Alcan Inc. has an international footprint. The Canadian alumi-num giant has 54,000 employees in 42 countries. It has holdings in 15 smelters with 2.2 million tonnes of capacity, and produces sheet metal for canning, fabricated products for the automotive industry and specialty packaging for the food

and pharmaceutical industries.

With that volume of heavy product to move, streamlining logistics offers an opportunity to save a lot of money.

Through an series of projects culminating in a huge freight RFP, Alcan anticipates $16 million (US) in savings annually, mostly realized by the logistics and procurement functions.

“”They get the lion’s share of the credit,”” jokes Bo Foster, with an air of mock resentment.

Foster — responsible for Alcan’s U.S. applications and e-commerce programs — and his team developed a series of projects to provide the data underpinning the RFP and allow corporate applications to work externally with customers and vendors.

“”There’s a lot of money to be saved online,”” says Foster.

In essence, it’s a huge integration job.

Applications and data reside in a variety of platforms and environments, including mainframes and midrange systems. “”That’s what makes my job fun,”” Foster deadpans.

It’s rarely practical to simply replace the old iron.

“”You keep putting in legacy platforms and you never quite get rid of the mainframe, you never get rid of the old AS/400.””

There’s economics at play — not only is there a price tag on the new platforms, there’s a cost associated with shutting down the old ones.

Enter Web services, a component-based strategy to allow disparate applications to function together over a network.

Web services use protocols like extensible markup language (XML — a Web design language descended from HTML, but with better data exchange capabilities), simple object access protocol (SOAP, an XML-based messaging protocol) and universal description discovery and integration protocol (UDDI, a directory model for Web services) to bring applications together.

“”We’re building composite business processes by putting Web services on the front of (the legacy) applications,”” Foster says.

Information is passed from ordering systems to production, to logistics (and a mileage function plug-in from mapmaker Rand McNally & Co.), through accounts payable to the electronic funds transfer system.

Trucking companies can schedule their own pickups and track their invoices.

Customers are offered a variety of self-service products, including access to technical information and a report centre, which allows users to design reports and download them from the Web.

Online ordering is also being rolled out — the industrial products business unit should be online by next spring.

Some XML critics have said the lan-guage doesn’t represent enough knowledge about the meaning of the data being exchanged. Foster disagrees.

“”It’s a pretty heavy format,”” he says.

“”You get a pretty clear picture — on that a person can understand — of what’s in the transaction.””

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