Competitive Advantage

By Tim Triplett, Editor-in-Chief

Suppliers of service center ERP systems continue to improve their mobility and ecommerce features.

Despite the challenging market conditions—and in some cases because of them—metals distributors and processors continue to invest in new computer technology. Upgraded systems can offer a competitive advantage, say vendors of industry software.

The results of a recent study support that thesis. Nearly three out of four respondents to a Crowe Horwath/American Metal Market survey last year said technology is important to their business strategy. The poll of senior metals industry executives shows “a much higher focus on the importance of IT to metals organizations,” says Tony Barnes, senior manager of the Performance Manufacturing Distribution Consulting Group at Crowe Horwath. “We expect that trend to continue and to drive standardization in the industry.”

While the vast majority of metals executives say technology is important, or very important, to achieving their business goals, only about half have an IT road map that ties their investments to their business results. To get the most out of their technology investment, users must tackle the right projects, and use the right applications, to meet their specific business needs, Barnes says. The most common goal of a technology investment is improved customer service and quality, followed closely by the need to increase production capabilities, the survey found. Thus, a new ERP system is an important customer service tool.

In pursuit of improved customer service capabilities, many software developers have been working on mobile computing and ecommerce applications. “The benefits of mobile applications are significant and immediate,” says Peter Doucet, vice president of consulting at Invera.

Some mobile applications are focused on internal uses, allowing service center warehouse and operations staff to record their work using smart phones or tablets integrated with Bluetooth bar code scanners, for example. That combination enables operators to perform their functions from anywhere in the warehouse rather than from a fixed terminal. Invera also has added mobile applications for sales and management staff, Doucet says. An integrated CRM application can be used on a tablet so salespeople can get a full customer profile, history of activities, quotes, orders, and more, while on the road. “This brings them fully up to date on a customer before calling or visiting them,” he adds.

Ecommerce applications also offer greater mobility to customers. Geographical boundaries do not exist in the ecommerce world, says Paul Parsons, vice president of sales and marketing at 4GL Solutions. Ecommerce functionality allows companies to significantly expand their trading area at little additional cost. 4GL is developing ecommerce features that will empower customers. With a secure log-in, customers will be able to check inventory, request quotes, place orders and print out invoices or material test reports with minimal assistance, reducing administrative staff time. Targeted email marketing campaigns also can be used to drive new customers to the service center’s website, Parsons says.

Recent product development at Crowe Horwath has focused on the role-based experience of individual users, Barnes says. “People perform many different roles. Sometimes the same individual wears many different hats. We are focusing more on delivering content that is very specific to each individual user.”

The Crowe Metals Accelerator ERP system is based on a Microsoft platform. A new release of Microsoft Dynamics AX will improve the integration of ERP systems with mobile devices, says Andrew Callaghan, senior software manager with Crowe Horwath. “We are really going to see a trend where the average user, regardless of department, is able to very easily interact with their mobile device. In the past, it was primarily just salespeople.” The growing use of mobile devices by customers is a strong incentive for metals suppliers to improve their ecommerce capabilities, though ecommerce is an area not yet fully exploited by most service centers, he adds.

One example of a new mobile app is the Metalware Geo Locator from Paragon Consulting Services, which uses Google Maps and Paragon’s programming to display daily delivery status in real time. Drivers equipped with a smart phone get the customer’s signature when each delivery is completed. This proof of delivery is fed directly into the Metalware system, immediately alerting the customer service department. With a glance at color-coded pointers on the map, managers will be able to see which orders have been delivered and which are still in route.

The intent is to improve customer service, not to replace the GPS system in the truck, says Shawne O’Connor, a director at Paragon. “Normally, when the driver collects the delivery receipts signed by the customers, you wouldn’t know the true status of those deliveries until the truck returned to the shop. With Geo Locator, the activity is reported in real time,” she says. Eventually, Paragon plans to integrate the Geo Locator functionality with its MetalNet ecommerce solution so that customers can check on the status of their own deliveries.

Bob Raida, director of business development at Foundational e-Business Services, emphasized that technology for electronic data interchange is still evolving. “The need for businesses to transact data and share information is never going away. That was the foundation of EDI. Newer technologies, such as APIs and web services, are enabling businesses to share information more effectively and collaboratively in real time.” Application Programming Interfaces are tools for building software applications. Web services facilitate communication from one electronic device to another via the World Wide Web. Used together, they allow development of EDI systems that work more directly with ERP systems, he explains.

Cloud-based computing, otherwise known as Software as a Service, continues to gain acceptance in the marketplace, say vendors. Many give their clients the option of buying and maintaining their own software in the traditional way, or allowing the vendor to host their system on the cloud for a fee. Cloud computing offers a number of advantages in terms of efficiency and security. Users can access the applications over the Internet from anywhere, anytime. Their data is stored in redundant and secure locations. They can reduce or eliminate their in-house IT department because the vendor performs all the software maintenance and updates remotely. In general, there is less reluctance about SaaS today, says Barnes at Crowe Horwath. “Every day there is a new cloud-based application. Everybody just understands it better now, and the benefits it offers, than they did three or four years ago.”

Having an up-to-date ERP system is especially valuable when market conditions are challenging, says Brian David, director of sales at Compusource. Because of low metals prices and weakness in sectors such as energy and heavy equipment, many service centers are in the process of reducing stocks to match the lower demand. “Software gives them tighter controls on their inventory so they can run skinnier because they have greater visibility and real-time information,” he says. “We still see people investing in the tools that will give them better inventory control. Ecommerce also gives customers another avenue to do business with them. Those are the two main areas where we have seen activity.”

Recent software enhancements:
4GL Solutions, Stouffville, Ontario—4GL Solutions offers the Steel Manager III ERP system, which has full functionality in the areas of inventory management, purchasing, sales, inside processing, outside processing, picking, shipping, accounting and reporting. One recent addition to the program is a linear nesting module designed to maximize the yield when cutting long products such as pipe, bar, angles, beams, tubes, channels and extrusions. The software looks at all the available stock and selects the pieces that will satisfy the order while generating the least amount of waste when cut. The company is also working on new ecommerce features. For more information, visit www.4glsol.com.

Bayern Software, Carmel, Ind.—Bayern now offers Capstone, its next-generation ERP system, which includes the core functionality of its well-known Steel Plus software, along with new functionality in areas such as production scheduling, multi-level bills of material and warehouse-floor work distribution. Capstone can be deployed on premise or in the cloud. For more information, visit www.bayernsoftware.com.

Compusource Corp., La Palma, Calif.—MetalCentric from Compusource is a fully integrated metals distribution and accounting ERP system designed for the specific needs of metals service centers. It includes tools for contact management, customer service, bar coding, order processing, production, inventory management and purchasing. Recent product enhancements have focused on improving productivity and ease of use. For more information, visit
www.metalservicecentersoftware.com.

Crowe Horwath LLP, Indianapolis, Ind.—Crowe Horwath, the public accounting firm, offers the Crowe Metals Accelerator for the metals industry. The enterprise software is built on the Microsoft Dynamics AX platform, which includes applications for management of finances, customer relationships, supply chain, human resources, projects and business analytics. It also supports multi-company, multi-site, multi-language and multi-currency needs. As a Microsoft-based product, it has the look and feel of such familiar programs as Excel and Outlook. For more information, visit www.crowehorwath.com/metals.

Enmark Systems, Inc., Ann Arbor, Mich.—Enmark’s Eniteo is a fully integrated, Windows-based enterprise software system for distribution, processing and warehousing of all types of metal. It utilizes advanced technology including bar code scanning, touch-screen shop floor and Microsoft Cloud services. Eniteo’s Command Center gives salespeople quick access to inventory and customer-specific sales information on one screen to expedite quoting. Enmark’s Web Access allows service centers to supply their customers with 24/7 access to information including mill test reports, accounts payable and even inventory. Recently released features of Eniteo include a new material packaging system, QC Hold capability, chemical and physical property verification, and enhancements to customer contract part profiling, multing, report writing and bar code scanning functionality. In process are improvements to multi-currency features, toll processing, and integration of EDI and cloud tax services. For more information, visit www.enmark.com.

Foundational e-Business Services, Pittsburgh, Pa. —Foundational offers e-business related services, acting as an outsourced EDI department. It provides mapping, translation, communications and support for the trading of electronic business documents with customers and vendors. Managing EDI communication between trading partners is especially important for efficient material shipping and receiving, vendor managed inventory and toll processing. The fee-based service requires no hardware, software or EDI knowledge. Foundational was formerly known as Paragon B2B. For more information, visit www.getfoundational.com.

Invera, Houston, Texas—Invera offers the STRATIX ERP system designed specifically for metals service centers, metals processors, tube/bar mills and toll processors. In addition to sales, distribution and accounting functions, STRATIX addresses multi-step, multi-location production operations with integrated planning and scheduling. STRATIX ON-DEMAND is a cloud-based version of the program. For more information, visit www.invera.com.

Paragon Consulting Services, Baltimore, Md.—Paragon offers Metalware, Metalware Express and MetalNet ERP and ecommerce software. Most recently it has added the Metalware Geo Locator application, which uses Google Maps to track deliveries. Drivers capture the customer’s signature on a smart phone, which immediately transmits it back to the Metalware system, providing customer service with real-time and accurate information on deliveries. The second phase of the app’s development will use Google Maps to display shipping routes, with blue icons showing orders that have been delivered and red icons showing trucks still in route. Clicking on an icon will allow the user to drill down for customer location and order details. For more information, visit www.paragon-csi.com.

Wolcott Group, Medina, Ohio—Wolcott’s RealSTEEL, based on Microsoft Dynamics NAV, is an ERP system designed to give steel manufacturers and service centers visibility into all facets of their business. It includes extensive functionality for inventory management, sales and purchasing, finance, planning and scheduling, production and quality control. For more information, visit
www.realsteelsoftware.com.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017