Interface Magazine talks to Vladimir Arshinov, IT Director at steel producer SIJ Group regarding the company’s massive digital transformation

Going into 2017, SIJ Group (Slovenian Steel Group) – Slovenia’s biggest steel producer and one of the largest manufacturers of stainless and special steels in Europe had typical IT structure with semi-independent IT departments on each plant. And like many modern enterprises, SIJ was at work drafting a strategy to transform its operations, systems and processes into a more unified structure in a bid to improve productivity, safety and the all-important bottom line.

Vladimir Arshinov is SIJ’s IT Director and his initial focus in 2017 was trained on the digital transformation of SIJ’s IT department to a more transparent organization with a clear workflow. Previously, IT was a department of innovation with each individual plant having its own independent function, none of which connected with each other, often across varying geographies. “This meant that lots of efforts were wasted solving the same issues with different solutions,” Arshinov reveals.

At the end of 2017, SIJ established a Project Management Office. PMBOK was selected as a master methodology and the Head of PMO received PMP certification and developed internal regulation documents, rules and methodology. After finalizing the initial establishment phase, hiring project managers and the organization of the operational work, SIJ came to the conclusion that to raise the scope and complexity of the projects program, they needed a tool. The MS Project Management Server was duly selected and implemented allowing SIJ to simplify observation of the progress of projects and control, while ultimately reducing duration. Project team meetings were almost eliminated, and the distribution, control and execution of project tasks, were assigned to the project team members who managed and controlled projects including budget consumption. Each project member would then be measured for effectiveness.

Turning the IT department into a leaner function was a massive first step for SIJ as it needed a firm foundation upon which all future innovation could sit. And so, the next step in SIJ’s internal IT transformation was aimed at the most sensitive and critical area: software development. As with many metallurgical companies SIJ had a bulk of different IT systems, which were supplied or developed in the past and had to be either permanently supported, or, due to the business requirements, changed. One concern with the legacy system was the reliance on locally based productive software developer engineers developing new solutions and then, after, supporting them, resulting in a massive drop in development speed, as development and the subsequent support increased. This situation was causing overloading, burnout and frustration, triggering a desire to change something; sometimes resulting in employer change. However, SIJ IT considers people as its major asset and were determined to break the vicious circle of “one system – one person – forever”.

“What we did from an organizational point of view was to unify all geographically distributed developers from 4 different companies into the several virtual groups in each department,” Arshinov explains. “Each group has a Team Leader role, who assigns tasks to the group members and controls the execution of each individual task.”

Development at SIJ is now organised according to an agile approach using scrum boards and Microsoft Project Server to control all the time sheets of the people involved in the projects, plus their schedules and budgets. SIJ uses Microsoft Azure DevOps Server for unified storage of inter-company source code and Change Request Scrum board monitoring and control. Process and technical solutions now allow SIJ to involve external software development partners into the development process while controlling their activities, deliverables and costs. Developers can now use the Azure DevOps Server with the scrum board and are now able to register change requests in their system by themselves, where they see the progress of all individual change requests coming through the process with the integration of the IT Director informing the exchange and updating the status of the task development. 

In October 2019 SIJ revamped and migrated its Corporate Business Intelligence system to a new MicroStategy platform. The project took six months and provided SIJ with an extensive corporate Business Intelligence system with more than 180 different dashboards covering production, finance, sales, procurement, HR, Legal and investment functional areas. The overwhelming majority of the data now uploads automatically and the business intelligence tool has created a unified reporting system across the group utilizing the same source of data in order to integrate it. “There was huge involvement of the business customers with Oracle BI and this year, we moved to this new platform,” Arshinov explains. “The front end of the system was changed (from Oracle BI) to MicroStrategy for usability and a unified interface. Now, SIJ has a system that looks the same no matter the device it’s accessed from. This project allows us to organize and develop the team that tests the trial usage and develops the processes of the PMO (Project Management Office) inside the IT function.”

The BI System contains the entire spectrum of corporate data and allows SIJ to move quickly and transparently when taking a management decision, while reducing the number of mistakes, misunderstandings and time-consuming meetings.

The next system to be unified across the group was the Salesforce CRM system, which is now fully integrated. Then, an Oracle supplier portal followed, which opened the possibility of organizing tenders, thus massively simplifying the purchasing process. Oracle Innovation Management is another successful implementation, which, although a relatively small project, has had a big influence on the business transformation and innovation through increased flexibility. “It is also used to motivate people to suggest improvements and new innovative ideas,” he says.

So, what have been the major successes, according to Arshinov, following the ongoing digital transformation at SIJ? “The main difference between now and then was that each individual company was living alone, and I see now that the IT function in this case is unifying the people and allowing them to speak in a single language. It doesn’t matter if it’s a steel center or a big plant,” he explains. Costs have been dramatically reduced too, outsourcing being a prime example. In 2016, SIJ was spending more than 70% annual budget for operational external services. For 2020, that part of budget reduced to 40%. Meanwhile, the capital investments part of the budget has grown from 4% in 2016 to 56% in 2020.

The implementation of a Supply Chain Planning system (from Quintiq) incorporating the Oracle Business Suite, has improved the delivery, safety and performance of SIJ’s plants. “We improved Delivery Performance OTIFF (on time and in full) of a stainless steel plant by 12.8% in six months,” he enthuses. “And we shortened the production cycle by 15,4% from ordering to shipping, which is a brilliant result within six months of going live.”

In SIJ Matal Ravne has replaced the melt shop technology system and entire plant manufacturing execution system to replace the obsolete legacy system – which had zero planning functionality – with PSI Metals. “First of all, we’re increasing the level of understanding and the knowledge of the internal IT team, while dramatically decreasing project cost by involving internal specialists into the supplier team. That allows us to save several hundred thousand Euros of project budget and it’s a win-win situation for the supplier as well. First of all, the supplier is receiving our team, which knows the production and the limitations and has extensive inside knowledge. At the end of the day, the commercial value, in this case, is the cheaper price. Cheaper than anybody else is able to receive.”

Another and no less important project for Sij Metal Ravne is the joint development work with Comtrade Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS). Laboratories in metallurgy companies are complicated and highly demanding environments with unique processes required for quality control of all products and this solution covers and improves core laboratory processes and will be highly integrated with the PSI manufacturing execution system from one side and Oracle ERP on the other.

Through this massive digital transformation, SIJ has also managed to increase quality control through sophisticated AI, which has massively impacted its operations. The acquisition of scrap metal, a major influence on SIJ’s bottom line, can now be influenced through advanced detection systems that can detect impurities, thus representing huge savings when it comes to procurement. “The conservative saving is €1.4m,” he says.

The digital transformation at SIJ is touching every aspect of the company’s growth and is certainly an ongoing journey rather than a destination. “We are not an IT company, that’s understood,” Arshinov says. “But we are supporting services inside the business, and of course our main concern will always be supporting the production of steel. But we’re not there yet.”