From the Berlin Airlift to Walmart: The History of EDI

Transportation History

In 1949, Ed Guilbert, an Army Master Sergeant, questioned how to transport goods and supplies to U.S. troops in Berlin after a Soviet Union roadblock prevented transportation to and from Western Germany. When President Truman ordered an airlift to provide medical supplies, water, food, and clothing to troops, Guilbert began designing a logistical process to make transportation as efficient as possible. Guilbert’s system tracked each item, cargo container, and pilot to provide standardization and accuracy. The airlift, known as the Berlin Airlift, allowed American planes to continuously land and deliver supplies daily. By the end, the Berlin Airlift allowed more than 200,000 planes carrying more than one million tons of supplies to successfully aid citizens and troops despite the blockade.

Later in the 1960s, Guilbert created an electronic messaging system to communicate cargo information between locations. At the time, the transportation industry in the United States relied heavily on the manual exchange of paper-based documents to share information. The everyday process worked, but lacked standardization, automation, security, and reliability. As document exchanges between companies became increasingly difficult due to varied systems and methods, the industry sought out Guilbert’s electronic data sharing system, later called EDI or Electronic Data Interchange.

As the rate of message and data exchanges increased, there was an apparent need for a set of universal standards. In 1968, The Transportation Data Coordination Committee (TDCC) (later known as the Electronic Data Interchange Association (EDIA)) introduced standards for the transportation industry, outlining rules and regulations for the documents and data exchanged between companies. These standards paved the way to the formation of standards specific to the grocery, pharmaceutical, warehouse, and banking industries as businesses began realizing the advantages of utilizing EDI.

Advancements in technology led to the creation of the first file transport protocol (FTP) in 1973, Telenet, the first value added network (VAN) in 1975, and the first set of standards published by the ANSIX12 committee (formed by the American National Standards Institute) for industries including automotive, and more than 12,000 companies globally by the early 1990s. By the 2000s, encrypted data was being transferred over the Internet and large retailers such as Walmart were implementing EDI for better communication with suppliers.

Today, EDI creates opportunities for businesses to streamline information and supply chain efforts in order to work closely with partners. With the advancements, protocols, and standards governed by EDI organizations, businesses can rely on automated data transfer that is secure and reliable. EDI continues to support supply chains and inventory systems to deliver vital information and streamline processes for seamless transactions. As technology advances and businesses continue to adapt, EDI services will progress and continue to serve as a reliable means of data exchange.

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