This is the second part of a two-part panel discussion focusing on IT issues in the aggregates industry and how the adoption of Command Alkon products solved issues for producers. The discussion took place at Command Alkon’s ELEVATE Conference.
Chris Wright, Vulcan Materials • Justin Higdon, Vulcan Materials • Nikki Mestre, Vulcan Materials; Allen Bryant, Graniterock • Mike Sanson, Midwest Concrete Materials
Mark Kuhar: Were your companies an early adopter of Command Alkon products and technology?
Justin Higdon: We were at a point where our previous point-of-sale system was not going to be supported on future releases of Windows and other upgrades. Our sales system was a totally separate system that we had to build and maintain. Our accounting and invoicing system was an old mainframe. So it was clear that we needed to move forward with some of our software choices, and we found a product that would handle all those in one package and that was Apex. Since we put that package in, we’ve just been barreling forward with all the new features and releases. And we’re currently gearing up to go to the next version, the Apex 7, as soon as we can get it fully tested and implemented. MOBILEsales was being developed for the ready-mix industry, but we were interested in using it for aggregates and we actually worked directly with Command Alkon to modify MOBILEsales to be more aggregate-friendly.
Chris Wright: Our corporate office and Command Alkon’s corporate office are 10 minutes apart. That really helped. The development team for that product is in Birmingham, Ala. Apex is in Kansas City, and we have a strong relationship with them as well, even though geography separates us. When we call on them they’re very familiar with our operations and they can jump in and help us in a moment’s notice. We rely on them.
Kuhar: What about Graniterock?
Allen Bryant: On the aggregate side, we’ve standardized on Apex across all of our quarry, recycle and asphalt operations. It was a mature product at the time we chose it. At that point, we were actually replacing a legacy system. Graniterock was a very early adopter of technology, and had built its own solution, which was hard to believe for a company of that size. We had a fully automated quarry long before many in this country did. We were able to come in with Apex and replace a custom-built system, which is not an easy thing to do with a commercial product.
Kuhar: So what happened to the custom-built system? It just went away?
Bryant: Oh, it’s gone. It was unsupportable. We used it for many, many years. We got our ROI on it. The Apex system at that point was much superior. At our A.R. Wilson Quarry we have 10 scales and it’s all 24/7 unattended loading. Drivers come in and can load themselves out of overhead bins There are also two asphalt plants on site. It’s a monster site, in terms of using all the bells and whistles that you can use from Apex. I think it is still the only site that has the ability to legally run as an unattended site in California, because California made that very difficult to do. Apex has been huge in terms of our aggregates operation, without a doubt, and in our automating of that.
Kuhar: How do your gate-to-gate times look?
We’re transparent on gate-to-gate times. We’re obsessive about them. We print them on every ticket, good or bad. That means we obviously trust the system – that it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing. And because we’re vertically integrated, we’re also using COMMANDbatch for concrete, COMMANDqc, Integra for ready-mix dispatch, TrackIt for our entire ready mix fleet. We are participating in the CONNEX world. We’re pushing tickets up now from Apex to CONNEX and we’re just starting an integration with HCSS for our construction division.
Kuhar: Mike, what are you guys using?
Mike Sanson: We use all Command Alkon products. We got on board with Apex when it was JWS, before Command bought it. So, we’ve been with them for quite some time. And we got the Alkon part before it was Command Alkon. I was here when they started with Apex. We are an early adopter company also. I got started with the mobile connect products. We did the first MOBILEsales for ready mix. And then, following right along with these guys, I know they use several on the aggregate side. And then MOBILEticket. We have a product that I don’t think anybody else ever saw, and it’s called mobile HaulIt. It was was MOBILEticket stripped down to where you couldn’t get the ticket, but the driver got all the information. And then that moved into MOBILEticket. We’ve been quite involved with this. Our company is small enough, so that it makes it easier for them to work with us, rather than a mega company. And we’re 30 minutes from the Apex office. So, our interactions, our logistics are really good as well.
Kuhar: One thing that I hear from different people in the aggregates industry is, “We’re generating all kinds of data, but we’re not doing enough with it.” Do you find that’s an issue with your aggregates operations?
Wright: Yes. For our company, that is a huge focus right now. We’re looking for actionable data instead of wading through pages of print. We need the outliers.
Bryant: Business intelligence is one of the strategic initiatives for our company coming down from the board. Mining that data and turning it into actionable insights is the buzzword but what does that really mean for our industry? We’re investing a lot in that. And not just in the data that we get out of our traditional systems, but you go out to our quarry, again, A.R. Wilson Quarry, our plant manager there has been all over this for a number of years now. You walk into the control room and there’s a big screen and there’s data visualizations of exactly what’s going on from a production standpoint at that plant. This is the only one of our plants that’s doing this, but it is a completely different world than it was three to four years ago if you walked into that plant.
Kuhar: So, is that something that’s going to fall on your department? You’re going to be generating the data, overseeing the procedures that generate the data? Is it somebody else’s job to take that data and make something happen with it? Or are you tasked with interpreting the data, making the recommendations?
Bryant: One of the things we’re struggling with is trying to understand how that works, because it’s not IT. IT’s role really is to make sure there is access to the data and we’re getting decision-makers the data in the form that they need. But the business side is the one that needs to understand what they want to do with that data. They’re the ones that need to define the business outcome that they’re looking for.
Kuhar: Mike, you said you have a fourth generation in your company, and that’s driving the technology aspect. Are they the ones that are taking the data and saying, “This is what I see and this is what we have to do?”
Sanson: Yes. But the father is still the president of the company, and he does want to see the information. And we’ve been fortunate enough to be one of the early adopters of CONNEX. I can give the president a dashboard and he can sit there and say, “Okay. Drill down.” And I can say, “This is how fast we’re moving trucks in and out of the quarry. Here is what one quarry is doing versus another. Here’s which trucks are slow.” With CONNEX, I think we’re going to be able to give each level a whole different set of tools. The president’s going to want to see the numbers, revenues and profitability. The operations manager wants to see how fast and how efficient the plants are running. They can see how long our ready-mix guys are sitting there in the plant before that first load. That was an eye-opener for me, I’ll tell you. I don’t mind saying it. We’re going to be able to give each different level their own unique dashboard of information. And then, it’s hands-off for us. Then we’re back to doing what we’re intended to do: keep things running.
Kuhar: What is it that you would like to do with technology that you can’t do now?
Higdon:What I’d like to do is be more proactive and look for opportunities to employ technology in order to give us more efficiencies in places that we haven’t thought to use it; or systems we haven’t thought to use; or tying certain pieces of data together to give us usable, actionable information that we haven’t had before.
Wright: We have a project right now that we’re piloting that’s helping us with our inventory levels. We usually do an annual flyover via airplane. It does inventory trips once a year. We want to do that more often. Drones are the answer to that. And it’s not just drones, it’s imagery. A drone is a way to get the image. Whether it’s fixed cameras or iPhone video, whatever it takes. Wherever you can take that, convert that to volume metrics, and then you can do your analysis on that. So, that field is blowing up big time.
Bryant: There is technology out there that is being used in other industries that needs to make its way into our industry. I want to change my customer’s experience through technology. We talk about this a lot and the CONNEX platform at a simple level is that idea: the connectivity between customers, partners and so on. Doing business with us should be as easy as how I do business with anyone else today, right? “Siri, I need a load of asphalt,” or, “Siri, I need a load of rock,” as opposed to having to go through forms and all that kind of stuff. That’s a shift that’s taken place in all other commerce but it hasn’t made it to our industry yet.
Kuhar: Are Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics coming to the aggregates industry?
Bryant: We need to embrace the barriers to entry of being able to effectively use AI in portions of our business. And so let’s take logistics, which is a huge issue in our business. I’m talking about aggregate distribution or ready-mix delivery. That should be AI driven. We know all of the history is out there, we know exactly how long it takes to get from here to here at this time of day, and if I’m delivering over this time range, here’s what my average cost is going to be. So, from there I can get to a cost-based quote. That’s all achievable today. The data’s out there, the AI tools are out there, but I need my vendors to deliver that.
Sanson: The progress that our industry has made in the last five to seven years is so exciting I don’t know if I’ll ever retire. If you think back seven years, if we’d have had this meeting we would have been way down here in what we’re asking and expecting. Now, we see the doors open up and I can’t say there’s a limit on what we can expect. The one thing that we all need, and I’m sure I can probably speak for all of us, is if we had better Wi-Fi through the cell signals. If we had consistent and stronger signals, the more we’d benefit from it. That’s one of the weak points that we’re still fighting in Kansas.
Kuhar: I’m wondering if the 5G phone network will maybe move that along a little bit more.
Bryant: Yes, I think it will.
Sanson: It won’t for us. They already told me. They said that it takes a lot more towers.
Wright: But the amount of information that can flow ... I think there’s going to be more and more connectivity. The IoT is going to explode with 5G, but I think the bandwidth is going to be there to support all that. And it’s one of those things that, once that floodgate is opened, it will be a wait and see situation as to whether or not technology will catch up to that. We say everything is connected now, but everything’s really going to be connected.