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Implementing SAP S/4HANA during a pandemic

Dickinson + Associates' Brad Hiquet recounts a remote SAP S/4HANA implementation the company did on behalf of American Industrial Transport amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In our five-part series on SAP S/4HANA conversions, we've discussed the ins and outs of implementing SAP S/4HANA. In part one, we covered the basics of converting SAP ERP Central Component to S/4HANA. In part two and part three, we explored the brownfield approach to S/4HANA migrations. In part four, we examined the selective data transition approach. Here, we'll provide a real-world example of the greenfield approach, facilitated by Chicago-based IT consultancy Dickinson + Associates.

For American Industrial Transport Inc. (AITX), digital transformation was not just a strategic initiative or a technological necessity. It was more of a landscape-shifting business transformation that drove the change and corresponding move to SAP S/4HANA.

"We needed a strong and capable solution that could grow alongside us as our industry position evolved," said Subbu Subramanian, senior vice president, chief process officer and CIO of AITX, headquartered in Saint Charles, Mo. "The twist was that we wound up needing it during a global pandemic."

This is how AITX pulled off their digital transformation in an almost entirely remote fashion due to COVID-19.

More than just a name change

In 2019, AITX was simply known as American Railcar Industries. The company manufactured, leased and repaired railcars for companies in several industries, including energy, chemical, agriculture and minerals. In July of last year, however, they completed the sale of their manufacturing business to The Greenbrier Companies and rebranded as AITX.

"Our objective was to move from manufacturing to exclusively leasing and repair," Subramanian said. "With that, we needed a strong solution that would enable us to grow, facilitate improved analytical capabilities and fully integrate with our front-end applications. As it turned out, SAP did all of the things we wanted."

After deciding to adopt SAP S/4HANA, the next challenge was finding a system integrator (SI) to support the implementation, he said.

We had to go 100% remote on the project, and that's obviously not something any of us were used to or prepared for.
Subbu SubramanianSenior vice president, AITX

"We know what failure looks like when it comes to software implementation," Subramanian noted. "So, we were very sensitive about picking the right SI. We needed someone who could guide us and say, 'These are the right things to do for your business.' We needed someone with a strong skill set, the right approach and the right commitment in order to make us successful."

When AITX selected Dickinson + Associates (D+A) as its SI partner, no one expected what was to come next.

Adapting to the pandemic

When COVID-19 hit, everything about AITX's SAP S/4HANA implementation had to quickly change.

"D+A's consultants wound up only being on-site for one week," Subramanian said. "We had to go 100% remote on the project, and that's obviously not something any of us were used to or prepared for."

Morgan Fletcher, an account executive at Dickinson + Associates, said implementing SAP S/4HANA within the challenging conditions was a chance for the company to prove it could deliver, regardless of the circumstances.

"The entire experience definitely changed our perspective on adopting more remote projects," Fletcher said. "We also were able to really enhance the capabilities within their organization by utilizing the software and helping them through a lot of change. The future success of AITX will be reliant on the optimization that comes from that. And we see it growing and becoming even greater than it is today."

The SAP S/4HANA implementation project was completed in five months.

Looking ahead

As 2020 nears its close, Subramanian said he expects AITX's streamlined operating costs will enable the now-smaller company to easily keep pace with the challenges ahead. He also said the significantly improved capabilities in reporting and analytics should drive insight-driven decision-making.

"The shift sets the stage for us, no matter what comes next," he said. "We don't have to compromise on the things we want -- streamlined costs, better data and harmonized processes from beginning to end -- and because of that, we can innovate and grow with ease."

Next Steps

COVID-19 crisis causes remote finish for S/4HANA projects

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