EDI has odd kink sometimes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 January, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 January, 1994, 12:00am

STROLLING through one of the Park 'N Shop outlets, my eye fell on a pile of avocados. From one, a disk-shaped sticker fairly shouted RIPE.

I proceeded to pick up this RIPE avocado and gently pressed my thumb on it. This baby could have stopped an assassin's bullet. It had the ripened give of steel and was clearly meant to protect presidents.

It was then I remembered the redoubtable Mrs Wong, the creature of TV ads who terrorises store staff into ensuring quality but never actually looks at the products she gives her stamp of approval to - because she's busy staring beadily at the stricken clerk.

Some fine print just below the word RIPE said ''when dark'' but this avocado was as dark as they come. Clearly, this was a mutant ball bearing - darkened with graphite, escaped from a Pittsburgh steel plant - and no relation to the caterpillar-green fruit of California.

I figured it was all an EDI mistake. Mistakes happen in the world of electronic data interchange: a shipment of bearings, perhaps destined for a railway carriage builder in Wuhan, is mis-described in the proliferation of EDI languages and inadvertently passes into the hands of a veggie godown operator in Hong Kong.

Mrs Wong, staring down at the clerk instead of keeping her eye on the goods, chops the shipment and the rest is dental history.

The fact that Tradelink - Hong Kong's still-to-be-built electronically-based trade document system - isn't up and running yet creates the impression that EDI is still a futuristic concept rather than something widely used now.

It depends on your definition, of course; EDI used here describes any point-to-point messaging system used for buying and selling or shipping and receiving - wherever paper handling is automatic and used only for backing up electronically cleared data.

Banks, airlines and freight forwarders have been using bits and pieces of EDI for years.

Probably the most absurd, certainly ironic, application of electronic data interchange was devised by today's high profile express companies.

The big hurdle, the one Tradelink is focused on, is developing a system which everyone can use to clear the government trade documentation process for efficient movement of goods between countries.

Once trade documents are handled automatically, the argument goes, the time spent shipping goods from plants to buyers across borders should be halved or better than that.

But it isn't that kinks in EDI technology, as used now, don't need fixing. Three weeks passed before I learned, inadvertently, that a lens sent to the US was never delivered.

Company X, which has since made amends and need not be dragged through the ink here, had long claimed to have a computerised tracking system.

All a customer had to do was call up and quote the shipment number and a clerk could track it down.

With hindsight, I could see I wasn't nervous enough. I'd assumed computer tracking would send up flags any time a consignment failed to clear a transshipment point.

But the bigger problem was the express company wasn't especially nervous, either. Hours turned into days, days into weeks. Was it possible that the crew of the plane carrying my lens and other consignments decided to put down in Aspen for a three-week ski holiday? No one thought of asking in the 24 hours the consignment was supposed to be in transit.

The company's EDI system went dead somewhere around San Francisco. Maybe it was shot at the airport. Whatever the problem, I'll give the company points. It's invited me down to look at its operation and offer suggestions on how it can be improved.

Before I do, though, I'd like to gather readers' thoughts on improving EDI systems. So, please send yours along - to Thought Processing at Technology Post.