As tech spending declines, tech leaders are increasingly focusing on ways to cull internal costs and boost savings. A recent TechRepublic article detailed how Spicer Axle in Australia saved $2,000 annually by relying on Adobe Acrobat to convert documents to PDFs that are then accessible through the LAN, instead of printing out paper reports in the computer room.

Using PDFs to cut paper costs is just one way that tech professionals are using the technology to trim budgets. In an article discussion, TechRepublic members exchanged many ideas about ways that PDF software can save money by making document conversion easier than ever.

Automation success
Mark Hudson, director of IS for Delta Consolidated Industries, was faced with an outmoded, paper-based reporting system when he joined the company. Besides wasting money and trees, users spent a lot of time looking for information in the printouts, as the sales force had no access to the most up-to-date data when they were on the road. And to generate reports for use the next workday, the IT department had to pay someone at least eight hours of overtime weekly.

In April 2001, Hudson implemented a system to automatically convert AS/400 reports to PDFs. The appropriate PDF-formatted report is waiting in each user’s personal directory when they arrive in the morning. In addition to the overnight report generation, the process also runs at 30-minute intervals during the day for ad-hoc reports.

The system was built with Compleo, a suite of products from Symtrax that automates the output of iSeries and AS/400 spool files in a variety of formats. Hudson said he’d been lucky enough to “stumble across” the technology while working for a previous employer.

“We created scripts from within Compleo’s supervisor module to monitor AS/400 output and send selected reports to selected users’ PCs,” Hudson explained. It took only about one day to set up the report generation and distribution process for the first five users. Implementation costs, including software and internal labor, were under 10K, Hudson said.

While automating PDF reports saves time, it has also saved substantial costs related to printing. The system saved over $15,000 during the first seven months, and averaged $2,350 in monthly savings after 19 months. The cost savings include paper, ribbon, printer maintenance, clerical labor, technical labor costs for data extraction from the AS/400, and postage for copies that go to outside reps.

“We have since carried the process to a new depth and are currently showing an average monthly cost savings of over $3,000,” Hudson wrote to TechRepublic.

That “depth” includes moving to automate reports in .txt format to enhance user flexibility. One advantage of the .txt format over PDF is that recipients don’t need a PDF reader to access the data. The text-only format also allows users to easily cut and paste into other documents, download reports quickly to Palm Pilots, and import to Excel, Access, or any other database application. In fact, Hudson is making the conversion to .txt an IT priority, since the format is even more flexible than PDF.

Adobe options for enterprises
People who simply want to read PDFs can download Acrobat Reader free online. But IT leaders also have to choose a package for outputting PDF files. And, as TechRepublic member Christian Murray pointed out, that’s not free—the full version of Acrobat, which is required to generate PDFs, costs about $200. Murray‘s company, Murtek, does some consulting work with Adobe.

The full version allows users to do more than just save a file in PDF format. Users can create a template, fill in form fields from a database, and generate a PDF on the fly. “Or, vice-versa; you can manually fill in a PDF form and submit the data to a database,” Murray explained in an e-mail. These features are handy when using the same PDF document for printed forms and e-forms.

According to Adobe, particular features of Acrobat 5.0 help it integrate with Microsoft Office. For example, users can place an icon on the Office toolbar for quick conversions, and can combine different Office documents—spreadsheets, Word, and Web pages—into one PDF file.

Adobe Acrobat Distiller Server 5.0 allows high-volume PDA creation over a network. Distiller pricing starts at $5,000 for 100 users and at $15,000 for unlimited users. Other Adobe products include Capture, which saves and archives paper documents in a searchable format. Adobe’s site for the Acrobat Software Development Kit provides more information on building custom applications.

TechRepublic member zamski suggested that users who don’t need the full Acrobat product on a regular basis try the subscription-based online version. Create Adobe PDF Online allows subscribers to make unlimited PDF conversions for $9.99 per month, or $99.99 per year. Users can try the service free for five files before making a commitment.

Alternatives to Adobe
Adobe isn’t the only game in town when it comes to PDF files. There are alternatives, and several are free. As TechRepublic member plf86 pointed out, Ghostscript provides basic conversions to PDF. If you prefer a graphical interface for conversion, check out CNET for GSview, which works with the AFPL version of Ghostscript.

Dr Dij suggested the Txt2PDF utility. Version 5.5 is available free for trial and $99 for purchase. The TechRepublic member reported that he has mainly converted text to PDF but suggests that Acrobat may be a better choice if users are working with graphic-heavy documents.