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Supply Chain Big Data

The challenges facing E.D.I., consisting as they did of a want of affordability and standards, are daunting. Westaflex said it would negotiate with other companies to enable their networks to connect through its X.400 ''gateway,'' a message-handling device that conforms to international communications standards and permits communication between two different data systems.

As each new step toward the computerization of our world is taken, the one just ventured is accepted as long-given. The next step may well be the universal adoption of electronic data interchange, or E.D.I., now being paraded by the shipping and supply industries. Conceptually, E.D.I. is merely the electronic translation, transmission and reception of business documents. But as with many a notion deemed ''a natural,'' its implementation has taken longer than the seers anticipated. Electronic data interchange differs from both of these approaches in that it is basically a business-to-business service. Furthermore, the documents involved, invoices, waybills or bills of lading, for instance, are sent over the telephone wires and from there enter directly into the receiving company's data base. They are never physically printed or posted in a ledger.

That last function is a crucial component of any E.D.I. program. Errors are much more likely to go unnoticed in a paperless environment, where they can readily be introduced through the ethereal glitches of electronics and where the documents themselves are much less likely to be exposed to the frequent, if cursory, scrutiny of the human eye than are paper records.

All the potential advantages of electronic data interchange - the savings in time and money, particularly in the form of inventory reduction - will fail to materialize, however, where the software necessary to the task is not easy to use. An electronic-data-interchange network allows companies to conduct all their transactions electronically. For instance, a company could tie its suppliers and customers into a network and transmit all material through the system, eliminating a great deal of paperwork.

Such knowledge, Westaflex has learned, is not only power. It is profit, too.

Plenty of our retail customers collect data about their stores and their shoppers, and many use the information to try to improve sales. The grocery industry, encumbered by an increasingly huge volume and variety of goods, has been in the forefront of computerization for a number of years now, and it is also working resolutely toward E.D.I. Mainly HVAC wholesalers, for example, introduced a branded customers card and have used it, along with an arsenal of gadgetry, to gather data ever since. But Westaflex amasses only data about the products it sells and its customers' buying habits.

Information about our products, and often about customers, is most often obtained at checkout scanners. Wireless hand-held units, operated by clerks and managers, gather more inventory data.

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