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How to extract document data from PDFs

PDFs are one of the most used document types in the business world today, and you’ve likely handled one (or thousands) of them before. Read about common methods of pulling usable data out of PDFs, then compare them to how Impira accelerates that process and lets you get back to everything else calling for your attention.

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Portable Document Format files, or PDFs, are the universal standard for sharing data between businesses. They’re easy to use, can be read on all platforms, and are tamper-proof. This is why businesses opt to exchange contracts, invoices, RFPs, and other data-sensitive documents in this format. 

They’re so popular that according to Adobe, there were more than 300 billion PDFs opened using Adobe products in 2020 alone.

While PDFs benefit businesses in many ways, extracting the data from these documents is difficult because they’re essentially images. Because of this, many companies resort to manual entry for data extraction of PDFs, which is tedious, time-consuming, and prone to error. 

This article discusses the challenges of data extraction, the methods of extracting data from PDFs, and how a data extraction automation tool can help your business.

The challenges of data extraction

It’s crucial to have a system in place to extract important information from PDFs. Aside from the other document types we’ve already mentioned, other common documents that usually exist in a PDF format include business process forms, receipts, invoices and purchase orders, medical and insurance forms, identification cards and passports, and other statements.

Unlike editable Word documents, you can’t copy information from PDFs, so information can’t be easily repurposed or analyzed. A PDF may be great for displaying data, but that data is essentially stuck within that PDF so users will have to find a way to unlock that trapped data for further use.

Data extraction automation tools are the solution to this very real problem, because they can turn the data from a PDF into a useful, editable format. 

How to extract data from a PDF 

There are five different ways to extract data from PDFs: Manual entry, outsourcing manual entry, using a PDF converter, PDF to Excel tools, and automated PDF extraction tools. 

We’ll explain each method below, along with their respective pros and cons.

Methods of extracting data from PDFs
  • Manual entry. Manual entry is essentially retyping data, character by character. This can be a tedious process for any employee.  

    Pro:
    You don’t need any extra software or equipment.
    Con: Manual entry is tedious and error-prone. It uses valuable employee time, which means your business is spending more on menial tasks.
  • Outsourcing manual data entry. Outsourcing manual data entry is another potential option. There are thousands of data entry agencies that offer cheap, fast services. Most of these services are located in other countries.

    Pro:
    You don’t need to hire additional employees or divert current employees from their regular duties for the sole purpose of manually entering data.
    Con:
    These data entry agencies are inexpensive, but data entry is still prone to human error. You may also have data you don’t want exposed to those outside your organization.
  • PDF converters. PDF converters are a non-manual method of PDF data extraction. These free or low-cost tools use text recognition technology to turn PDFs into other file types, including Word, DOCX, and JPEG.

    Pro:
    These tools and apps are readily available online and are a great low-cost option.
    Con:
    PDF converters will typically only work with native PDFs (PDFs created from an electronic document rather than scanned printed one) and their functionality is limited.
  • PDF to Excel tools.
    PDF to Excel tools work similarly to PDF converters. The main difference is that these tools convert PDF tables into editable formats. This process happens in the same way as the PDF converters above.

    Pro:
    While they aren’t a top-of-line option, PDF to Excel tools offer decent technology to produce fairly accurate results. 
    Con:
    As is true with most PDF converters, these tools only work with native PDFs, not scanned documents, which are commonly used in business settings. They’re also not the best tool to use for bulk PDF data extraction.
  • Automated PDF data extraction.
    Automated PDF data extraction tools are another method of PDF data extraction. These tools are often called PDF scrapers or enterprise automation systems, and they utilize text recognition technology called optical character recognition (OCR) to identify text in your documents. 

    Pros:
    These systems are fast, scalable, and can process native and non-native PDFs in large batches. 
    Cons:
    These tools are a long-term solution for businesses with a high volume of PDF data to process. However, you or your employees will potentially be training for weeks, and you’re still responsible for correcting the errors. 

Impira’s automated document data extraction process

Workflow automation — the most ideal option for automated document data extraction — can sound intimidating at first. After all, it’s an advanced technology that’s not as simple to understand as manual entry or even PDF converters. However, the right type of workflow automation won’t be intimidating to use. 

Impira uses technology that’s better than standard OCR because it pairs artificial intelligence (AI) with auto machine learning (AutoML) to create a robust system that will accurately identify text and learn how it should be used within your specific business. 

This technology is flexible, adaptable, and doesn’t require coding, which requires advanced training and experience. Unlike other automated data extraction tools, there’s no implementation time necessary with Impira. Plus, Impira integrates seamlessly with other tools like AWS, Dropbox, Microsoft Excel, and more. 

How to extract data from PDFs with Impira 

Extracting data from PDFs using Impira is simple by design. 

First, create a new collection. 


Then, upload documents to be included in that collection. The collection should include documents with similar types of data. 

Next, select the data you’d like to extract (e.g.,  text, numbers, and dates). 



Finally, review Impira’s work to make sure it reflects the data extraction parameters you’re looking for. And that’s it — you’ve set up automation built on your specific documents and needs.

PDF data extraction in a modern world

An efficient, hardworking data extraction method for PDFs is a necessity for modern businesses. Manual data extraction from PDFs is bulky, time-intensive, and prone to human error. Luckily, there are a fair amount of extraction methods available, so it’s just a matter of finding the right one for your business needs.

For companies needing to extract data from PDFs on a daily basis, Impira’s workflow automation software is hard to beat. It helps business teams to worry less about delegating menial tasks, and instead allows them to leverage an easy-to-use tool that saves time and money.


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