PDF Generator API

Generate PDFs Programmatically: Should I buy Automated Document Generation Software?

I need to Generate PDFs Programmatically – Should I Build or Buy?

As organizations grow, so does their demand for software that can make routine tasks smoother and more automated. Inevitably, there comes a moment when a company needs to decide whether they will implement an in-house solution or pick an off-the-shelf Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) product. Both have benefits and costs, but which is right for your business?

Do I Need Automated Document Generation?

Many businesses require routine document generation to record various variables, from decision-making documents and outlining policies to evidence of steps taken, financial records, and other such day-to-day operating procedures. While creating an individual PDF record (the de-facto method of exchanging information within the financial industry) can seem simple enough, automated document generation on a large scale can become a massive project that soon outstrips its worth to your business. If document generation is not a core part of your product, the development of such a tool may become a huge distraction.

Can I Generate PDFs Programmatically with an In-House Design?

The first thing to acknowledge is that PDFs are actually quite complicated. For a start, the term PDF covers a small umbrella of file formats that differ slightly. In addition, they contain not just text but also images, vector graphics, tables, interactive forms, and graphs. Even something as simple as text has a host of variables, from multiple fonts, font sizes, bold, italics, underlining, and so on. To generate PDFs programmatically, you will need to master all of these variables and understand the features of the PDF file format. You must consider whether a limited number of designs can accommodate the variety of documents your organization creates. Flexible design is complex and requires considerable coding to generate PDFs programmatically that meet business needs. If an update is necessary, this can result in another round of time-consuming and potentially costly programming.

Programming Shortcuts

Of course, options exist that can significantly reduce the time it takes to implement a working solution for automated document generation. A popular option is the use of programming libraries. For example, ReportLab allows Python coders to utilize a range of features to use report markup language to make PDFs quickly. However, even here, there are limitations, with the library being relatively old and complicated to use.

JavaScript users can opt for jsPDF, an open-source library dedicated to the automated generation of PDF documents. While it offers a range of features, including text formatting, image placement, and plenty of font options, it lacks some of the advanced functionality of ReportLab.

While both options provide developers with excellent starting points, these libraries have limitations. Many users may find that they cannot implement complex layouts on a case-by-case basis and the process can be time-consuming and requires that users have all the necessary skill sets already in place to programmatically generate PDFs.

Should You Purchase an Automated Document Generation Solution

As outlined above, designing your own method to generate PDF from dynamic data is possible. Although no ready-made solution is going to provide 100% of your goals, the ease with which off-the-peg solutions can be implemented and achieve most of your targets means that for many businesses, SaaS tools can be a more efficient solution than creating your own tool—especially if it will only be for in-house use.

To decide whether a given SaaS solution will meet the needs of the business, you should examine the following questions:

1. Will the solution fit your existing workflow, or will changes be needed?
2. Will the solution bring your separate workflows into a single integrated output, or will it create silos.
3. Will the solution continue to be a good fit for your organization as you expand, or are you likely to need a new solution in 12 months?

Each business will have a different tolerance for how well the purchased software must integrate into the existing system. This tolerance will drive the decision on whether a solution is worth implementing.

Cost Comparison: Bespoke Solutions vs Purchased

The most prohibitive element of any in-house automated document generation solution is often cost. SaaS generally incurs a reasonably low monthly fee. In exchange for this fee, you get access to the most recent version of the software, with immediate access to updates. Testing, deployment, and maintenance costs have all been included in this monthly fee.  

However, there are often unseen costs that need to be measured. These can include:

  • Training time to learn the new system
  • Downtime costs for software migration
  • Deployment costs
  • Contractual restrictions
  • Ongoing licensing and server costs
  • A sliding scale for additional seats as your business grows

Beyond this, if the purchased software creates unnecessary labour due to being an ill-fitting solution, this will ultimately add costs to the process that are not included in your calculations.


Ultimately, your management team will decide whether your business should develop its own document generation tools or use a SaaS. They should weigh up the immediate costs and attempt to factor in the less obvious costs that will be incurred by either option.

It is often recommended that you only build custom software if it gives your organization a competitive edge. It can be tempting to create a solution that meets 100% of your business needs rather than a SaaS solution that may not meet all needs or have additional tools that bloat the software and are not needed. However, most SaaS options are quick and easy to purchase and implement and are designed to fit into most systems, especially when compared to the time and effort it will take your development team to create bespoke software.

In addition, if your organization proves to be a vital customer for a chosen SaaS offering, you may be able to request changes to the tool over time to better suit your needs.  

If it helps to be guided by market forces, we can tell you that an estimate by SaaS Academy predicts that 85% of businesses will use at least one SaaS tool by 2025. The beauty of SaaS is the ease with which these software options can be added and removed if they later become unnecessary.  They help to reduce the internal management required for software components, with outside training often available and generous training material available for most tools online.