Electronic Data Interchange

Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) is the electronic interchange of business information using a standardized format; a process which allows one company to send information to another company electronically rather than with paper. Business entities conducting business electronically are called trading partners.

Many business documents can be exchanged using EDI, but the two most common are purchase orders and invoices. At a minimum, EDI replaces the mail preparation and handling associated with traditional business communication. However, the real power of EDI is that it standardizes the information communicated in business documents, which makes possible a “paperless” exchange.

The traditional invoice illustrates what this can mean. Most companies create invoices using a computer system, print a paper copy of the invoice and mail it to the customer. Upon receipt, the customer frequently marks up the invoice and enters it into its own computer system. The entire process is nothing more than the transfer of information from the seller’s computer to the customer’s computer. EDI makes it possible to minimize or even eliminate the manual steps involved in this transfer.

EDI replaces postal mail, fax and email. While email is also an electronic approach, the documents exchanged via email must still be handled by people rather than computers. Having people involved slows down the processing of the documents and also introduces errors. Instead, EDI documents can flow straight through to the appropriate application on the receiver’s computer (e.g., the Order Management System) and processing can begin immediately. A typical manual process looks like this, with lots of paper and people involvement:

  1. Business documents

These are any of the documents that are typically exchanged between businesses. The most common documents exchanged via EDI are purchase orders, invoices and advance ship notices. But there are many, many others such as bill of lading, customs documents, inventory documents, shipping status documents and payment documents.

  1. Standard format

Because EDI documents must be processed by computers rather than humans, a standard format must be used so that the computer will be able to read and understand the documents. A standard format describes what each piece of information is and in what format (e.g., integer, decimal, mmddyy). Without a standard format, each company would send documents using its company-specific format and, much as an English-speaking person probably doesn’t understand Japanese, the receiver’s computer system doesn’t understand the company-specific format of the sender’s format.

  • There are several EDI standards in use today, including ANSI, EDIFACT, TRADACOMS and ebXML. And, for each standard there are many different versions, e.g., ANSI 5010 or EDIFACT version D12, Release A. When two businesses decide to exchange EDI documents, they must agree on the specific EDI standard and version.
  • Businesses typically use an EDI translator either as in-house software or via an EDI service provider to translate the EDI format so the data can be used by their internal applications and thus enable straight through processing of documents.
  1. Business partners

The exchange of EDI documents is typically between two different companies, referred to as business partners or trading partners. For example, Company A may buy goods from Company B. Company A sends orders to Company B. Company A and Company B are business partners.

EDI Transactions

If you work with purchasing or sales, you will inevitably come across EDI transactions. Electronic Data Interchange, commonly shortened to EDI, is a standard format for exchanging business data.

EDI transactions are a type of electronic commerce that companies use for transactions such as when one company wants to electronically send a purchase order to another. EDI transactions were designed to be independent of the communications used by companies or the software technology that generates the EDI data.

EDI Formats

EDI works based on standards which determine how each message should be formatted.

Four EDI standards exist: UN/EDIFACT, which is the only internationally-recognized standard, used mostly outside of North America; ANSI ASC X12, used within North America, TRADACOM, used by British retail companies, and ODETTE, which is used by European automakers.

The implementation of EDI is important for companies as it can significantly reduce the cost of sending documents.

EDI Costs Versus Benefits

A paper purchase order requires resources to print the document, fax it, or post it to the vendor. EDI automatically sends the electronic document to the vendor thus reducing the cost of sending the PO. Studies of the cost savings of implementing EDI have been performed, including a report from the Aberdeen group in 2008, which highlighted that in the US it cost $37.45 to produce and send a paper PO, while it only cost $23.83 to send it using EDI.

Not all companies use EDI. There is a cost to implement and maintain the technology required to perform EDI. Each trading partner that a company wants to use EDI with may require resources to set up and this can be cost-prohibitive for smaller companies or companies without technical resources.

Some companies who profess to use EDI may receive orders electronically but are unable to automatically load those orders into their sales systems. The EDI orders are printed out and manually entered into their computer systems.

This situation is common where companies have aging order systems that do not have the capability to accept or generate EDI orders.

EDI How It Works

There are a number of ways EDI messages are transmitted between trading partners. The most common method was to use a value-added network or VAN. This allowed companies to send a transmission which was then reviewed by the VAN and then sent to the correct recipient.

More recently a new method for EDI transmission is being used. This is called AS2, which stands for Applicability Statement 2, and was championed by Wal-Mart, who requires all of their vendors to use this method. Using AS2, the EDI documents are transmitted across the internet and the security of the document is achieved by encryption and the use of digital certificates.

There are dozens of EDI documents that can be implemented by a company and their trading partners. Under the ANSI ASC X12 standard, EDI documents are part of a series, for example, such as an order series, a warehousing series, or a financial series.

In addition, a number of series that relate to specific industries such as government, insurance, mortgage and automotive.

Many companies will only implement a small number of EDI documents with their trading partners, commonly in the ordering series, material handling series and the delivery series.

For example a company who is implementing EDI between themselves and a third party logistics company may only implement five EDI documents such as an EDI 940 for a warehouse shipping order, EDI 943 for a warehouse stock transfer shipment advice, EDI 944 for a warehouse stock transfer receipt advice, EDI 945 for a warehouse shipping advice, and EDI 947 for a warehouse inventory adjustment advice.

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