Steel supplier gets schooled in IT

It’s been a couple of years since Parkdale International Ltd. installed an enterprise management system — two years of genuine IT lessons, going by the words of one company representative.

Hamilton, Ont.-based Parkdale is a “devalued” steel provider. The firm buys imperfect metal from steel makers like Stelco Inc. and sells it to other companies that need steel, but not necessarily the pristine kind. If the odd scratch or blemish is okay for the buyer, Parkdale can provide it.

In 2003 Parkdale installed a new management system —Steelman Software Solutions Inc.’s Steel Enterprise Management System (SEMS) — which helps the company track business partners, monitor sales orders, schedule production jobs and manage shipping.

According to Stephen Margles, Parkdale’s sales manager, SEMS has lived up to its billing for the most part. Parkdale sought such a system in the first place because its old enterprise planner was difficult to configure and maintain.

“We hired somebody to write the program,” Margles said. “We were dependent on one person, and he didn’t work for us. He was contracted to come in and fix things as necessary….And he was making noises that he wasn’t going to be doing this forever.”

SEMS proved easy for Parkdale to configure on its own. It’s designed that way, said Daniel Brody, Steelman’s general manager. “We don’t like to hard code everything. We designed everything in tables and flexible configurations. It’s flexible enough that if they change their business processes, the system changes with them.”

But not all is rosy at Parkdale. Margles said some tech-based plans went off the rails since the initial SEMS implementation. Welcome to a tough IT education.

In 2003, Parkdale planned to use handheld computers to track inventory. Employees were to scan products with these devices, to see where the metal belonged and what should be done with it — production for chopping, the shipping dock for distribution, wherever and whatever.

But the handheld plan “hasn’t gone as well as we would have liked,” Margles said. “We’ve had performance issues, and they haven’t all been solved yet.”

For some reason the devices (made by Intermec Technologies Corp. provide no information about scanned items when four or more are operating at the same time. “It goes on overload,” Margles said. “The screens blank out.”

Lesson one: despite your best efforts, sometimes technology fails for no immediately discernable reason. Patience and dogged determination to suss out the solution are necessary virtues.

“We know computer systems aren’t perfect,” Margles said, demonstrating his company’s grasp of IT realities. “Not everything runs right out of the box.” He added that Parkdale is working with Steelman to figure out what’s wrong.

Alongside the handheld devices, Parkdale planned to achieve a paperless state — all information stored on computer hard drives and served up on screens, not written down and kept in dusty binders.

But Parkdale still uses an awful lot of paper. Some staff members refuse to give up their tree-killing ways. That’s lesson two: take users into account when assessing technology.

“I would say we have reduced paper, but we’re not going to get to paperless,” Margles said. “The more familiar we are with the (SEMS) system, the better we get.”

Part of the paper problem has to do with the way Parkdale interacts with its suppliers. Some insist on paper for orders, invoices and such. Parkdale has been trying to convince suppliers to move to Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), to little avail.

“Our biggest supplier is Stelco, which is involved in bankruptcy protection,” Margles said, explaining that the beleaguered steel maker has more pressing issues than converting to electronic invoicing. “It’s just not a priority.”

Lesson three: even the most robust IT environment isn’t necessarily enough to convince partners to innovate, especially when the partner is understandably distracted. See “patience and dogged determination” above for the fix.

“We’re making some progress,” Margles said. “It’s just taking a lot longer than we thought it would. But we’re optimistic that when the EDI kicks in, it will save a lot of paper.”

Thankfully, one of the easier lessons at Parkdale has to do with IT as well. Turns out the SEMS system was a smart investment. It lets the company track steel-price changes in a more flexible manner than did the old platform. It lets Parkdale convert measurements and currencies for international sales. And it helps the firm track tricky inventory — two sorts of steel in a single coil, for instance.

ROI on SEMS is “hard to quantify,” Margles said. “We don’t get more sales because of it. But we’re able to do things faster. I suppose you could say that means more sales. But we certainly have greater control over our inventory, greater flexibility selling it — that’s just good for our business.”

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