Getting To A Paperless Environment

Handhelds help gain plant efficiencies.

Gas distributors operate in competitive environments and typically are selling commodity products against direct competitors. All too often, customers are the ones who will force competitive pricing. Commonly, the largest customers lock in low pricing that is fixed in long-term contracts. Selling commodity products with fixed or competitive pricing makes it imperative for distributors to become more efficient so that they can increase their bottom line despite pricing pressures.

Did You Know…?
XML Can Work For You

By James R. Broughton

The GAWDA Management Information Committee works on a lot of different areas when it comes to computer automation, but few have as much potential benefit to you, the distributor, as the XML project the committee has been working on for the last several years.

What XML is, is not nearly as important to you as what it does. In a nutshell, XML makes it easy for two totally unrelated computers to talk to each other. A perfect example is your computer talking to your vendor’s computer. Why would your computer want to talk to your vendor’s computer? That part is simple: To save you and your vendor lots of time on the telephone each day.

Every day, distributors pick up the phone, call their vendors and ask very simple questions, such as, “Do you have this helmet in stock? If you have it in stock, what is my price?” Each time you call, your inside people are tied up on the phone waiting for the answer, and your customer is waiting to see if they want to buy the product from you.

The Management Information Committee, with the input of software companies, distributors and vendors, has established a standard method of asking this simple question that can be implemented by any software supplier and any of your product vendors. This is referred to as the XML Pricing and Availability Standard.

Here’s how it would work for you: When your customer wants to know if you can get a certain product from your vendor, instead of calling the vendor, enter the part number into your computer. Your computer sends out a message to your vendor’s computer asking for your price on the item in question and how many are available. The vendor’s computer receives the request and, in a matter of seconds, sends the response back to your computer. What might have taken multiple phone calls and tied up at least two people is now handled in seconds. The best part is, you can get the answer to your question while you are still talking to your customer.

If you think this would help your company become more productive, give your software supplier a call and ask them what is required to get this capability installed on your computer system. Then call your vendor to make sure they are incorporating the XML standard into their system.

James R. Broughton is a member of GAWDA’s Management Information Committee and president of DataWeld.

Becoming more efficient may require changes to your current business practices. This article discusses how the technology of mobile computing can be used to enable this change across many business processes. Most processes that today rely on paper in the hands of the mobile worker can benefit from mobile computing—from production to distribution to maintenance, and everything in between. Below are two examples of how gas distributors have made their internal operations more efficient with mobile computing.

Paperless Filling
Most gas distributors manually log filling activity on paper. At the end of each shift, the filler or a plant manager checks each fill log for mistakes and then files this information into a filing cabinet. In some cases, the information may be re-keyed into a production tracking system of some kind.

This process can be cumbersome and costly. Developing an entirely paperless filling process with the use of rugged wireless handheld computers for data collection could show significant improvements in an industrial gas filling plant.

As cylinders are sorted on the sort island, initial information and retest date checks are performed electronically. During filling, all of the information that was previously recorded on paper is now collected in the handheld computer. This has the advantage of catching cases where the filler forgot a step or recorded a number that is out of the range of acceptable values. Because electronic records are time-stamped, it also forces the filler to record all of the information at the time of filling, rather than falling behind on his paperwork. The process is finished by electronically recording all purity analysis information for cylinders. Electronic data collection is not only faster, it ensures that the user checks all of the required attributes for the analysis of each kind of gas filled.

All of this production information not only replaces paper, but it is now stored electronically and can be queried for production reporting. This kind of reporting often leads to process and training changes, which in turn can lead to even more productivity improvements.

Paperless Branch Transfers
Many distributors operate centralized fill plants that service remote branches. This requires maintenance of cylinder inventories at remote branches as well as in the fill plants. Typically, a paper delivery ticket is used to track the movement of full and empty cylinders to and from the branches. In cases of a dispute, a branch may insist that cylinders were never delivered and the paperwork is wrong. The fill plant responds that the paperwork is right and that someone from the branch signed for the delivery. This kind of internal dispute not only consumes time, it is a waste of energy and a drain on productivity.

Technology can tackle this problem. One solution to the above scenario is to electronically record the loading of cylinders onto the truck in the fill plant and then separately record the same cylinders offloaded at the branch. This counting of the truck at the fill plant and at the branch is done electronically by scanning the individual tanks on and off the truck. Electronically counting the truck using unique cylinder tracking is faster than manually counting and avoids the issues of miscounting or losing track of a count. After the branch receives the inventory, the truckload is reconciled and any discrepancies on the load can be resolved immediately. This same process is reversed for empties heading back to the fill plant.

Rugged Handheld Computers
Rugged handheld computers are palm-sized devices that come in varying shapes and configurations from many different manufacturers. This proliferation of choice gives distributors a fair range of price points and functionality to find the right device for their needs.

Many options for these devices are available, like wireless connectivity, cellular connectivity, Bluetooth connectivity, full keypads, intrinsically safe ratings, drop spec ratings, color screen and more. Gone are the days of a “single use” device. All the new devices run Microsoft Windows and can be used for various productivity tools. For instance, you may run driving direction software, time tracking software and customized gas industry software all on the same device.

For distributors looking to become more efficient, handheld computers are a technology that can enable significant efficiency gains.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
Tim Fusco Meet the Author
Tim Fusco is a member of GAWDA’s Management Information Committee and president of TrackAbout, located in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, and on the Web at