The Advantages of PDF/A-3 in Practice

PDF is a widely used digital document format for secure and easy access to documents. The latest version of the format, PDF/A-3, offers the added benefit of being able to store and archive files of any format, including XML, MS Word and proprietary (binary) formats in their original format. However, this also carries certain risks and should be used with caution according to the use case.

PDF enjoys a high level of trust in practice and is therefore widely used. PDF/A has become the standard for archiving. For this reason, it is not surprising that companies and institutions define and support requirements for the file format and archiving standards. They are faced with the challenge of fulfilling their legal storage obligations and at the same time operating efficiently. The PDF/A-3 standard promises great advantages for practical solutions in various document processing applications.

Mostly because PDF/A-3 makes it possible to use PDF as a container for an unlimited number of files of any format. The previously electronic paper PDF can be converted into an archivable folder for various file formats. This means, for example, that XML, MS Word and proprietary (binary) formats can also be archived in their original format.

However, the development of the hybrid archive format also entails risks. PDF/A-3 can be used to distribute or archive any attachments, including potentially harmful ones. It is therefore advisable to limit the permitted formats for attachments, depending on the use case. For use cases where no attachments are required, the more restrictive PDF/A-2 standard can be used.

Invoicing in the ZUGFeRD standard

The delivery and archiving of electronic invoices is a prime application. In Europe, the ZUGFeRD standard is gaining ground as an e-invoice format. According to this standard, an invoice contains the visual document and the matching, machine-readable XML in the same file. With the ZUGFeRD invoice, the invoice recipient can choose to have the booking performed by humans or fully automated by machine. In addition, invoice processing and accounting is significantly accelerated when PDF/A-3 is used systematically, resulting in drastic cost reductions and shortening of payment deadlines.

E-mail archiving

Some organizations use PDF/A-3 to preserve the content of e-mails and keep it available. PDF/A-3 facilitates the bundling of content from different formats for communication and reference purposes. The original files of the e-mail messages are retained as attachments if desired.

Spreadsheet formats

Archiving spreadsheets presents two difficulties. The first is that the process of enclosing the spreadsheet in a pre-defined paper format can cause the spreadsheet to become either unreadable or difficult to navigate. The second problem lies in the PDF/A conversion, because this makes all formulas and calculations untraceable. PDF/A-3's ability to append the original Excel spreadsheet can be used to cleverly overcome this challenge.

Digitally signed contracts

Contracts or other digitally signed documents are retained for the duration of the contractual relationship and beyond. However, if a signed document were subsequently converted to PDF/A, the digital signature would become invalid. The PDF/A-3 standard offers a good workaround: the original document with the valid signature can be attached to the archivable PDF, while the validity of the document and the signature are proven by the attachment.

Technical design

In the field of engineering design, companies are already reaping the benefits of containerization in PDF/A-3. This allows them to store the original data of 3D models directly in the PDF/A-3 file, regardless of the format.

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