The Evolution of Electronic Transportation Documents

Oftentimes, the most useful technology comes from the most difficult of circumstances. If you’re in charge of supplying a retailer, sending supplies from a warehouse or involved in the transportation industry, you’ve no doubt run across some challenging circumstances in your work.

Take a trip back in time to the 1940s, however, and you’ll see how some of the most nightmarish of logistics scenarios imaginable led to the development a world-changing electronic document technology.

The Problem

During the occupation of Berlin after World War II, the Soviet Union blocked access to the portion of Berlin that was occupied by the Allies. Supplies could not be transported by rail, road, or canal. The Soviets wanted to be the supplier of food and energy in order to gain control over the Allied territory.

However, the transportation of supplies via aircraft could not be blocked without shooting down the planes and the Soviets did not want military action so soon after the end of the war.

The allies decided to supply the city via air transport. But the logistics were daunting. Every day 1,500 tons of food consisting of 646 tons of flour, 144 tons of vegetables,109 tons of meat, 180 tons of potatoes, and 180 tons of sugar were needed. For energy, 3,500 tons of coal and gasoline were required daily.

The air forces of the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa participated in what came to be called the Berlin Airlift. Aircraft had to take off every four minutes around the clock in order to transport the daily tonnage.

Coordinating the loading and unloading of this number of flights created a huge logistical and transportation challenge. There was no standardized way to handle shipping orders, routing instructions and so forth.

The solution was to develop standardized manifests, which had never been done before. The standardized manifests were the key document for efficient coordination of the supply chain of airplanes, labor, trucks, and warehouses.

Standardization Expands to Electronic Documents

In the early 1960’s, Dupont was the first company to build on the standardized manifests by creating standardized electronic transportation documents. This resulted in a system where documents could be exchanged rapidly and efficiently between parties.

Eventually, electronic documents would replace paper documents, which was one of the most significant advances in logistics and transportation technology. Rather than having to reconcile disparate systems for documenting, ordering and sending shipping information, companies could rely upon standardized electronic formats.

How It Grew

Holland-America, a steamship company, started using the electronic documents in 1965. This took off quickly and, by 1968, many other companies were using this technology to send communications related to transportation and logistics. There was still one hitch, however; the companies were using different formats, which left in place some of the same issues that had always plagued the industry.

In 1968, the Transportation Data Coordinating Committee was formed by the ANSI (American National Standards Institute) to develop standardized document formats. These formats eventually became what we know today as the modern EDI system and the ANSI X12 standard.

Today, there are a number of different EDI documents that are used to send and receive data between buyers, shippers, vendors, warehouses, and other parties.

Transportation and logistics have come a long way since the 1940s, but some of the complexities and challenges of that era led to the enormously efficient systems that we have in place today. You can read more about the evolution and history of EDI here EDI history

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