that they provide course notes
A professional trainer will come prepared with course notes for each trainee.

Proper professional training will include documented processes, hints and tips on the scanning software, file sizes and naming conventions, image viewers, etc. Generally, those that provide course notes have done training before while those that do not are new to "the game" and possibly do not have the relevant experience of either scanning or training.

Determine where the training will take place
Training programs can benefit from being run on or off-site.

Strive for an atmosphere that is conducive to learning. As it is seldom convenient for all trainees to travel any distance on the same date it is often easier to get one-to-one and group training on your own premises. Trips out of the office are disruptive and can turn into a "jolly".

If you do not have a training room try to allocate an office that is unlikely to be interrupted by other employees' activities. As you are unlikely to have more than one scanner available for training the best results are achieved in small groups using a hands-on style. The best training is done one-on-one.

Conclusion

We don't sell training. We recommend training on the basis of the scanned images we've seen. Most wide format scanner operators need training - or a refresher course!

Why are scanners so badly used? Is it something the salesman said about ease of use or the fact that "there's nothing to it. I'll pop round and set it up and show you how when it arrives." While this may provide an initial introduction to scanning, we know that it won't go nearly far enough in ensuring a real understanding of true scanned image quality.

There is no doubt that historically scanned image quality has been generally poor and that of the millions of archived scans of valuable drawings that exist today most are mediocre at best. Yes, today's scanners are better than ever but they still need skilled operators to get the most from them every bit as much as the scanners of the past. There's no one-touch button, no miracle cure straight out of the box.

Only training will get you to that happy state where quality is more quickly assured without needless trial and error, wasted time and money and unimpressed clients. Good quality scans take time to achieve, some more than others. Whenever scanner image quality is critical, skilled large format scanner operators should not be made to work to false deadlines. When they do, scanned image quality is always compromised.

The need for time and patience in achieving top class, high quality scanned images should be the first and last lesson in every wide format scanner training session.