Resources giant BHP Billiton is playing a key role in the establishment of a supply chain portal for the global copper industry.
Encouraged by the successful implementation of its Minerals Connect portal, which was launched last year with the aim of giving its customers timely, online information about their shipments, vessels and invoices, BHP Billiton saw a similar need arising within the copper industry.
Cristian Martinez, BHP Billiton's e-marketing director, has been heading up the project - dubbed Cu-Net - since early 2000. At present, 10 of Chile's major copper producers, including BHP Billiton subsidiaries Escondida and Cerro Colorado, have added their names to the joint initiative.
"After initial discussions with other producers in Chile, BHP Billiton was suitably encouraged by the consensus generated," Martinez said, adding that the number of parties joining the venture accounted for around 40 to 50 per cent of the world's copper industry.
The portal will link both buyers and suppliers of copper; however, Martinez is hesitant to dub the project an e-marketplace, because it will not transact commercially or act as a price discovery mechanism.
"While not strictly an e-marketplace, Cu-Net will start out with broad industry participation and simple, first-stage goals designed to make current contract administration activities more efficient," Martinez said. This "practical approach" will help build a successful enterprise over time, he said.
Cu-Net will automate the contract administration process between buyer and seller, as well as capture logistics information and allow the secure and legally contestable transfer of commercial documents from one party to another, according to Martinez. It will also endeavour to streamline the relationship with government bodies that process Chile's copper exports. It is these areas that are expected to translate into savings, he said.
"The idea is to create a document transfer platform that will save costs by freeing up internal resources within each company, that is, more productive activities than tracking an invoice, or the exact whereabouts of a vessel while en route," he said. "Costs along the supply chain will be lower and efficiency will generally rise."
Martinez also notes the irony of the copper industry joining the portal game, with the industry effectively "cashing in" on its own resource by creating an electronic platform.
"So much of the Internet and electronic communications rely on the copper wires which carry the information. It's a practical demonstration of the major role copper plays in the technology revolution," he said.
Key copper companies are currently assessing the project work, and the go-ahead for Cu-Net is expected to be given by early September. According to Martinez, Cu-Net will become the first Web-enabled network serving the copper supply chain.
"This will be a significant achievement and, for the moment, it will be unique in the minerals industry," he said.