Aluminium man

Faced with a growing volume of data from his aluminium smelter and calls from the business for better analysis tools, Ahmed Al Mulla and his team took it upon themselves to build a better mousetrap. One ACN award later, they reveal the secret behind their successful implementation of business intelligence

Tags: Dubai Aluminium CompanyUnited Arab Emirates
  • E-Mail
Aluminium man AL MULLA: I would definitely say that there is much faster decision making – with information, there is now more pull rather than push.
More pics ›
By  Imthishan Giado Published  March 7, 2009 Arabian Computer News Logo

As the region reluctantly marches into uncertain times, it's increasingly important for the local IT community to be able to look up to symbols of success, individuals and organisations who have proven that it's still possible to innovate and complete large-scale projects on-time, on-budget and most importantly - in line with the business needs.

Unfortunately, the very nature of IT can sometimes mean that it is difficult for departments to receive the recognition they deserve.

It can be even more difficult when one considers large sprawling organisations with a multitude of ongoing developments - in the worse case scenarios, IT function and its inherent support become taken for granted.

But happily, this is not the case with Dubai Aluminium (Dubal) and its vice president of IT, Ahmed Al Mulla, who picked up his second consecutive ACN trophy for best manufacturing and construction implementation at last year's event.

The winning project was for his new Smelter Analytics application, which applies business intelligence (BI) to the task of analysing data to discern production trends and possible inefficiencies or improvements.

Al Mulla explains the structure of the IT function at Dubai Aluminium: "IT plays two roles here. It covers the enterprise business - for which we have implemented SAP about a year and a half ago.  In addition, it looks after the production systems which we have been developing over the years.

"We have implemented the core SAP modules covering sales and marketing, finance, procurement, HR and so on; in addition to modules relevant to our industry such as quality management. It's been quite a successful story as well. We even won some awards for that implementation. We call all these the business aspects of IT. On the production systems side, we actually do all levels from process control to reporting and so on. Here we have produced the Pot control modules and the reduction plant monitoring system analytics," he continues.

At present, Dubal counts more than 3,800 full-time employees, with the number of IT users being close to 3000.

Al Mulla goes into further detail: "The core users are a bit less than that, of course - the core production users are 500. We also have a power and desalination plant as well. In early October 2008, we went live with a new power management system as well.

"The IT team is about 79 to 80 full time people. It varies - when you have projects, it can increase. It's structured into three main sections. The first section is the Enterprise Applications and Systems which looks after the business aspects and the infrastructure. The other side is the production, which Ibrahim Alhashmi, our manager for IT production systems and expansion projects looks after. We also have a third section, which is IT governance and ensures there is performance management, quality assurance, and that the PMO office is controlled well," he adds.

With the growth in business came an accompanying growth in the volume of data produced. Al Mulla explains that Dubal developed a number of reporting modules to produce and process this data several years ago. While the modules were rich in functionality, he found himself wanting more.

"With this rich data we realised the need for drill down and analysis - that's where we have come with the analytics system. If you look today at the BI suites that are there, they are not totally mature. I know Cognos, Business Objects and others are there but we wanted something with a limited scope. That means production and very specifically, aluminium. We're more or less looking for a tool that's in-line with our infrastructure," he states.

As Dubal has a number of Oracle systems in place already, Al Mulla looked at the existing suite of BI tools available and after close examination, deemed them sufficiently up to the task. The integration work was outsourced to a third party, while the business rules and knowledge was provided by Dubal's IT team.

Normally, one would expect significant customisation when using an off-the-shelf tool, but Al Mulla says this was not necessarily the case.

"It was more about defining the look and feel, the rules - it's content that you need to do. Today, if we talk about a big BI suite, we are talking about one which looks at performance management, dashboards from one side, analytical capabilities and so on. We wanted only one part of it - we limited the scope," he says.

Alhashmi chimes in:" I will second what Ahmed is saying regarding one of the success factors, which is focussing on a specific area and not deviating from that. Production is a core business and that's one of the things that we focused on."

Al Mulla reveals who were the main drivers behind the project: "The drive came from the business side, definitely, but IT played a major role in terms of really facilitating and listening to the customer. At the end, it is the business people who are going to use it and determine its success. They had a proactive approach to things, gave us people almost on a full-time basis to look what is required. Usually business people don't want to release people - but for this project, we had people's time and there was ownership coming from the business."

"There was definitely a drive from the business saying that we have a very good robust transactional system with a long history of 12 years of usage. But they were yearning for more in terms of analysis, being able to drill down, graphical interfaces and that sort of thing," clarifies Alhashmi.

Al Mulla is not keen to disclose the cost of the new system, but then, he has a very good reason: Dubal has joined the ranks of technology vendors.

"We are actually a vendor of the system now in the sense that we sell technology. We make units that control the way aluminium is made and on top of this unit, there is some software that captures data. All this is bundled within a package," he says.

Another factor concerning Al Mulla's reluctance to discuss costs is the fact that since Dubal already had a number of Oracle systems in place, the associated incremental cost of installing Smelter Analytics was not as high as one would expect - and quoting a low figure might give other potential buyers the notion that this is a relatively cheap system to install.

The other aspect of any implementation, of course, is ROI - and here Al Mulla reveals his reservations about the very concept: "We have not put any such things in place in terms of ROI for a reason. First of all, I don't believe in ROI directly. I believe in ROI as a concept but you should measure it as a value - a lot of which is driven by the transparency and speed of access you get to information. It's a lot of intangible things.

"When you talk of ROI, you're talking mostly about tangible figures. So we don't do this except for something that's straightforward. For example, if I automate a process, it's clearly visible how much time you can save or how much output or productivity you get. But when it comes to transparency and so on, I think we will be fooling ourselves to say anything. Even with the SAP project, we haven't done an ROI exercise before implementation. We did what we describe as a business benefit realisation, where we measure how it was before and afterwards," he continues.

"On the Analytics project, we will start sometime probably this year to see what benefits we have realised. But as a number, we don't have one. It is, I think, difficult. A lot of vendors come to companies and claim that they can help you do many things, even for ERP. The reality is that it is how much you use it. The system is there - are the people using it or not using it? That's something that we can probably measure," Al Mulla posits.

With any system of this nature, it's always wise to invest in performing a solid proof of concept. Dubai is no different and Al Mulla ensured that there was sufficient involvement not from the production side, but also business stakeholders and the CEO.

The real value of a proof of concept, says Alhashimi, is being able to demonstrate how it works: "On the BI side of it, it is a difficult thing to grab, from even a business point of view of what is going to be the end-product. What we have done is small exercises just to show the end-user what they're going to get, based on relevant data, not simulated ones. That clarified and solidified the view in the end-users mind that they know what they are going to get more or less."

Planning for Smelter Analytics began in January 2007, with the proof of concept performed in April and the final demonstration in September. The final system went live in January 2008 -on schedule, a fact which does not surprise Al Mulla.

"There is a reason why we were on time," he says. "We have a project management office (PMO) function that makes sure that things are happening on time. This is a typical problem in IT - a lot of projects have got delayed. But we have really overcome it. Now we have a project completion ratio of over 95% within IT - and that hasn't come about by luck."

"The centralised PMO can check the status of every single project formally and that information can be reported - even to the CEO - on a monthly basis. The project leader reports on a daily basis, of course. That helped the project leaders and managers to deliver things on time - the purpose is to support, not to police," he states.

Senior project leader Neeraj Sharma says four people worked full time on the project, with the aid of two people from the business side and two consultants who were always onsite. As he recalls, most end-users were satisfied with the system, although some requested more functionality.

"All the stakeholders whom we got involved had some benefit from the system. For example, we told Safety: ‘You send weekly and monthly reports - you can stop sending it if you have it in one central place.' That made it very easy for us to get a buy-in from there," he says.

"We did address specific things such as KPI reporting for the potline side of it. It was basically having potline as one of the major customers who see different areas like safety, environment, financial impact as well as production figures - so keeping this kind of a domain is what we were looking at," adds Sharma.

Al Mulla says that users are now clamouring for the system: "We expanded to one more area. It was initially only the reduction plant and then we expanded to the carbon plant. Now other areas are requesting for this system. They are very happy with the concept - of course, with such a thing you'll always have to have a continuous improvement."

But as every IT manager knows, no implementation is completely without hiccups. Sharma recollects one incident he resolved during the implementation: "If you look at things from the potline side and the KPIs that they are interested in - they look at precision values. There are things that they would like to have a very precise value, not rounded off values. At the end, the tool would round everything up to a two decimal value and show you, which they were not very happy with. "We sat with the business and decided that we should increase the multiplier to compensate.

This had more to do with the way the user wanted to see it. The tool had a limitation which we had to overcome," he states.

The most important feature of the system, sums up Al Mulla, is that Dubal has achieved significantly better transparency through the use of Smelter Analytics:

"I would definitely say that there is much faster decision making. There is now more of a pull rather than a push with regards to information. This is perhaps an exercise to see really the big change that has happened - this is what you really gain," he concludes.

Five hot facts about Dubai Aluminium

• It is one the largest single site aluminium smelters in the world, and the seventh largest hot metal producer.

• It is one of the largest non-oil contributors to the economy of the emirate of Dubai.

• The firm produced 136,000 tonnes of aluminium per annum through three potlines in 1979. Today, it has expanded to eight Potlines with the capacity to produce more than 950,000 tonnes of hot metal aluminium.

• Smelter Analytics was rolled out to 50 key business users within 10 months of the implementation start date.

• The firm's data repository dates back nearly 30 years.

2919 days ago

Dear Mr. Ahmed,

Interesting to read your succesfull IT Implementation at Dubal. May I know what are the decision processes that you applied/considered to invest in IT at Dubal?.

Thank you very much.

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code