Successful companies in metals and natural resources aren't likely to experiment with emerging technologies, but they're good at finding smart, novel ways to exploit proven ones.
That's what newsprint maker and lumber supplier Bowater Inc. did when it automated a trading-floor application to sell lumber. VP and CIO Steve Lanzl first talked to IT consultants about creating such a system, but they wanted more than $1 million. Instead, he turned to Jacques Berger, IT manager for Bowater's Canadian forest-products division, who with a few other IT employees worked with sales, marketing, and trading folks to create the trading system in six months for less than $70,000. "This is an example where the IT guy in Montreal knows the business process so well that he can develop a system quickly," Lanzl says.
Louisiana-Pacific Corp., a $2.8 billion-a-year maker of building materials, is adapting cell phones with global positioning satellite features to push its business forward. It's testing Motorola cell phones with a Java operating system and XML capabilities to help track its truck fleet. Truck drivers are given GPS-ready cell phones connected to Louisiana-Pacific's transactional systems. Data transmitted from the phones makes scheduling deliveries more efficient and lets the company measure shipments in terms of the time goods are delivered versus the current metric of when they're sent. Using GPS will create a system that will cost 10% of what Louisiana-Pacific's competitors spend to collect similar information, VP and CIO Jeff Duncan estimates.
Martin Marietta Materials Inc., a $1.8 billion-a-year maker of road materials such as asphalt and gravel, is enhancing its eRocks customer self-service Web site, which lets customers help manage their accounts by retrieving statements and invoices and doing research on materials needed to get jobs done. The company added an online enrollment process promoted through a public-relations campaign that more than doubled the number of customers using the site in the first half of 2005.
Security wasn't a problem when shop-floor process-control systems relied on proprietary technology and equipment wasn't networked. But systems in processing plants have moved to PC-based technology, and VPNs link them with business systems. "We probably have 10,000 devices across a dozen facilities that have to be protected on the shop floor because viruses can flow from the business network to shop-floor network," Bowater's Lanzl says.
Among the dozens of technologies and processes Bowater has deployed to secure its factory systems is two-factor authentication. If a factory-floor system hiccups at 2 a.m., Lanzl says, a process-control engineer can access it from his home PC with an RSA Security Inc. SecurID authenticator, a credit-card-size device that generates a random number and is used in conjunction with passwords. It's swiped through a reader attached to a PC or keyed in.
While none of these technologies pushes the edge of IT innovation, they're solving critical problems for metals and natural-resources companies.
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Data: InformationWeek Research
Illustration By Paul Watson
METAL & NATURAL RESOURCES