At Command Alkon’s ELEVATE Conference, Rock Products Moderated a Panel of Aggregates IT Professionals Talking About the Challenges of Their Job
Chris Wright, Vulcan Materials • Justin Higdon, Vulcan Materials • Nikki Mestre, Vulcan Materials; Allen Bryant, Graniterock • Mike Sanson, Midwest Concrete Materials
Mark Kuhar: How is the aggregates industry adopting new technology in general and adapting to a new high-tech work environment?
Chris Wright: The industry in general is behind the curve, slow to adopt, waiting for emerging trends to come out. The industry has always preferred tried and true, tested and vetted. But the timeline between cutting edge, and tried and true is shrinking. What was five years as an improving technology is down to six months. We are doing our best to stay up with technology, playing catch-up, and then eventually we want to be a little bit more forward-looking then what we have been. We’re seeing more and more of a trend from everything being on print to being posted in the cloud. With more and more of our back office and other systems looking that way, it takes the infrastructure burden off of us. We are looking forward to more of that, but still, we have so many systems all the way from point-of-sale to procurement, to accounting, to reporting, that it takes a small army to keep all those integrations working.
Allen Bryant: I’ll say for Graniterock, we’ve actually had a pretty good history for a company of our size, as a small regional player. We have a long history of embracing technology and innovation, but it’s a challenge for a company of our size. One of the things we struggle with is, we want our vendors to move faster in this industry. The vendors of technology in our industry have not been able to keep pace with what’s going on in other industries. And we don’t have the resources to build it out ourselves because again, that’s not the business we’re in, right? We’re in the business of making big rocks into little rocks. But we’re always looking at what’s going on from a technology standpoint. And for us right now, for example, we’re investing heavily in the value of the data we’re getting out of the systems. We’ve got quite a niche for our own business intelligence and analytics. But the challenge is how to leverage the data that we are able to get out of the systems.
Mike Sanson: Our company has been family owned from the beginning. We’re on the fourth generation now. Technology moved along quite fast when the fourth generation evolved because he’s a young man and he’s forward looking. I started working for his dad and he embraced technology but wasn’t as aggressive. When the fourth generation came in, he said, “I want to be on the cutting edge.” And so we evaluate everything and try to move forward with it as best we can. Our company over the last eight years has more than doubled, and we haven’t added one office person. So, we’re seeing our returns in the back office. Plus efficiency and better products.
Kuhar: You say it’s doubled. Are you talking about you doubled production, or the size of the company, or acquisitions... how are you cutting that?
Sanson: We’ve built and we’ve bought. When I went to work there, there were three ready mix plants and three sand plants. We’ve got 11 ready mix plants and six sand plants now. We bought two ready mix companies and then we have the aggregate side. We built our own plants. We pump out of pits, so we dredge.
Kuhar: Vulcan has so many operations and is so national, so how do you approach that challenge for your jobs?
Justin Higdon: We do have local IT representatives out in a lot of the areas. And they’re there mostly to handle the physical things. So, wire networking, to put a physical machine in place, to hook up a scale or an interface or whatever. However, we do talk to them, rely on them to be our eyes and ears out there in the field, a little bit closer to the ground. We also have a department that is training the weighmasters on how to use their systems that they’re responsible for such as the people who are out there actually scaling out the trucks, etc., the dispatchers. And we tend to teach those groups what we know, what we can do, and what we can offer, and rely on them to keep a little bit closer touch to what’s going on out in the field. And if they say, “Hey, our local plant managers said the turn times are getting bad at this facility,” then we know that we need to go in and take a look at it. What we struggle to do is to be able to get out there ourselves and identify these things ahead of time, as opposed to waiting for somebody to bring it up.
Nikki Mestre: And it depends on where we are in the lifecycle of the project, and where we are in implementing that technology as well. In the beginning we are very boots on the ground. Our internal team tries to be in those places where we’re initially rolling that out. After we get through that deploy phase, we’re able to then start to empower super users that we have throughout our various markets and continue to educate them and build them up as those users that can drive further adoption within their various markets across the country. So, it’s a combination of all of the above, but it’s definitely a process getting there.
Wright: As Nikki was mentioning, it’s a process of building that pyramid of support, where you train the trainer, train the super users. Your guys might have to wear many, many hats and are pulled in many directions, and we try to develop a certain number of experts. And not to get “siloed,” but people who are supporting things in particular.
Kuhar: So, from Graniterock’s perspective, how do you coordinate between materials and construction divisions?
Bryant: Our IT team is centrally located and the same people support all lines of business. As a vertically integrated company this means supporting systems and infrastructure for office personnel, aggregate, asphalt and concrete production, as well as heavy civil construction. We are fortunate that all of our sites are driving distance, but we still rely heavily on our ability to provide remote support. One of the challenges we face is training the IT team on the business processes across our diverse lines of business as they not only need to be specialists in specific technologies, but understand how it is applied and used in our industry.
Sanson: We’re small. There are only two of us and when we roll out a product, its just us. One of our biggest challenges is when we hire drivers, I don’t think HR asks any of them what their computer skills are. And it’s something that is moving that direction. You know, a requirement as we have MOBILEticket and all that. So, we have a platform like they do, except we have one or two drivers at each plant that I give really in-depth training, and then we come around and give them all training. But I work with those two, and then make sure that they follow up with the drivers. And then we can remote into any of the plants, as long as they’re online. We’re good to go on that.
Kuhar: Interesting. I’m glad you said it. You said, “One of our biggest problems.” So, what are the biggest problems you have in dealing with your downline aggregate operations?
Higdon: I feel like it’s being in touch with operations. With so many different operations and us not being close to many of them, sometimes, unless there’s a significant issue or just happens to be a particularly vocal plant manager or area manager, we may not even hear about the problem. Somebody might try to attack it with an engineering solution, instead of an IT solution. Somebody might try to approach it with something else, or just say, “Well, that’s just how things are.” And I would like to think that we could open up a stronger channel between our operations group and our business solutions team. We’ve actually started a new track about focusing on operations so hopefully that’s coming soon.
Bryant: I’m struggling to find an answer for that, because actually I think in our case – and again, some of this is probably just size and some of it might just be the culture of the company – we implemented a lot of technology in our aggregate’s operation very, very early, so we’ve been fully on top of it, using automated and unattended ticketing for years. We’ve had really good relationships between the technology part of the company and operations at the aggregate sites for many years, I don’t have a lot of struggles with that, actually.
Sanson: I’ve lived both worlds. I worked for 25 years for Baker Hughes and I traveled internationally, and so that’s how I ended up where I am. I was traveling out of the country all the time, and I got sick of it, so I found this little ready mix company, sitting here where I’m home every night, and it wasn’t a corporate atmosphere. And he’s exactly right. It has to be coordinated between operations and IT. And the operations manager and myself, we actually share an office. So, any problem that comes across, we both understand it, and which side of the fence is it on, and then we take care of it accordingly. It helps with communications.
Kuhar: Are there training issues that are down at the plant level? People get trained to do a certain job or trained that a system operates a certain way and all of a sudden that person’s gone and they moved to another department, maybe they’ve gone to another company, and you have to start all over. Is that an ongoing issue and a problem?
Higdon: I think any time that training gets handed down from person to person, eventually, two or three tiers below that, you start to take for granted what that person doesn’t know, and you think that you’re training somebody that’s already been part of the business or already worked in an operation like that, and you skip a lot of pieces. Then it just starts to degrade from that point. You don’t want to feel like you’re wasting time if you’re retraining somebody who’s already an expert, and at the same time you’re missing opportunities to bring somebody’s knowledge up. So, I definitely think that happens in all of our systems, and it’s a tough challenge.
Wright: I think some of it is just when we have someone who’s outgoing, and they train their replacement, they’re training their bad habits instead of going back up to the one that trained them. We do have that, but sometimes when we’re spread thin, things don’t get done the way they should be. There’s an analogy I use a lot. A woman and her daughter were cooking one time. She was baking a roast, and she said, “Well, the first thing you do is you cut the end of the roast off before you put it in the pan.” The daughter said, “Well, why do you cut the end of the roast off?” “I don’t know, my mom always does.” So she called her mom and asked, “Mom, why do you cut the end of the roast off?” The answer comes, “I don’t know, my mom always did it that way.” So she called HER mom and asked, “Mom, why do you cut the end of the roast off when you cook it?” She answered, “Oh, the roast won’t fit in my pan.” So, down there at the end of the line, maybe people are still cutting the end of the roast off when there’s no reason for it.
Bryant: I think we do a really good job when we’re implementing something new and we’re bringing a new process or a new system. We do a really good job on that initial training because it’s part of our project plan. Then we move on to the next thing, and like you said, you’ve got that second generation or third generation, and they’re being trained by somebody else who was trained initially and after a while, we don’t do a good job of going back, making sure that they’re still using the system the way we intended them to use the system initially, or continuing to advance the training and take them to the next level. Yeah, that’s definitely a shortcoming.
Kuhar: Mike, you said it would be nice to hire truck drivers with computer experience. Are you having any luck with that at all? Are you finding that kind of person?
Sanson: I’m from Kansas and every area is different. It seems like we’ve got a lot of older gentlemen who are truck drivers. Now, most of our ready mix guys are quicker to catch on because they’re in their 20s. It’s a little more labor intensive, carrying chutes and cleaning up and stuff. So, we tend to get the younger guys for that. But dump trucks, it’s more sedentary, so all they do is get loaded, go out and dump it. So, that age divide works for us and against us in some ways. Command-Alkon products have really simplified a lot of stuff, one of the things I hear from you guys, it’s interesting to me, is communication is one of the biggest issues that we all fight. And with a lot of these Command products, we can see what’s going on at the plant, there is a visual component so I can say, “Okay, we need to go out there and do some training because this is happening, or it’s taking too long or whatever.”