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This company is using AI and robots to sort and scan paper

This company is using AI and robots to sort and scan paper


A solution for a really boring problem

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If you’ve ever stayed up late watching cable TV, you’ve probably seen an ad for desktop scanners that promise to organize your clutter and help you cut down on paper. I’ve seen them so many times I assumed that, even if they didn’t work that well, bigger and better versions must be out there being used by companies, banks, hospitals, and basically anyone with lots and lots of paper. 

Apparently I was wrong. There are companies that store boxes and boxes of paper for other companies, and there are others that employ people to scan some of that paper that companies want digitized. But by and large, smart and easy scanning hasn’t happened with the kind of scale to make it easy and affordable enough to handle a company’s worth of paper records.

This is where Ripcord, a new company backed by Steve Wozniak and venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, comes in. Ripcord has patented and built robots — the boxy, room-filling kind, not the anthropomorphic ones you might be thinking of — that can sort and scan a box of paper and enter the contents into a searchable database in the cloud.

Ripcord’s robot can scan and sort a box full of everything from business cards to legal paper

It might not sound like a revolutionary technology in the days of jet-powered hoverboards and AI that beats humans at their own games. But founder and CEO Alex Fielding says Ripcord’s advantage is in the details — details that make their service 10 times cheaper and faster than their competition.

“[Ripcord’s] machine can handle mixed content from the size of a business card to a legal sized sheet, and it can go from rice paper all the way up to the thickness of card stock without changing anything,” Fielding says. The Ripcord robot even removes the staples. You can give Ripcord a box full of HR forms, business cards, and shipping manifests, and it will not only know the difference between them, but it will scan them at over 600 dpi and will sort them into an Amazon-hosted cloud database within hours. (The paper is then shredded and recycled.)

Ripcord will also provide customers with ways to hook all that data back into their existing enterprise software. Fielding estimates the company will be digitizing 2.5 million records a day by the end of 2017.

Previously, many companies were content to pay to store their documents in giant warehouses, cut off from easy access, or even the knowledge of what’s in any given box. In fact, Fielding says he came up with the idea for Ripcord after a major document storage company lost boxes upon boxes of his friend’s company’s files.

Some of Fielding’s competition does offer digitization; Ripcord hasn’t invented the industrial scanner or document imaging software here. Companies like Kodak and Xerox make scanners used by digital imaging bureaus, but their solution is designed for a situation where humans have pre-sorted documents and removed the staples themselves. That difference in the process can mean it takes hours to scan just one box.

“They’re building machines that are perfectly designed for uniform content but horrible for the plethora of craziness that comes when you open the lid of a bankers box. Everyone packs those things completely different,” Fielding says. He compares the bankers boxes to snowflakes, saying each one is unique in its disarray. “It’s like they expect that as soon as it comes out of the printer it goes in a scanner, and that’s just not the reality.”

Document storage companies like Iron Mountain — the inspiration for “Steel Mountain” in season 1 of Mr. Robot — also offer digital imaging services. But a representative for Iron Mountain told me that it could take six to eight weeks before a customer gets digital access to just 20 boxes, and even then it’s typically placed on hard media — CDs, DVDs, or hard drives — instead of the cloud. That’s not a security measure, either. I was told customers want hard media simply because hard media is cheaper.

One of Ripcord’s biggest competitors will be Iron Mountain — the inspiration for Steel Mountain from ‘Mr. Robot’

“We charge per record image in the cloud per month,” Fielding says. “We don’t charge for the rest of the things competitors charge for, like picking up or moving boxes, digitization, shredding it, storage. Just the access.” 

If Fielding can significantly scale this plan, Ripcord seems poised to take a big chunk out of the document storage market. He’d also be the latest person to find a way for AI and robotics to replace humans in the workforce. But for now, humans will still be involved in the process. 

Ripcord plans to have a staff of over 100 workers by the end of this year, Fielding says. Most of the work will be focused around “prepping” the paper for scanning, essentially transferring the content of a company’s box to one more suited for the machine. But Ripcord is also hiring more technical positions to help the company expand.

“If you think about it, we’re talking about really advanced sensors and optics, machine-vision driven robots, a host of different sensor technologies,” Fielding says. “It’s almost the exact same technology for self-driving cars or drones, we’re just applying it to finding staples on a page.”

Fielding makes a compelling pitch for a company that’s all about scanning paper. He argues that Ripcord can be a profitable company by saving customers time and money, and it can also remove the need to pay to store boxes of records in Raiders of the Lost Ark-style warehouses. He still has to prove all this, but on paper, that pitch looks pretty good.