EDI Selection Consulting

What is EDI?

EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) is the computer-to-computer exchange of business documents in a “standard” electronic format between business “trading partners”. EDI has existed since the 1970s, and there are many EDI standards such as X12 and EDIFACT. There are more than 300 different transaction formats, such as purchase orders, invoices, and advanced shipping notices. Code numbers are assigned to these formats such as 850, 810, and 856, in the examples above.

The reasons EDI has been so widely adopted are that it is intended to save time, and makes the order‐to‐cash and procure‐to‐pay cycles faster with fewer errors, such as missed orders, mislabeled cartons, and late or incomplete shipments. Because most of the largest buyers will not do business any other way, EDI enables a third of the US GDP. Many of the large buyers exact fines called “chargebacks” for certain errors in EDI transmissions or labeling. It is for these reasons that choosing the best possible EDI for your business is so important.

There are many uses for EDI, such as medical and insurance claims, but we’ll be discussing only “supply chain” EDI here. If you are required to exchange EDI transactions by trading partners, you will most likely need an expert to help you choose among the four methods of processing EDI. Enterprise Resource Consulting is ready to assist with this important decision.

What are the different types of EDI?

The four types of EDI services from which you must choose are: 


                    •On-premises EDI software

                    •Managed EDI cloud services

                    •Third party logistics (3PL) processing

Let’s look at each.

Webforms are online browser applications that are used either directly on the trading partner’s site, or through a webforms aggregator service that links to multiple retailers. EDI Webforms allow the user to log onto a site to receive orders, send acknowledgements and invoices, and so forth. Information is exchanged through manually reading the documents sent to you. You would key-in the data into your ERP system much the way you would with a fax. To transmit documents back to your trading partner, such as an advance ship notice or invoice, you would key-in the documents manually. Since interfaces are manual, scaling for business growth happens by adding people. Webforms are ideal for low volumes. If the need is light and process integration is not critical, webforms can be the best method for your business.

In summary, webforms are more expensive per transaction, labor intensive, and not integrated with Enterprise Resource Planning. But this can be the right choice for businesses with a small number of trading partners, few EDI transactions, and lower business expansion rates.

On-premises software, often misnamed “premise” software, is another method some businesses use to connect to their trading partners. It generally requires in‐house expertise to manage the transactions transmitted through a VAN (value‐added network). While the EDI software is generally in-house, it can also reside “on the cloud”. It makes little difference. It needs to be self‐managed. Where the application is housed is less significant. With EDI software, someone, usually in-house personnel, must understand some of the intricacies of EDI communications, formats, errors, and interfaces. Interfaces to some specific ERP systems and ancillary applications are commonly available from EDI software vendors. Each company using EDI software sets up and manages its own connections to trading partners, including updates to maps and labels, as customer specifications expand and change. EDI software vendors can handle the setups and maintenance for you, but that will generally be more expensive and less timely than if performed by your own staff.

Each individual EDI provider’s software can have “hooks” so that it can be integrated successfully with some ERP systems. You will need to locate a package that works with your particular ERP system. Trying to commission the programming of an EDI/ERP interface can be very time-consuming and error prone. That seldom is the best choice unless there is sufficient in-house expertise, which is seldom the case unless your business is very large. The question is whether or not the in‐house staff is capable and available at the right cost. 

In summary, this is the right choice for businesses with a large number of trading partners and many EDI transactions, or a business that is expanding at a very high rate. Enterprise Resource Consulting can help you choose both EDI and ERP software, and make sure they “play well” together.

Managed EDI cloud services are a relatively new alternative, inhabiting the gap between webforms and on-premises software. It came into being due to the migration to cloud technology, and it made sense for mid‐sized businesses to outsource some functions, like EDI, to remain competitive. Managed EDI cloud services do not require software purchase, so the one-time expense is generally lower than on-premises software. It includes the services of EDI experts to set up and operate EDI on behalf of the user. These services are usually the most expensive part of the process. The technology delivered is in the cloud, and the service manages trading partner relationships. The setup, mapping, testing, and go-live is done by trained EDI people as part of the service. Ongoing transaction processing and maintenance is managed in the cloud, and each change applies to every one of their clients, so the frequent changes mandated by trading partners can be made once and automatically applied to all businesses which use the service. The EDI capability bundled into the service means in‐house expertise is not typically necessary. 

Managed EDI cloud services involve outsourcing of a complete EDI capability. Managed EDI cloud services are appropriate for small to medium companies that have a new EDI mandate from multiple trading partners, and for users that have outgrown webforms. It can work particularly well if your ERP is also on the cloud.

Third party logistics processing

The final type of EDI involves third party logistics (3PL) warehouse service companies. Many of these companies are capable of handling the EDI transactions that customers typically mandate, including (850) purchase orders, (855) Order Confirmation, (856) Advance Ship Notice, (753) Routing, and (810) invoices. If keeping your ERP system updated is a requirement, 3PLs can usually provide the data necessary, via what is often called a “flatfile”. This can encompass purchase orders, invoices, and other documents. You would then only need your ERP vendor to provide a program to import and export that data on a timely basis. If your company uses a 3PL, and you wish to avoid the setup costs of EDI software, this method can be the best solution.

While 3PLs typically charge for the data they receive and transmit, it may be less than the transmission charges you would otherwise pay, because they want to retain your business for their warehousing capability. The one-time charges would be limited to whatever fees your ERP vendor and the 3PL would charge for the import and export programs.

What are the most important factors to the EDI decision?

These are the factors which are most important in determining which type of EDI makes the most sense for a given business:

                    •Volume of transactions

                    •Number of trading partners

                    •Number of document types required

                    •ERP integration requirements

                    •Your staff’s capabilities

The EDI types we discussed, in order of increasing cost and time requirements are:


                    •Third party logistics processing

                    •Managed EDI cloud services

                    •On-premises software

Let’s look at the important factors and the EDI types, and how they relate to each other.

Volume of transactions

The more EDI transactions that need to be handled, the further down the list of EDI types we need to go. For a handful of transactions per month, data entry effort for webforms may not be a big deal. At some point, manual effort can become a limitation, manifesting as unacceptable error rates and poor customer service. Adding personnel is a big expense, and takes time to implement, making a lot of manual entry work impractical. 

Number of trading partners

The more trading partners that need to be handled, the further down the list we need to go. Dealing with many trading partners means that there will be more changes and additions to requirements.

Number of document types required

The task is limited in scope if you only need to receive (850) purchase orders and transmit (810) invoices. The task becomes more and more difficult as you add other document types such as: 

                    •(855) Order Confirmation

                    •(856) Advance Ship Notice

                    •(753) Routing

Integration requirements

Integration is not too difficult a task if you can keep your ERP system updated by manually entering EDI data, without a lot of effort. As more and more transactions need to be communicated to your ERP database, we are forced further down our list of cost and time expense.

Your staff’s capabilities

The spectrum of your staff’s capabilities could range anywhere from a clerk that has trouble using Excel, to having an experienced EDI programmer on staff. The closer your EDI staff is to the latter, the further down our list of cost and time expense it is possible to go.

Where do I go from here?

Each ERP system user business has individual factors which make EDI integration a unique experience. Both ERP and EDI vendors each make claims about ease of integration. You must look extremely hard into the capabilities and responsibilities for making things work. 

By now, you may have an idea of which direction you may need to go to satisfy your customer’s EDI mandates. It is recommended that you engage an independent EDI consultant, such as Enterprise Resource Consulting, who can analyze your business, your ERP system, the EDI vendors, and your staff, and, with you, arrive at the best solution.