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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.

Automating The Sales Process

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Vending machines: showroom in a box

Automation is an increasingly important part of the gases and welding industry. While much of the focus is on robotic welding and automating manufacturing processes—and all of that is great, because it means customers are buying equipment—automation is also growing in importance within on the distributor level. More and more distributors are turning to automated filling processes—enabling them to not only fill faster, but take on new gas lines (specialty gas, for example) and create more accurate mixes without introducing human error.

But what about automating the sales process? Recently I’ve been hearing about distributors using vending machines to sell common supplies. Larger customers can have a distributor’s vending machine on-site, allowing them to purchase supplies like welding wire or cutting tips on an as-needed basis.

One distributor I spoke with says, “Vending gives customers better control over dispensation of products, be it a pair of gloves, safety glasses, contact tips, a roll of wire or what have you. It gives the end-user a better idea of cost going into a project, and it can give them an avenue to bill specific products to a project they are working on.”

Vending offers convenience to customers without the need to keep large inventories in stock. As a “Tech Talk” article from General Air (Denver, CO) asks, “How often have orders been placed for product that was already in the tool crib? Or have you ever started a job thinking you had all the parts in place only to find out at the last minute that some of those parts were used in other jobs?”

But with automation, there’s always the question of human jobs. Will vending machines uproot the traditional distributor salesperson? Or at the least, will it change the nature of the sales relationship? What do you think?

Remembering The Father Of Robotic Welding

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Robotic WeldingThe inventor of the robotic arm, George Devol, passed away last week at the age of 99. Although not one of the more well-known inventors of our time, Devol’s contribution was undeniably important, as it changed the face of modern manufacturing. Developed in the early 1950s, Devol’s mechanical arm could be programmed to perform repetitive tasks. By the 1960s, automakers and other manufacturers were using the mechanical arms to make their operations more efficient. One of uses that emerged for the arm was robotic welding.

Below is a classic video of Devol’s invention, the Unimate, putting its skills to the test on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. While the video presents the robot as something of a novelty, it demonstrates the ease and speed with which the robot can learn a task. Carson jokes that the robot could replace people’s jobs—suggesting that it could replace the show’s band conductor.

The truth is that while robotics have replaced some repetitive jobs, they have also created new skilled jobs. “A successful robotic welding process needs a human to program the robot, and that person needs to understand what the welding process is and the limitations of the welding process,” writes Brian Doyle, welding automation sales manager at Miller Electric, in the article “The Future Of Welding In Manufacturing.”

Without a doubt, the robotic arm and robotic welding have had a large impact on manufacturing operations all over the world. So here’s to Mr. Devol, the father of robotic welding (once or twice removed, perhaps). See his robotic arm in action in the video below:

If you are not able to view the video, watch it here.

Tracking Employees With RFID? How It Translates To Cylinders

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Many GAWDA members are using bar code or RFID technology to track their cylinders. Tracking cylinders is great way to keep tabs on what’s coming in and out of the plant, but what if it could do even more?

In a recent study of RFID capabilities, tracking technology manufacturer Queralt used RFID to monitor employee movement throughout the plant, measuring productivity, times employees arrived and left, and how much time was spent on lunch. Readers at various locations detected when workers were nearby, allowing for the company to track the employees’ actual movements.

I’m not suggesting that you start monitoring your plant employees; rather, I think this suggests a possibility of advanced cylinder tracking. Maybe the flow of the plant is such that cylinders have to be moved excessively, and it is resulting in wasted time and labor. Advanced RFID tracking could provide an actual measure of unnecessary handling to determine the value of reorganizing the flow of the plant.

Or maybe RFID readers could register cylinders as a delivery truck is pulling up to the dock with empties, before the driver even gets out of the cab and opens the gate. This could save the time it takes to scan a bar code or RFID tag manually. Once registered by the RFID reader, the system could call on the data associated with each unique cylinder ID and alert plant workers as to any need for requalification, etc.

These are only a few of the possibilities. It seems to fit into the ideas of continuous improvement as well, something that a lot of distributors embrace. What else can you envision being done with cylinder tracking? It may seem like science fiction, but look at where we are today.

My Tour Of An Automated Fill Plant

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011
The final, automated fill plant

The final, automated fill plant

Last week, I made my return to Haun Welding Supply. Back in October 2010, I wrote about my first tour of the Syracuse distributor. At that time, Haun WS had just laid the groundwork for a fully automated fill plant. Josh Haun, credit manager at Haun, was kind enough to invite me back to see the new plant in action. Syracuse Branch Manager Al Dohrn walked us through and kindly answered the hundreds of questions we threw his way.

There are obvious benefits to automation, such as increased efficiency and reducing human error. However, there are some other benefits I picked up on during my short time at Haun. The first thing I immediately noticed was that the new, automated system was a quieter environment than the last time I was there. It was explained to me that the layout, the ability to bring pallets right up to the fill island and the movable manifolds meant less moving of cylinders and thus less commotion.

The fill plant in construction. A raised concrete fill island is the same height as the cylinder pallets for easy transport.

The fill plant in construction. A raised concrete fill island is the same height as the cylinder pallets for easy transport.

Also reducing the noise level was the fact that Haun recently implemented a second shift. As far as noise, this just meant that the activity was more spread out, and there were fewer people in the plant at once. The idea behind the second shift was to improve work flow and effectively reduce the number of cylinders needed. For example, if a batch of cylinders goes out on a truck to a branch on a Monday morning, that truck will not come back with empties until the evening. On a single shift, those cylinders could not get filled until the next day, and go back out to a store on Wednesday. By adding a second shift, those cylinders can be taken care of during the evening and be back on a truck Tuesday morning. These guys are smart.

In all, I could see that everything was done with purpose. Nothing was updated on a whim, or for the sheer sake of having shiny, new tools. Every piece of equipment, every design element, every adjustment was made knowing that it would help Haun operate more efficiently. Here’s to the success of their new plant!

Josh Haun (left) and me at the fill plant

Josh Haun (left) and me at the fill plant

Gases And Welding Take The Mound

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

Gases and welding made a mark on America’s Favorite Pastime this week. On Wednesday, April 20, a robot threw out the first pitch for the Philadelphia Phillies using a burst of carbon dioxide gas. The robot, named PhillieBot, was built by students at the University of Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, the ball fell short of home plate—and was subsequently received with jeers from the crowd. Certainly, this was not gases at its finest, but it was still a historical moment of sorts. Many firsts—be it inventions, businesses or what have you—end in failure. Hopefully the PhillieBot will be retooled and invited back next year to show the full potential of gases (I’m expecting a 100 mph fastball). If nothing else, it drew some attention to the gases industry. Check out the video below.

Robots themselves are becoming an important part of the gases and welding industry. Many manufacturers are turning to robotic welding automation. According to “The Future Of Welding In Manufacturing,” about 14 percent of nonautomotive manufacturers have implemented robotic automation, and that number is growing fast. The author, Brian Doyle, explains that some workers are concerned that they will be replaced by robots, but the truth is that even robots need human expertise and guidance. Major League pitchers need not fear for their jobs—yet.

IBM’s Watson Takes On Automation

Friday, March 4th, 2011

Jeopardy! The IBM ChallengeThese days, I can’t watch TV without noticing every time a contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef uses liquid nitrogen or when the con men on USA’s White Collar use a welder to aid with one scheme or another. So I shouldn’t be surprised to take notice of a cameo on Jeopardy! The gases and welding industry has opened my eyes to a lot of things. But it wasn’t a gas or any related equipment that caught my eye—it was IBM’s Watson computer, which recently competed on the show against Jeopardy’s winningest contestants.

Watching Watson compete on Jeopardy! was, to many viewers, a spectacle for entertainment. To IBM and to others, Watson represents the potential to aid doctors and other professionals in making sense of data and interpreting human language into the most likely answers. As for me, all I could see was automation.

Only a few months ago, my understanding of automation was simplistic at best. Automation was, to me, an oft-used buzzword like “lean” and “value-added.” I understood it inasmuch as GAWDAwiki’s entry on automation explains that it “refers to the application of a computer-based system to improve productivity and quality of performance.”

IBM's WatsonRecently, I’ve been reading and talking with GAWDA members about automation. Now I know when a distributor refers to their automated fill plant, that it might mean one of many steps is automated, whether it’s shut-off, vacuum, fill, etc. Even to those distributors who may not be concerned with applying it to their own processes, automation cannot be ignored. More and more customers are looking for automated welding and cutting processes, and distributors need to be equipped to answer those questions (without help from Watson).

To me, Watson represents the evolution of automation, right down to its ability to press a button more efficiently than its competitors (which drove them crazy). The idea of automation is not new. The gases and welding industry has been making use of automation for at least 40 years. But the recent developments in the technology are astounding.

Even so, Watson’s infamous answer of “Toronto” in response to a question about U.S. Cities shows that even the most advanced automation will make mistakes if left to its own devices. Robots can perform tasks more efficiently, but they perform more reliably when they work together with humans. There is no replacement for the expertise and judgment of a trained professional, especially in the gases and welding industry.

What would you use Watson for at your business?