Streamlining the supply chain from suppliers to manufacturers to consumers is the main theme of a presentation at the Electronic Commerce Conference '96 by Anna Lin, chief executive of the Hong Kong Article Numbering Association. The association, a non-profit making body organised by the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, launched its EZ*TRADE electronic data interchange system last year. It has met with considerable success so far among big retailers and clothing stores. Users include Park'N Shop, Wellcome, Giordano and Procter and Gamble. The system runs on IBM's global network with user software developed by the association. According to Ms Lin, the increasing globalisation of the world economy has added to pressures to speed up the supply chain process, which can involve multiple documents and data entries and is prone to human error. 'If we can shorten the process, it would shorten the business cycle, lead to lower inventory costs, cut the order-to-delivery time and reduce the gap between invoice and payment,' she said. Buffer stock levels could be cut once the delay in ordering new goods was reduced, she said. For users with their own computer systems, EZ*TRADE works by converting files, purchase orders for example, into a common format: Eancom, the international message format. Users at each end of the message use special translation software to convert files in their own systems to Eancom. IBM provides operations training and technical help on an ongoing basis. EZ*TRADE user software is available in several packages to suit the required level of sophistication. The most basic, TRENDS, is used by companies without an internal computer system or by companies that want a taste of EDI without committing themselves to altering their internal systems. Once a company signs up for the service, IBM charges a network joining fee of $2,000 plus fees for usage, while the basic user software costs between $1,500 to $3,000 depending on the package. All that is needed to run the system is the end user software, a 386 PC, a 9,600 bps modem and a telephone line. It helps if all a company's customers and suppliers are also on-line with the system and, like all start up situations, there is a critical mass to be attained. Ms Lin said most of the early users of the system were involved in businesses dealing in fast moving consumer goods where supply chain speed was a critical factor.