Digital pen system cuts paperwork for dent repair company

Carmedic uses digital pen and paper to transmit data wirelessly

Before 2009, technicians for Carmedic were filling out 80,000 invoices a year by hand. Today, they still fill out each invoice by hand, but they use digital pens and paper, which means that the invoice data is wirelessly sent to a central server in Illinois for processing.

The digital pen and paper system has vastly reduced the time for processing invoices and has cut down on handwriting errors and lost paperwork, said Dan Binkley, president of Carmedic in Roxana, Ill. The company has about 100 technician-partners in 20 states who travel to auto dealerships to repair dents and dings . They use a process called Paintless Dent Removal, which costs a fraction of the price of getting a dent fixed and painted at an auto body shop, Binkley said in an interview.

The Anoto/ExpeData digital pen technology is used in the field. (Photo courtesy of ExpeData)

Before instituting the digital pen and paper system, all the paper generated from four-copy invoices was "causing serious logjams," he said. Carmedic either had to hire more workers to sort through the invoices and record them or find a digital approach.

Going to a custom wireless handheld with a keyboard or pen input was judged too expensive and disruptive. Then a Verizon Wireless representative suggested digital pen and paper using Anoto digital pens and digital writing software from ExpeData .

With the system used at Carmedic, the technician fills out a paper invoice form, with the movements of the pen recorded onto a chip in the pen. When the form is filled out, the data on the pen is transferred via Bluetooth to a BlackBerry, which automatically transfers the data over the Verizon network to Carmedic's server.

The total cost of the system is less than $1,000 per technician, with each pen costing about $250. Binkley said he keeps several of the digital pens handy in case a technician loses one.

Carmedic could have chosen a BlackBerry-based or other rugged smartphone application for filing invoices without using the digital pen and paper, but Binkley said that approach would have been too disruptive.

"We saw [digital pen and paper] as a better solution because it involves very little change," Binkley said. "One thing every company struggles with is change. If we were going to ask every technician to buy a [customized handheld] for thousands of dollars, then the device should be able to drive the van the technicians use."

Basically, the technicians still write on much the same paper invoice. "They didn't miss a beat" with the transition, he said. Having the digital information based on converting handwriting to text also makes the process more precise. A single technician can fill out 20 invoices a day.

One side benefit of the new approach was that Carmedic standardized on BlackBerry devices and a wireless plan with Verizon that dropped phone costs from about $8,200 to $3,200 a month.

The system, implemented last year, resulted in a small number of errors, but nearly all them were the result of user error, Binkley said.

The digital pens require paper that is printed with a matrix of tiny dots that serve as a reference point for the pens. Binkley said at first it was a challenge to get printing companies to create the invoices, which are bigger than standard size invoice sheets.

A number of companies make the digital pens, and many are sold to schools and used as learning tools. In addition to Anoto, other digital pens include LogiPen, Echo by Livescribe and Pegasus. Binkley said the system of pen and software that Carmedic chose was recommended by Verizon.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com .

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Tags wireless networkingtelecommunicationMobile and WirelessNetworkingwirelesshardware systemsmobileVerizon Wireless

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