EDI CAN BRING A QUASI-RELIGIOUS experience - at least, if the U.S. Bureau of the Census experience is a guide.

In moves that represent virtually blinding speed for the EDI industry, the Census Bureau plans to have an electronic version of its shipper's export declaration in use by the beginning of August.All products that are exported from the United States have to be accompanied by a shipper's export declaration. Creation of an electronic version will be a key step in the automation of international trade. It should also sharply boost so far sluggish participation rates in the Census Bureau's automation efforts.

Only 20 percent of the 700,000 shipper's export declarations submitted each month to the Census Bureau come in by computer. Fewer than 100 companies send their data in electronically.

Because the Census Bureau is going through the EDI Association's (formerly known as the Transportation Data Coordinating Committee) Ocean Standards Maintenance Committee, the document automatically will be available for use by more than 2,500 EDI Association members - no matter what their industry or computer use.

Census Bureau staffers found EDI enlightenment through the EDI Association, Jeff Greenwall, program manager, automated reporting, procedures branch.

Higher-level Census Bureau management seeking to boost automation use suggested attendance at the EDI Association's annual meeting in Washington, D.C., last December.

As a result of that (meeting) we felt it was compelling for us to join the TDCC and get involved in EDI, Mr. Greenwall said.

Then EDI Association head Ed Guilbert gave a rousing presentation on the theme of the meeting, EDI It Really Works, and the Census Bureau attendees saw the light.

From that point on, we believed it works, and we're going to make sure it catches on, especially from the point of view of the Census Bureau, he said.

* * * * *

EDI ON THE RUN is the goal of Johnson & Johnson Baby Products Co. of Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Sales representatives of the Canadian subsidiary of the U.S. company will soon start carrying around powerful laptop computers programmed for EDI.

Using the machines, they'll be able to enter standardized electronic messages at the moment a sales call is completed, speeding up the sales cycle considerably and sharply reducing order entry errors.

Johnson & Johnson is firmly behind EDI at all levels, Peter Lowdness, president, said. We believe in this. We think it will give us a competitive advantage. We want to be in the forefront, he said.

Details of the Johnson & Johnson moves came out at the EDI Council of Canada's Users Group meeting in Montreal last week. A number of other Canadian developments also generated talk.

* * * * *

* * * * *

WHY EUROPE FIRST? That was one of the questions being asked at the Montreal users group meeting about United States Customs Service EDI efforts.

Though Canada is the United State's largest trading partner, Customs Service international efforts have been far more focused on Europe than the Great White North, some attendees said.

As the pace of Canadian EDI picks up, that may change, however. Among the joint ventures under discussion or set to go:

* A test using the globally oriented EDI for Administration, Commerce and Trade standard should start before year's end. The partners: Korean manufacturers and Sears Roebuck Canada.

* Stelco Inc. of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, Livingston Distribution Inc. of Toronto, and IBM Canada were said to be talking about a possible EDI linkup. So was Motorola Canada.

* Ports Canada has become a leading proponent of EDI, scheduling a series of seminars to help increase use of the technology.