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kloeckner.i: Digitalizing the steel and metals industry with Google Cloud

About kloeckner.i

kloeckner.i is the Berlin-based innovation hub of Klöckner & Co SE, one of the largest producer-independent distributors of steel and metal products in the world. Founded in 2014, kloeckner.i leverages its suite of digital tools and services to turn Klöckner & Co into one of the digital frontrunners in the steel and metals industry.

Industries: Manufacturing
Location: Germany

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kloeckner.i uses Google Kubernetes Engine to digitalize the steel and metals distribution chain with agile methods, automation, and improved collaboration.

Google Cloud results

  • Improves agility and creativity for developers with infrastructure-as-a-code methodologies using Google Kubernetes Engine
  • Reduces infrastructure costs compared with on-premises servers by leveraging on-demand consumption models
  • Delivers better, more customized customer service with automated processes

Deploys up to eight times a day, up from two-three times a week

The metal industry can trace its history almost as far back as the beginning of civilization. Historical periods spanning centuries are even defined by metals: the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Steel, an alloy of iron and carbon, wasn’t developed until the nineteenth century, but Germany’s Klöckner & Co SE was there almost from the start of its industrialization.

Founded in 1906, the group now has 140 locations across the world and more than 7,000 employees and continual innovation is what it credits for ensuring that it remains one of the leading distributors of steel and metals.

In 2014, the group embarked on an ambitious strategy of digitalizing its entire supply chain. The group established kloeckner.i, an innovation hub based in Berlin tasked with turning Klöckner & Co into a digital frontrunner in the steel and metals industry. “Our job is to build game-changing digital solutions to transform a very traditionally minded industry,” says Monica Garza, VP of Engineering at kloeckner.i. “The metals industry has lots of disconnected, often manual, processes. For example, people were still using fax machines to connect with customers when we started! We’re trying to bring all those processes together with digital solutions and move towards a zero-touch way of working.”

Despite its long history, kloeckner.i was designed to have a startup mentality. It would create a more customer-focused, agile approach to shake up an industry entrenched in costly and time-consuming out-of-date processes and Google Cloud was to have an instrumental role in this.

Finding the right foundation

To make Klöckner & Co more flexible and customer-centric, kloeckner.i hired a range of experts in technology, data analytics, UX design, and online marketing to work together in cross-functional teams, examining the issues with steel and metals distribution from a range of viewpoints.

But as the company moved on to bigger projects, it quickly became apparent that real, lasting change wouldn’t come about with external contractors. kloeckner.i needed to build out its own team of software developers and a brand new technology platform to go with it.

“As we started to grow our digital solutions portfolio, we really needed a new business-driven approach. We were looking for a technological platform centred around agility, scalability, and collaboration. With Google Cloud, we found it.”

Monica Garza, VP of Engineering, kloeckner.i

An evolving approach

By early 2016, the innovation hub was growing fast and its scope widened. kloeckner.i saw that the scale of its plans went beyond its existing on-premises infrastructure which was too expensive and cumbersome for its ambitions.

Only a cloud-based infrastructure could deliver the data-driven, automated future that the company planned on building. It needed a toolbox of cloud solutions that would be as powerful and versatile as steel itself. “As we started to grow our digital solutions portfolio, we really needed a new business-driven approach,” says Garza. “We were looking for a technological platform centred around agility, scalability, and collaboration. With Google Cloud, we found it.” kloeckner.i trialled all the leading cloud providers, but it found Google Cloud to be the best fit for all its requirements.

“The high standards of documentation for Google Cloud made it easy for us to pick up,” says Matthias Berkenkamp, DevOps Team Lead at kloeckner.i. “We were impressed with the high standards of the tooling around automation as well.”

“With Google Kubernetes Engine, we don’t have to worry about setup. We tried hosting Kubernetes clusters ourselves for a couple of days and nobody wanted to do that. With managed services, you just have to click a button and the configured node pools come up instantly. It works really nicely.”

Matthias Berkenkamp, DevOps Team Lead, kloeckner.i

A rapid transfer

After deciding on Google Cloud, kloeckner.i used a lift and shift approach to transfer its instances to Compute Engine virtual machines in less than two months. With these, the company could build up its software development team without having to worry about buying new hardware or maintaining servers.

Over time, as the developers’ capabilities grew, the company evolved to a more services-based approach to its work. “We had started to move away from virtual machines and use containers and small services before with some third-party tools, but by 2018 we were ready to scale up and move to a more comprehensive solution,” says Berkenkamp. kloeckner.i redesigned its IT infrastructure with Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE), a fully managed container-based orchestration platform.

“With Google Kubernetes Engine, we don’t have to worry about setup. We tried hosting Kubernetes clusters ourselves for a couple of days and nobody wanted to do that,” says Berkenkamp. “With managed services, you just have to click a button and the configured node pools come up instantly. It works really nicely.”

While GKE is a fully managed service, it also provides kloeckner.i with the flexibility to integrate its own custom-built solutions with the platform, allowing developers to work in exactly the way they want. For its data handling, the company has built its own open source database operator to create, manage, and close out Cloud SQL databases with ease. Meanwhile, integrating its own tools with Cloud Monitoring means that kloeckner.i can take advantage of the increased automation that comes with GKE while gaining increased visibility into its processes.

“Google Cloud has given us the agility and flexibility to adapt to our needs as they change. That means we haven’t only improved our own processes, we’ve been able to deliver better products and a much richer customer experience.”

Monica Garza, VP of Engineering, kloeckner.i

Innovation, automation, and better customer relations

Google Cloud has enabled kloeckner.i to grow an in-house team of developers and technology experts and build a firm foundation for encouraging innovation across the entire Klöckner & Co group. With automation of the entire supply chain as its main goal, kloeckner.i uses GKE to automate as much as possible at its very foundation. The team has adopted infrastructure-as-a-code methodologies that leave developers free to tackle the problems in front of them instead of worrying about configuring servers or maintenance, dramatically affecting the speed at which they work. With the on-premises infrastructure, developers used to ship updates two to three times a week on average. Now, they regularly ship up to eight times a day.

Developers are not only working faster, they are also working more creatively with more freedom. The ability to quickly spin up a cluster and roll back with a single click means that developers are not afraid to test new solutions. “We’re so much more agile now,” explains Berkenkamp. “The developers feel very safe with our setup. Our processes are automated as much as possible so they can very quickly spin up an environment, test it, and roll back with a click if they need to. It means we can move on from any mistakes without any lasting consequences and find the right solutions that much faster.”

Working with Google Cloud also means that kloeckner.i has made considerable savings on infrastructure costs compared to a more traditional on-premises approach. When instances are no longer needed in the evenings or at the weekend, developers can shut them down, ensuring that they are only paying for what they are using and eliminating wasted hardware costs.

With its emphasis on ease and speed, kloeckner.i has had a large impact on the Klöckner group and its customers. Manual processes and cumbersome technology, like faxes, have been replaced with automated processes that ensure customers get the attention they need with the same level of individualized care.

Just as steel has a multitude of uses, kloeckner.i has found that Google Cloud has too. “Google Cloud has given us the agility and flexibility to adapt to our needs as they change,” says Garza. “That means we haven’t only improved our own processes, we’ve been able to deliver better products and a much richer customer experience.”

While Klöckner & Co grows from strength to strength, kloeckner.i constantly looks for new ways to improve so that the company continues to be at the forefront of innovation in the steel and metal industry. It is currently looking at the Google Cloud portfolio of AI solutions to build on the work it has already done to modernize the group’s approach. “Google Cloud has been an important strategic partner for our core development,” says Garza. “We look forward to continuing that relationship as we explore its AI and machine learning tools for an even better innovation cycle.”

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About kloeckner.i

kloeckner.i is the Berlin-based innovation hub of Klöckner & Co SE, one of the largest producer-independent distributors of steel and metal products in the world. Founded in 2014, kloeckner.i leverages its suite of digital tools and services to turn Klöckner & Co into one of the digital frontrunners in the steel and metals industry.

Industries: Manufacturing
Location: Germany