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February 22, 2017 | by Steve Lawrence

From Big Data and Artificial Intelligence to Recruiting Talent

Industry leaders on the benefits and doing it right

It’s not always easy, and they still struggle with how to squeeze the most value and efficiency from the digital technologies that are increasingly common in their companies, but all five industry leaders on the executive panel at the Tubular Products Conference agreed that integrating Big Data, digital analytics and artificial intelligence into their operations is well worth the effort.

“We have been living in the stone age,” said Barry Zekelman, CEO of Zekelman Industries. Dick Robinson, president of Norfolk Iron and Metal Company, agreed. “And our next challenge is how to use all this information.”

“We are drowning in data and starving for knowledge,” concluded Ladd Hall, executive vice president at Nucor.

The continuing discussion showed clearly that up and down the industrial metals supply chain companies are finding increasingly valuable applications for the digital technology that once was frustrating.

Hall, for example, described a small part of the product analytics that Nucor uses in its daily operations. “We have a division,” he said, “where we process 75 to 80 percent of our orders without human contact. Predictive maintenance on our equipment, and factory automation with less manpower are more and more a part of our operations.”

Stephen Armstrong, president and CEO at O’Neal Steel added, “We are always looking for ways to pick and ship more efficiently, and technology is enabling us to do that. We can see what is moving the fastest and therefore where it needs to be in our inventory and we are able to optimize the layout of our warehouses accordingly.”

Changing technologies are also opening new markets for steel and aluminum. “We are constantly looking for new uses for our products that may offer unique solutions for our customers,” explained Zekelman. “We are finding new markets for tubing and our other products in modular construction. The way buildings get built is brutally inefficient and we have been able to replace wood and concrete with our products.”

This kind of disruptive technology, as we are aware, requires an educated, highly trained staff. So recruiting and training are more important than ever, along with programs to retain those well-trained employees. The panel described several ways they are approaching this continuing problem.

Zekelman “plants the seed early,” as he puts it, “with factory tours that include grade school kids so they get the idea that this can be an extremely attractive career.” At ArcelorMittal, they “invest in science, technology, education and math (STEM) education programs at local schools,” said Edward Vore, ArcelorMittal’s chief executive officer for Tubular Products NAFTA. “We also sponsor high school robotics competitions and other computer-based programs.”

Robotics clubs are on the sponsorship agenda at Nucor, too, according to Hall. “But we also have a very aggressive internship program, that offers the interns real projects to do and debriefs them thoroughly. We may also sponsor the development of selected students at local universities,” he said. “We develop close relationships with department heads who can help us select those candidates.”

Norfolk Iron and Metal sponsors career academies at local high schools and community colleges. “We underwrite these because we consider it an investment in our future,” said Robinson.

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