Expediting transactions

Free, standardized information-sharing tool could revolutionize procurement and sales process

Above: Standardizing communications between steel producers, fabricators and erectors should help to move specifying, quotes, procurement and a host of other tasks along more quickly, leading to faster turnaround on steel-intensive construction projects.

Free, standardized information-sharing tool could revolutionize procurement and sales process

April 2021 - Some time ago, the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC), Chicago, surveyed its members about the technologies they deployed in their companies.

The survey “revealed our industry was still largely using fax and email attachments,” says Luke Faulkner, AISC’s director of technology integration. “Beyond that, we found that the existing electronic data interchange (EDI) systems were all proprietary, which meant that an interested buyer would potentially have to produce a separate inquiry for each seller.

“AISC identified a rather large potential upside in offering a standard platform for EDI, namely that it could potentially cut hours of manual entry, scrubbing and refining out of the procurement process,” says Faulkner. “We further recognized that the majority of the industry would be better served and more likely to take advantage of automated information transfer if there was a single standard for it versus a different EDI portal for every vendor.”

The platform AISC created, with the help of academics, is steelXML. The institute turned to software providers that cater to the metals trade. Enmark Systems Inc., Ann Arbor, Michigan, is one of those that took up the challenge to adopt the platform for its own customers, many of whom are service centers and fabricators. Enmark incorporated steelXML into its Eniteo ERP software suite.

The platform allows users to input all the information needed to identify products, including weights, dimensions, chemical and physical properties. And it automates the electronic data sharing process, explains Mike Voran, regional sales manager for Enmark.

“In a nutshell, it saves a tremendous amount of time and energy inputting data when receiving material” from a mill or other vendor, says Ben Upell, also a regional sales manager for Enmark Systems.

What AISC determined “was that there are so many flavors of EDI, why doesn’t someone supply a standardized format so multiple platforms can work with each other? Also, many formats require third-party tools. With steelXML, the schema is free to use. We don’t charge our customers to use it,” Voran notes.

When it took on the challenge of incorporating steelXML into its Eniteo suite of software solutions, Enmark “saw the benefit in making the user experience more automated. Prior [to this platform], it could take hours a day, depending on how many trucks arrive. That’s one aspect. The other is accuracy,” Voran explains. “Often, with human interactions, errors may arise. Instead, the format allows that when a mill sends advance shipping notice, a file is sent, you can upload it into the software, totally eliminating all that data entry.”

The steelXML platform automatically verifies that all information is correctly formatted. It flags errors and indicates whether data is missing. Once the user corrects errors and fills out missing items, the information moves forward to pre-receiving.

The proper paperwork is “already printed when the material arrives,” and indicates which identifying tags are to be placed on the material; that helps locate the material while it’s in inventory and when it has entered a production line.

“We were an early adopter hopping on board with AISC. We like being early adopters to new technology,” Upell says. “AISC has had fabrication software providers hop on, too, but we are the only metal service center ERP package fully integrating steelXML.” Other software vendors that offer steelXML are Aveva FabTrol, FabSuite, ROMAC and StruMIS, according to AISC.

Broadening the spectrum

“The way AISC defines it, when they talk about it, is they wanted to find a better way [for members] to buy steel. So much is purchased via fax and email. Both required large amounts of human interaction and manual re-entry. At one point, a salesperson is directing the data interchange,” Voran says. SteelXML “automates communication between buyer and seller across the whole spectrum of procurement.”

The process of sending and receiving information doesn’t change, says Upell, “but a person is not doing each part of this. We envision it will save time and save errors from manually inputting the data.”

The bigger picture, according to Voran, “is about automating a lot of manual processes that service centers must do. [Enmark] customers buying and selling among themselves will be able to transact electronically, too. This frees them up to do more value-added processes.”

In addition to using steelXML documents from participating steel mills, later this year, Eniteo users will be able to work with one another using the steelXML platform. “So, it’s not only for use with product direct from mills, but any user of Eniteo can trade with one another. And it will expedite the receiving process,” he says, adding, “We have goals to import purchase orders and quotes as part of the process in the near future.”

Visibility

“We have a lot of customers that are dependent on knowing the chemical and physical properties of the material they are using. And not having to type in heat numbers into any ERP system—and there is a lot of input—will save time,” Upell says.

With steelXML, the intention is to distribute data between software programs. “We can program the dashboard to be able to see that in the system. We are pushing for further adoption. We have meetings about steelXML twice a month. We are just starting to market it, explaining to customers what it is. As our customers want it, they will ask their mills to provide it,” he says. Voran predicts that adoption will come through distributors first.

Infra-Metals Co. and Delta Steel Inc., both using Enmark software, each adopted steelXML early and were even “part of the oversight committee,” says Will Stoner, director of marketing and business development for the sister companies.

“We were approached by AISC to engage with a variety of industry peers to collectively develop an easier way to procure steel electronically using a common file type and standardized exchange,” he says.

The benefits Infra-Metals has enjoyed as a result of deploying steelXML “are many,” Stoner says. “Most notable is the administrative time savings for both our customers and employees. The ability to import a request for quotation in seconds versus hours has allowed our sales representatives to focus more on servicing the customer base by eliminating data entry.

“Additionally, we are able to respond much more quickly and accurately to sales inquiries than our competition and provide a file that can be imported back into their systems,” he notes.

A different way

Since launching steelXML, AISC’s development team has learned “it can be difficult to ask people to start doing things a different way, and that as an institute, we can’t mandate how members buy and sell steel,” Faulkner says. “That means we’ve had to exercise a lot of patience with steelXML while additional software implements it and while individual sellers decide to start offering it.

“Ultimately, the use of steelXML will be driven by the market and the demand from buyers for a cleaner, faster process,” he continues. “That pressure from buyers is something that AISC simply can’t replicate. What that means in terms of our membership is that we need to educate them, demonstrate the potential value, and then—here’s the tricky part—encourage them to address their suppliers on the issue.

“I am pretty encouraged that we’ll see a good uptick in the use of steelXML among our members in the next six to 12 months,” Faulkner says. MM

Sources

Delta Steel Inc.
Houston
713/635-1200
<div><a href="http://www.enmark.com/" target="_blank"><strong>Enmark Systems Inc.</strong></a><br />Ann Arbor, Michigan<br />734/669-0110</div>
Infra-Metals Co.
Langhorne, Pennsylvania
800/899-3432