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What You Can Learn From Your Service Techs

Friday, September 14th, 2012

“I think every owner should spend a day with the mechanics.” This was the reaction of Jeff Schmeck, director of a Texas supply chain company after he served as “Mechanic for a Day” alongside his company’s service technicians. Schmeck relates that he initially did the event to encourage 100% participation in his company’s United Way drive. But what he got out of it was an appreciation for the demands his technicians face and insights into how his company could improve its processes and help the technicians serve customers better.

Schmeck shares what he learned in Welding & Gases Today’s online-exclusive article, “Do You Know What Your Employees Need?

For me, Schmeck’s experience brought to mind the CBS show Undercover Boss, where company leaders go in disguise to learn more about their companies. Curious to see if a boss had ever posed as a service tech trainee, I ran a search and came across an episode where DirecTV CEO Michael White did just that. I’ve included a video of the segment below.

A few things struck me about White’s service tech stint. Like the technicians distributors nominated for GAWDA Service Technician Honor Roll, the technician in this episode (Phil) stopped at nothing to make sure the customer was satisfied. Schmeck, in his article, was likewise impressed with just how hard working his mechanics were.

White also learned the sometimes unfortunate answer to Schmeck’s question, “Have I assessed what resources my mechanics require to do their jobs?” Phil revealed that he had to provide his own GPS; and that the equipment stocked on technicians’ trucks was not always adequate.

White was apparently impressed and inspired by his time with service tech Phil. In an interview with BNET after the episode aired, White announced that the company would institute a Technician Appreciation Day as a result of his experience. I guess he had the same reaction we had after talking with GAWDA’s amazing service techs, one of the reasons we implemented Service Technicians Month as a way to recognize the industry’s oft-unheralded technicians.

Phil’s story is a perfect example of a technician going beyond the call of duty. He could have simply told the customer, “Too bad—I don’t have the equipment I need.” Instead he called around to find the equipment and make sure the problem was fixed before he left. Although it was a simple act, Phil’s great service turns what could have been a disaster into a positive experience, possibly saving the company a lost customer.  It’s this kind of story that we’re looking for in our Customer Service Technician Contest. If Phil was a GAWDA member, I know I’d vote for him.

Would you consider working as a technician for a day as Schmeck recommends? If you do, I’d love to hear about it.

As promised, here is the Undercover Boss video. White’s stint as a technician begins around the 5:47 mark.

Click here to fast forward to the segment being discussed (video will open in a new window).

How The Helium Shortage Impacts Football Season

Friday, September 7th, 2012

The past week has been a welcome return to football season for fans everywhere. And that means a return to carbon-dioxide filled beverages, welded seats and a few helium-filled balloons. But for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the reunion with helium balloons would be its last for a while.

Going back to the 1940s, Huskers fans have upheld a tradition of releasing red, helium-filled balloons after the team’s first touchdown of every home game. In light of the current helium shortage, this 70-year-old tradition is in jeopardy. Last Saturday, balloons were filled for the school’s season opener for one final balloon release. But instead of the usual 5,000 balloons, only about half of that was filled. The balloon release is officially “on hiatus” for an indefinite period, leaving the school in search of a new tradition. (Got any gas-filled suggestions?)

It seems that helium and football go hand-in-hand at the University of Nebraska. I came across a video on the university’s YouTube channel in a series called “Football Physics.” The video features Professor Tim Gay, who brings science to the football field to see whether a helium-filled football could give a kicker any advantage. Want to find out the answer? The video is below.

The Discovery Channel’s MythBusters did a more comprehensive test of the same question in one episode, and actually predicted that the lighter, helium-filled ball would travel farther. To their surprise, they found that a heavier ball has greater force, and actually flies through the air farther. If footballs were light enough to float, we might have a different outcome.

It should be noted that UNL’s video shows the unsafe practice of inhaling helium—and, as GAWDA distributors can tell you, the dangers associated with helium are anything but a myth.

Even with the Huskers’ storied tradition coming to an end, there are many storylines in the world of football and gases and welding that will live on. What happens when a gases and welding distributor gets together with a football superstar? Read the conversation between South Jersey Welding Supply’s Bob Thornton and Super Bowl champ Joe Theismann here.

What’s So Green About Gases And Welding [Video]

Friday, July 20th, 2012

Recently in LinkedIn Answers, I came across an interesting question: Is it always best to buy, sell and promote environmentally friendly products? During a conversation last week, I asked a distributor what he thought about this question. He expressed that being “green” was important to him in his company (recycling, etc), but that it was not something customers had ever expressed as a real priority.

As a business, it makes the most sense to sell what the customer wants, so the answer to the original question is that it’s not appropriate for everyone. But while some often think of the gases and welding industry as very “industrial,” in reality it’s a very green industry, and it’s become so without really trying. Take hydrogen fuel for example. Or wind turbines, which take a massive amount of welding. Even a core group of suppliers is focused on improving air quality through fume removal systems.

But long before the push for environmentally friendly energy sources, distributors were helping their customers recycle. Cutting equipment—be it oxyfuel cutting, plasma cutting, propylene, chemtane, you name it—is another important group of product supplied by GAWDA distributors. These powerful tools help fabricators, artists and other metalworkers break down scrap metal and recycle it for new purposes.

Here’s a video of an artist cleaning up scrap metal sitting at the bottom of a body of water and turning it into a great piece of art. It doesn’t get much greener than this:

Service And Safety On Memorial Day

Friday, May 25th, 2012

If there’s one thing the gases and welding distributors in GAWDA are known for, it’s service. So it’s no surprise that many men and women who work at GAWDA companies have also given their service to our country in the military. Memorial Day is a time to remember those who have died in service of our country, and a time to thank those who have pledged their service.

In addition to the many veterans who have served, many distributors employ members of the Reserve and the National Guard. Welding & Gases Today recently went inside the service of Guard and the Reserve members at Naval Station Norfolk. Machinery & Welder Corporation President Joe Campbell, a veteran himself, joined the Wisconsin Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve in their three-day Boss Lift event.

This great program familiarizes employers with the work their citizen soldiers do when called for military duty. Says Campbell, “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and made me very,

very proud.” It’s a great story, so be sure to check it out.

I want to take this opportunity to personally thank those who have served. It takes a lot of courage and discipline, traits that any GAWDA member would be happy to have in an employee. I’ve created a discussion on LinkedIn to personally thank GAWDA’s service men and women, so if you have served or know someone who has, please leave a comment in the group.

Finally, with the long Memorial Day weekend and what many consider to be the start of summer, there will no doubt be a lot of grilling done this weekend. I’ve shared this before, but it’s a great video from GAWDA member nexAir, and it’s always worth a look. In this video, nexAir’s Patrick Galphin talks about propane safety.

While LP gas perhaps isn’t a core product of the average gases and welding equipment distributor, there are quite a few GAWDA members who do specialize in propane. Whether it’s home heating or home grilling, safety is always important. What better way to spread this message than through a video.

Have a safe and happy Memorial Day weekend.

Argon, Automation And The National Anthem

Friday, March 30th, 2012
The Star-Spangled Banner

The Star-Spangled Banner

The Spring Management Conference is less than a month away now. If you’re heading to Baltimore for the SMC, you may also want to take time to visit the Maryland Historical Society Museum, where you will find the Star-Spangled Banner in its original form. From the MDHS website:

Currently on view is The Star-Spangled Banner. A Patriotic Song. Published by Carr Music Store in Baltimore in 1814, it is one of the few remaining copies of the 1st edition of the poem set to music we know as our national anthem.

Not only is the Star-Spangled Banner an important part of our country’s history, but the exhibit itself is an illustration of the wonders of the gas industry. That’s because the nearly 200-year-old manuscript is preserved with high purity argon gas.

Of course, the Star-Spangled Banner isn’t the only thing preserved with argon. The inert gas is commonly used in wine preservation, and is even used for preserving other countries’ precious artifacts. Ever wonder what goes into preserving a document in argon? In the video below, the National Archives shows how it keeps a 715-year-old document intact. The precise engineering that goes into preserving the Magna Carta is incredible.

The video also offers a look into the automated machining equipment used to make the case itself. Typically, when it comes to automation, I think of manufacturers that are looking to increase productivity on large runs. This video, however, shows a very different need for automation—precision. Document encasement, far from being a mass production, allows very little room for error. Now that’s a niche market.

A Second Helping Of Helium, Plus Dessert

Friday, February 17th, 2012

Helium is on everyone’s minds right now. As mentioned in my last blog post, a flurry of media attention has emerged on the helium shortage lately. It’s not just media hype or the balloon retailers who are talking about it. As I learned via Twitter, helium has been a big topic of discussion at the most recent Independent Welding Distributors Cooperative meeting in Orlando. Certainly there are a lot of questions surrounding helium, and hopefully an email exchange I had earlier this week can shed some light on these questions.

As indicated in Eyeing Potential Shortages In 2012 (thanks to the insights of Nick Haines, head of global helium source development at Linde), there are two helium plants slated to come on stream in 2012, and until the new plants are on stream, supply is likely to remain tight. From the current situation, I’d say Haines was right about supply remaining tight.

So when exactly will things ease up? One of the two plants mentioned is a joint venture between Air Products and Matheson that is expected to bring an additional 200 million standard cubic feet per year of helium to the market. Bob Lein, director, helium sourcing and supply at Matheson sent me this update on the anticipated startup of the Wyoming plant:

“Startup of the APMTG Helium plant in Big Piney, Wyoming, will commence as soon as a reliable supply of helium feedgas is made available to the plant by our feedgas supplier. We expect that to occur sometime in the next few months.”

Edible Helium BalloonLong term, popular belief (among distributors I’ve spoken with) is that the cost of helium will go up, as is the nature of basic supply and demand. As seen in my last blog, the cost and availability is certainly affecting the business of balloon retailers. Just think—some day, a helium balloon could be a rarity, a novelty reserved for special occasions.

Of course, if you’re going to pay extra for a balloon, some people think it might as well be edible too. Apparenlty one restaurant in Chicago does, where they’ve developed a helium-filled balloon for their dessert menu.

The green apple flavored delicacy created by Alinea Restaurant starts out as a syrup that is inflated with helium (See bottom left). Even the string is edible, as it’s made from dehydrated granny smith apple. Of course, whenever dealing with helium, it is always dangerous to inhale the gas. For that reason, Alinea attaches a needle to the bottom of the string, allowing diners to pop the balloon (to let the helium out) and eat up.

Edible balloon starts as syrup

The edible helium balloon starts as syrup.

Needle for popping edible helium balloon.

Needle for popping balloon

Photos via YouTube.

Will Games Turn Welding Into A Virtual Market?

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

A screenshot from the game TIG Welder

Virtual welding has seen a great deal of success in sparking interest in welding without the actual sparks. And distributors have played an important role in all this, exposing students and other individuals to virtual welding through events like open houses and welding rodeos (scroll down to Virtual Welding, Real Results). Recently, virtual welding helped reach young people through the Careers in Welding trailer at FABTECH.

In my opinion, virtual welding has a lot of potential particularly for school programs. Not only can it serve as a great recruiting tool, but also a great hands-on way to teach the principles of welding before students try it out on real machines. Gases and welding distributors regularly supply real welding machines and other equipment to schools; have any of you had success introducing virtual equipment?

While not everyone can have access to virtual welding machines, I came across an online form of virtual welding—a game made in New Zealand called “TIG Welder” that is free to play. While not particularly complex, the game serves as a great introduction to the principles of welding, starting with safety. Get students interested in this game, and who knows?

E-learning has proven successful for a wide range of areas—why not welding? Just think: someday soon, gases and welding distributors could be selling software to schools, or even Wii games, complete with welding torch controller add-on. How will you adapt to a virtual market? How are you adapting now?

Check out the TIG Welder game in the video below, then try your hand at the game here. Admittedly, the game is somewhat dire with the line “If you fail, you might die” (if not simply suffering from a poor sense of humor), but then again, people trust their lives with welded structures every day.

How Nitrogen Saved A Snowboarder’s Life

Friday, November 18th, 2011

Winter starts early and ends late here in New York. Many people take advantage of long winters by snowboarding and skiing. Now nitrogen is making it possible for winter athletes to enjoy their outdoor activities more safely.

The latest innovation from The North Face uses nitrogen gas to potentially save lives. It’s a safety vest and backpack for skiers, snowboarders and other winter sports enthusiasts. The pack houses a canister of nitrogen that, when triggered, inflates two large airbags. In the case of an avalanche, the nitrogen-filled airbags will help bring the wearer to the surface. Professional snowboarder Xavier de Le Rue, who represented France in the 2010 Winter Olympics, says the airbag system saved his life a few years back when he was caught in an avalanche. The pack is still almost a year away for retail, but it’s a great use of gases (nitrogen in this case) to save lives. Check out the vest in action in the video below.

Of course, gases play an important role for mountain climbers. Earlier this year, Air Liquide’s Christopher Guest spoke about his journey to the top of Mt. Everest. He shared his story with Welding & Gases Today in “Outlasting Everest.” In the article, he explains how vital oxygen is to survival on Everest—and how he was almost without the life-saving gas on two occasions due to equipment and other climbers.

Mountains can be potentially dangerous for climbers, skiers and snowboarders. Thankfully there are gases to help keep them safe. Beyond safety, welding and gases played a significant role in the most recent winter olympics, from the olympic torch to making snow. Learn about the connection between the industry and the olympics in “Welding And Gases In The Games.”

Can you tell it snowed here yesterday? Click below to watch the video:

Back To The Future Of Gases And Welding

Friday, October 28th, 2011

We’re hard at work on the next issue of Welding & Gases Today. For the next issue, we’re looking ahead to the future of the industry. Where is the industry going? What’s ahead?

One of the things I’ve noticed is that companies within the industry seem to be making their play to establish a stronger foothold for the future. Last year we saw supplier Air Products try to get back into the packaged gas side of the business with the attempted takeover of Airgas. In Canada, supplier Air Liquide has acquired multiple businesses on the distribution side, most recently Unitec in the Toronto area on October 4. Will this trend roll over into the U.S.?

Earlier today, Linde CEO Wolfgang Reitzle said in a press conference that the company would like to improve its market position in the U.S. Linde will seek to do this through a combination of organic growth and small to medium-sized purchases. It is yet to be seen what form these purchases will take.

Regardless, there is clearly a pattern of consolidation in the industry. In October 2010, Welding & Gases Today looked at the growing trend in the article “Is Now The Time To Expand?”  nexAir (Memphis, TN) CFO and General Counsel Milton Lovell said the rate of acquisitions was partly due to the economy. “There’s increased competition for those customers who are out there, so large- and medium-sized players are using consolidation to increase their market shares,” he said in the article.

Is today’s announcement from Linde simply a continuation of this trend? Or is it something more? How is the changing landscape impacting your business?

While we’re looking at the future, I want to share this futuristic video. Students at Paris Diderot University in France have created a levitating hoverboard by using liquid nitrogen to create a magnetic superconductor. Enjoy!

Welding And Gases In The World Series

Friday, October 21st, 2011

A St. Louis Cardinals-themed sculpture won Cee Kay Supply's first-ever welding contest.

Welding and gases are everywhere, even in the MLB World Series. No, really. Texas Rangers starting pitcher C.J. Wilson apparently used a cryotherapy chamber to prepare for game 1 of the Series. He spent 2 ½ minutes in the chamber, which was set at a frosty 295 degrees below zero—liquid nitrogen at its finest. Just think of it like a high-tech ice bath.

Wilson has used the therapy a few times this season after hearing that the Dallas Mavericks successfully used cryogenic chambers on the way to winning the NBA championship. Unfortunately, the cryogenic therapy wasn’t enough to get Wilson the win, who gave up 3 runs in 5 2/3 innings of work (Only 4 hits, but it seems he had some trouble finding the strike zone).

As it turns out, fellow Rangers pitcher Matt Harrison is also a proponent of cryotherapy. He starts game 3 on Saturday 10/22, so keep an eye out to see if he has any better luck than Wilson.

Of course, welding plays an important role in the World Series, too. If not for welding, we wouldn’t have some of the amazing stadiums that we have today. Although the Yankees didn’t make it to the World Series for once, you can read about the welding that went into the construction of the new Yankees Stadium in “The Great Welding And Gases Road Trip.” It’s a fun read, and it’s fascinating to see the role welding has had in building some impressive structures.

Finally, I know the folks at Cee Kay Supply in St. Louis will be rooting for the Cardinals this World Series. The company held a welding contest earlier this year, and winner Brandon Allen, a recent technical school graduate stole the show with his St. Louis Cardinals-themed creation. He created the piece with a combination of oxy fuel cutting and MIG and TIG welding processes. Just look at that wood grain! (You might need to click the picture to enlarge it). Read the details of how he built the piece here.

Regardless of who wins the 2011 World Series, you can bet gases and welding helped them get there.