Sibelco Keeps the Core Clean as they Roll Out SAP S/4HANA Globally

Industrial landscape of a silica sand open pit mine

Tens of thousands of organizations are looking to SAP S/4HANA as a key driver in their new age of digital transformation, with 8,700 SAP customers already live and reporting positive results in productivity and ROI. However, a 2021 SAPinsider survey reported that COVID-19 was the number one factor impacting respondents’ future plans for the cloud-based ERP system.

COVID shifted priorities and resources, slowing intensive projects such as core system migrations as businesses adapted to remote work and new customer and employee needs. To address these challenges, industrial mining company Sibelco looked to low-code as a resource-efficient way to balance the demand between modernizing legacy systems, migrating to new ones, and delivering new business solutions.

At the SAP SAPPHIRE NOW 2021 conference, Solution Architect for Sibelco, Guido Zeelen, shares how adopting a low-code platform and way of working was integral to the organization’s rollout of S/4HANA and overall digitalization efforts.


Meeting Modern Solution Demand

Founded in 1872, Sibelco has over 5,000 global employees and specializes in the mining and distribution of materials such as quartz, clay, and silica. Put in perspective – these materials touch many everyday products you encounter. “Take your car, for example,” Zeelen said, “it will contain approximately 100 kilograms of minerals, which are used in your windshield, brake pads, and the flame retardant in your dashboard.”

In 2018, Sibelco selected S/4HANA as their digital core as it would be the best fit to meet their global system requirements. As their workforce went remote in early 2019 and development teams were strapped with new requests, Sibelco reexamined their approach to enterprise solution delivery.

“Sibelco prefers to buy applications off the shelf rather than to build, but as you can imagine, there will always be situations where standard solutions don’t fit, don’t exist, or have too many features which we don’t actually require,” said Zeelen. “In the past when we’ve encountered unique requirements or applications which fit a temporary need, we’ll build custom applications with traditional coding methods like .NET.”

The Sibelco IT team was under pressure developing with traditional programming languages – lengthy delivery timelines, strained relationships with the business due to missed requirements, and a high cost of ownership. A committee of decision makers identified low-code as having the potential to make better use of development resources and decided to put a handful of leading platforms to the test.

Low-Code Starts on a High Note

In order to prove out the possibilities of low-code and gain buy-in across the organization, Sibelco challenged six low-code vendors to a 48-hour hackathon assignment: rebuilding part of a legacy Lotus Notes capital expenditure (CapEx) approval application.

For Zeelen, an architect with a traditional coding background, the concept of low-code seemed a bit far-fetched. “In the beginning I was very skeptical, and I thought how on earth can you build mission-critical applications without proper coding?” he recounted. “But to be honest, my mind has really changed now.”

“We made sure that nobody did any preparations in advance,” said Zeelen. “Plus, they had to explain the architecture, how they approached the project, and the TCO (total cost of ownership) considerations. We were very impressed with the application built by a Belgian partner, Mendify, who used Mendix as their rapid application development platform.”

Zeelen acknowledges that choosing a first project – one which is moderately complex but high visibility and high value – was important to securing early buy-in. The new CapEx application was “not a simple app,” and had to manage mailing approvals across various user groups. “In 2018 we selected Mendix, and our first project was to finish the application which was addressed during the hackathon, and the business really loved it. It set the tone for a positive low-code journey,” he said.

New Ways of Working

After selecting Mendix to improve solution delivery as they simultaneously embarked on their S/4HANA journey, the Sibelco IT team realized that a new platform was just one component of reaching their digitalization goals – the development processes, people, and portfolio of applications were just as critical.

Enabling the App Factory

Before 2018, Sibelco relied on traditional coding platforms and methodologies, working in a Waterfall capacity. “We realized that if you want to start building more applications at scale, we had to make some changes within the organization and the teams, and also in the processes. We looked to new ways of working – such as Agile and a DevOps capability – which are really engrained in the Mendix low-code platform,” said Zeelen. “We founded a Competent Center of Application Development, and in 2018 that’s when we focused mainly on structuring ourselves.”

Project Identification

“2019 was when we started to build apps on a larger scale,” Zeelen continued. Growing the scope and complexity of projects allowed Sibelco to start tackling more challenging projects in the IT landscape. “We had legacy applications which we rebuilt in Mendix to make them better and more maintainable, and on the other end we were already building new apps to meet new business requirements which had been in our backlog for quite some time.” SAP S/4HANA went live in 2020, at which point Sibelco began building their first extensions on top of SAP, primarily for mobile.

Some of Zeelen’s favorite low-code applications include:

  • A workorder execution solution, part of a larger maintenance suite, which offers a centralized digital hub for maintenance workflows. This is Sibelco’s first native mobile application and was built as an extension on top of S/4HANA.
  • A production application used in operations to measure the efficiency of Sibelco’s equipment, integrated with both their MES (manufacturing execution system) and S/4HANA.
  • A pricing application, addressing the complex process of annually updating prices within various Sibelco systems.

Today, Sibelco’s low-code portfolio includes 20 applications touching every area of the business including customer service, finance, procurement, operations, and maintenance.

Tapping New Contributors

Zeelen credits the newfound collaboration between IT and businesspeople as critical in their ability to scale. “You need to have the right team and the right people on board. It is very important to have early collaboration with the right experts within the business so that it is guaranteed that you will build an app right the first time,” he said. “We have a great combination of people – within IT, a business partner, a product owner, and a partner like Mendify – to deliver successfully.”

One evolution of that collaboration includes further involving business stakeholders in building apps themselves. “In 2021 we started exploring citizen development – enabling our engineers within the business to build their own applications and solve their own problems with the guidelines, governance, and control of IT,” added Zeelen.

“You might think that would lead to chaos, but we see the opposite because IT owns the platform. We see everything that happens on the platform, and if we provide the right guardrails, building blocks, and templates, we can make sure all the apps are built correctly and consistently. There isn’t any deployment without our approval, so we have full control, but we still enable the engineers to build on their own, and that is where we want to continue in the future.”

A Perfect Partnership for IT Standardization

Sibelco sees the close partnership between SAP and Mendix as integral to their future-ready IT vision: one that is standardized, but flexible and adaptable.

“On the more technical side, Mendix offers quite a few modules and tools to integrate with SAP very easily using the SAP OData Connector, SAP BAPI Connector, and the SAP Data Model Creator. There are a lot of tools already available within the Mendix Marketplace which you can easily embed in your solution,” said Zeelen. “And on the deployment side it’s one-click deployment, so if you run your application on the SAP BTP platform, it’s just a matter of creating a package and clicking a single button – seamlessly integrated.”

“Now, from a business perspective, Mendix helped us to standardize the non-standard part of our business. S/4HANA is standardizing the majority of our business processes, and the bits and pieces that don’t fit into that can be standardized using low-code, which is really powerful,” he continued.

The team’s ability to not only say yes to new requests from the business, but to say yes and possibly improve upon them, has created a culture of collaboration where experts from both teams are eager to work towards a common goal, together. “As I said in the beginning, I was very skeptical, but now I am a number one believer when I see what we have achieved in the last few years and the number of applications we developed,” he added.

Making the journey from a traditional waterfall development group to an agile, low-code and SAP-empowered one has set Sibelco up for future success. In just four years, Sibelco has delivered 20 low-code applications and enabled their team to transition to SAP S/4HANA in 19 countries (out of 28 total).

Zeelen offered some final advice for organizations on a similar digitalization journey: “Think about your IT landscape and where you can standardize vs. where you need to customize and extend. Is there a way to do it better, faster, or more collaboratively? Don’t be afraid to radically simplify things. People might think it was crazy to implement S/4HANA and low-code at the same time, but in fact, low-code helped us to make our SAP implementations more successful.”