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PERSPECTIVES


Q&A with Dr. Julia Oppermann on metals

The metals industry can benefit from embracing digital, diversity and the customer.
Dr. Julia Oppermann
Dr. Julia Oppermann
Managing Director, Resources
Accenture Consulting
LinkedIn

 

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You recently examined the performance of major steelmakers globally, looking specifically at the importance of an increased focus on the customer. Why should customer centricity matter to steel companies?
Historically, steel companies have reacted to downturns in market conditions with cost-cutting and operational excellence initiatives. These will likely continue to be important levers. However, steelmakers in mature markets simply cannot compete with low-cost offers from emerging economies, especially given current global overcapacity that sits mainly in China. This makes it more important to focus on the customer side of the business.

Emphasizing unique customer requirements uncovers new opportunities for steel companies to offer tailored, customer-specific services for a premium. It also provides the foundation for customer segmentation and requirement-based business rules, which can then serve as the basis for identifying improvement areas across the enterprise. Read our report, “Five customer-focused steps to increase profitability in the steel industry,” to learn more about how steelmakers can benefit from shifting their priority to the customer in addition to traditional cost cutting.

Digital is proving to be a disruptive force for most industries. How can companies in the metals industry benefit by embracing digital?
Focusing on the short term, there are three key areas where digitalization can lead to an advantage for metals companies:

  1. Worker safety: Although the lost time injury frequency rate in steel fell from approximately four percent to one percent in the last 10 years,1 there is still room for improvement. Digital can help by equipping workers and machinery with sensors and tracking to enable early warning in case of emergency.

  2. Proactive maintenance: Using sensors in steel plants and machinery amended by analytics models, the underlying root causes of outages can not only be predicted, but proactively avoided. One evolving example that applies beyond just the metals industry is the digitally-enabled avoidance of outages due to corrosion of pipes and other means.

  3. Analytics: Big data (e.g., production data, customer order patterns, inventory levels) combined with analytics helps metals companies generate insights at speed, as large volumes of data from fragmented sources can be supported by self-learning algorithms. For example, a steel provider could implement business rules derived from their own historical customer order patterns and profitability to improve their production plan, inventory levels or steel grades.

What drives your interest in the metals industry?
Before my current role in metals, I worked in our chemicals practice. I wanted to stay involved in the important “old economies” (as these industries are sometimes called) because of their profound impact in our lives. Chemicals are omnipresent in nutrition, care and clothing, as well as in many other industry sectors like automotive and construction. In metals the same applies. Take steel, for example. Millions of people rely on it every single day—in the cars they drive, the buildings they work in, the electronics they use and more.

Each chemical or metal input requires manifold technical and environmental properties. For metals, stability, weight and elasticity as well as carbon dioxide (CO2) efficiency are key metrics of “a single product” that is created and managed through a highly complex operating schedule. The combination of societal need, industry breadth and complexity are fascinating to me from both an academic and professional perspective.

Metals isn’t a traditional industry for women. Describe your view of diversity and your motivation.
I value a truly diversified team in terms of gender, ethnicity and cultural background. Scientific evidence on the advantages of diversity have been mentioned widely. Plus, many of our clients and Accenture itself are truly global companies. This means we must design our clients’ products and solutions to succeed in a diversified global market, which is easier to achieve with the involvement of diverse teams.

On a personal level, I believe it is most important to like what you do and have an intrinsic interest in the industries in which you work—I feel fortunate to have both. This allows me to advance in my career, even during challenging projects or while working to initiate change that complies with an industry-specific code of conduct.

What is one of your favorite passions outside of work?
Besides spending time with family and friends, I adore traveling, preferably in remote areas of the world. In the last few years, my love of travel has led me to explore the Andes in Peru and Colombia as well as the Amazon Jungle.

Footnote:

1 "Sustainable Steel: Policy and Indicators 2016,” World Steel Association, 2016, (accessed November 1, 2016).