EDI: the road ahead

EDI: the road ahead

Comprehensive definitions of Industry 4.0 are hard to find, but there seem to be four key principles: 
  • Interoperability - machines, devices, sensors and people communicating via the Internet of Things (in the first three categories, largely automatically)
  • Information transparency - which means creating a virtual model of the physical factory or supply chain by aggregating all the raw data from machines, sensors in something like real time
  • Technical assistance - this is both using ‘cyber-physical systems’, such as robots, to physically support human workers, but also the use of analytics to derive from the virtual model above the support for informed decision-making
  • Decentralised decisions - this is the headline-grabber whereby all sorts of systems and devices, singly or collaboratively, learn how to make their own, autonomous, decisions, leaving humans to concentrate on exceptions and conflicts.

Where in this brave new world does the classic, now decades-old concept of EDI fit?

Regardless of the precise technologies involved, ranging from IoT enabled devices to autonomous machines to 3D printing and additive manufacture, this clearly means that there will be an almost unquantifiable amount of data needing to be moved around. But where in this brave new world does the classic, now decades-old concept of EDI (electronic data interchange) fit?

Some believe that the future lies in direct device to device communication and ‘edge computing’ (processing power lying as close as possible to the sources or destinations of data) and undoubtedly there will be a lot of this, at least within the factory. But the new digital supply networks, or dynamic supply chains will disrupt the conventional, linear flow of information up and down a design/plan/source/make/deliver chain.

Ever greater numbers of data sets will be shared, not in sequence at planned moments after greater or lesser delay, but synchronously, to all partners at once, and often with ‘always on’ availability. Much of this will typically be directed through a virtual ‘control to ensure consistency, synchronicity and verification, although other message types will doubtless continue to travel directly from point to point.

So, simply considering the currently conventional types of EDI traffic – designs, purchase orders, schedules, shipping notices, invoices, and their acknowledgments, there will be a significant increase in the volume and frequency of traffic.

But EDI may develop quite new functions. For example, the ‘big data’ collected by all these devices will empower predictive analytics capabilities. Machines and systems across the supply chain will work intelligently to spot trends, identify and monitor risks, propose, agree and in some cases implement remedies, largely or entirely automatically. This may require new EDI formats and ways of handling them. 

Again, by creating the ‘virtual model’ of the physical world, the machines and systems may be able to play ‘what if?’ between themselves, applying the different business rules and logics of different partners to the same, agreed, error-free and up to date data set, and proposing optimised outcomes. Again, that implies the constant prompt and reliable exchange of complex data sets.

EDI through the cloud is considerably more secure than point-to-point web-based communication 

EDI may change its ‘feel’ in other ways. Cyber-security is a big issue: EDI operated as a distributed, managed service through the cloud is considerably more secure than point to point web-based communication. Blockchain techniques are beginning to be widely adopted in supply chains, giving the ability to create and execute contracts visibly, securely and automatically.

These are early days in Industry 4.0, but it seems clear that, far from being a technique from a previous era, EDI will continue to develop as the foundation of much industrial and commercial communication.

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