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Case study: Chemical company offers online ordering on the quick

Faced with a pressing need to offer online ordering, Lancaster Synthesis turned to its corporate parent's SAP system.

When company executives at Lancashire, England-based chemical manufacturer Lancaster Synthesis were told by a number of their customers to offer online ordering of the company's specialty research chemicals or risk losing their business, the group knew something had to be done quickly.

Facing the loss of a large chunk of market share to its competitors, the company set out to quickly upgrade its Web site. Improvements would include online ordering of its nearly 14,000 products with real-time stock availability in Europe and North America.

Lancaster, part of the Swiss-based chemical giant Clariant, began the Web site upgrade by first connecting the site to Clariant's proprietary, core SAP system,WINS SAP. The new Web site also included a connection with JChem, a Java-based chemical information system for complex chemical searches. The connection between WINS SAP and JChem allows users to perform database searches on JChem while linking to Lancaster's stock availability.

"One of the key elements is availability real-time from the SAP systems," said Ian Nelson, business process manager at Lancaster. "Obviously, it speeds the whole process up because the order goes right into the SAP chain."

Clariant uses SAP 4.6B on an Oracle database as the basis of its global WINS system, which is configured to connect all of the more than 140 companies within the Clariant group. As part of Clariant, Lancaster uses the WINS system, which is provided through a wide area network originating at Clariant's corporate center in Langenthal, Switzerland.

Lancaster uses a full set of modules in the SAP enterprise resource planning software. In addition, the company has access to Clariant SAP Business Warehouse.

The company has distribution centers established in the U.K., the U.S., Germany and France, and works with 20 distributors around the world. It also offers chemicals for research to customers in Russia and its Asian network, which includes distributors in India, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan.

Lancaster's annual revenue is about $40 million. It cost about $400,000 to bring the system online, Nelson said.

During the implementation process, Nelson said the most challenging aspect was the stock availability-checking function, since it was difficult to build checks into the systems to keep stock availability information from competitors.

"There are various algorithms to work through to say with certainty that, yes, we have the stock available, and to integrate that with the SAP system was non-standard," Nelson said.

Clariant's unique WINS SAP system was designed to separate its heavily regulated business transactions in Europe and North America. Hoping to work quickly but minimize costs, Lancaster relied on a third-party vendor, German software group Intershop, which used its software to install and implement the system.

"Because we're not running standard SAP, then the standard Intershop cartridges required modification," Nelson said. "It wasn't a glitch, but it proved tricky for Intershop to do."

The company started initial planning of its upgrade last summer. It signed contracts with Intershop in September 2002.

The new online function passed the testing phase at the end of February and went live in April to select customers in Europe. The company plans to announce availability to select companies in the U.S. on Sept. 9, at the American Chemical Show in New York, Nelson said.

Clariant's enterprise resource planning system, WINS SAP, is uniform throughout most of the group companies that comprise Clairiant. SAP support has been excellent, although it is mainly provided indirectly by a Clariant central support unit in Germany, Nelson said.

For select customers using the new site, orders can be placed and their status checked instantaneously online. Product information such as technical data sheets, material safety data sheets and certificates of analysis can also be downloaded.

Essential information, such as data about when ordered merchandise has been produced or shipped, is available beyond normal business hours.

Specially requested data such as statistical evaluations of purchase histories is instantly available. Clariant publications and product brochures are also accessible through a special online database.

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