Planning A Fill Plant Do-Over

Four distributors who updated their fill plants and processes offer advice on how to go about it.

Ron Savage’s Advice

“Form a team made up of your key people, suppliers and contractors, and meet weekly. It’s amazing how much you can learn from other’s suggestions. Make sure you have a good general contractor who knows how to coordinate all the major trades. Bring in local agencies early in the planning process. This allows them to become part of your team and reduces risks of having to make costly corrections later.”

The computerized fill process reduces human error, product loss and fill time. In all, in excess of 20,000 cylinders are processed per month by six people, which is 50% less than previously.

WestAir Consolidates
Three Fill Plants Into One

Date: June 2008
Size: 20,000 sq. ft.
Goal: reduce costs,
centralize filling

Prior to the purchase of a building formerly owned by a steel fabrication company, WestAir Gases & Equipment (San Diego, CA) had pumping facilities in several locations. It took almost a year to get through the approval process, remodel the building and automate the fill plant, but when done, the National City, California, location contained a pumping facility merged from three locations, as well as a centralized hardgoods warehouse, customer service and distribution operations. General Manager Ron Savage says the consolidation and remodel significantly improved WestAir’s efficiencies.

Ron Savage, Operations Manager Pat Dalton and Production Manager Dave Messina visited other plants around the country to look at different suppliers’ equipment and processes.

“When several plants are consolidated, so are the delivery trucks. While gases may be produced more quickly, the bottleneck is usually the sorting area. To minimize congestion, remember to plan for a larger yard and dock area,” says Pat Dalto

Maine Oxy Changes to Automated Process
Operations Manager George Lyon describes Maine Oxy’s (Auburn, ME) fill process prior to October 2009 as “The Noah’s Ark System of Cylinder Filling.” Cylinders were moved two-by-two on a cart and taken to a fill area. In 2009, the company overhauled the Ark and remodeled the entire plant, adding an automated fill process.  Date: October 2009 Size:  7,200 sq. ft. Goal: consistency, efficiency  and quality of cylinder movement

Don’t  expect to flick a switch and have everything fall into place. Understanding the system, especially some of the programming idiosyncracies, and learning to maximize its abilities, take time.  Pallets holding 16 cylinders make for a more organized and efficient system. Each day, 900 cylinders of all types of gases are filled.
Going from a manual to a computerized system is not just a change in one department. It’s a company change, because it affects how the satellite stores receive cylinders, as well as how they are returned for fill. Everybody has to adapt.
   George Lyon’s Advice “The human influence in a manual fill system is trained and coordinated to stop the fill process if there’s a snag, diagnose on the spot, make a judgment call and resume. With experience, this manual process takes place very quickly. When you hear that something is “computerized” or “automated,” you immediately think it should be much faster because the human element has been removed. And on paper it is faster. But be cognizant that the system needs to adapt and initially is not as fast as its human counterpart. Give it time.”
Depke Welding Supplies Builds New Facility
After acquiring a competitor’s store in Urbana, Illinois, Curtis Town, president of Depke Welding Supplies (Danville, IL) knew the time was right to build a fill plant at the new facility that would be centrally located to his other locations. Because the new plant would be built so close to the old structure, the 5,000 additional square feet added to the total square footage of the facility pushed Depke into a different building classification with different codes. Adjustments to the original plans had to be made.
A fill island is close by where pallets can be moved to within a few feet of the fill racks. Traversing fill racks are set up with two lines. As workers fill one line, they move cylinders to and from the second rack. The pressure temperature method of filling welding gas mixtures was changed to a gravimetric system, which has also improved quality.
Heating the floor is not a new concept, but Depke took it a step further and installed 20 wells behind the building that pull up groundwater. The groundwater is heated and runs through tubes in the concrete floor. This geothermal heat pump has dramatically reduced heating costs.
 Curtis Towne’s Advice “During the concept stage, consider every code issue that could possibly arise, as they have a way of changing the building design.”
 Butler Gas Products Adds Hydrogen
 Date:  March 2009 Goal:  move cylinders less frequently, reduce costs, improve qualitySince there are few companies that fill hydrogen, Butler Gas Products (McKees Rocks, PA) installed a palletized hydrogen fill system in March 2009. Jack Butler, president, says “We are investing in our future, and hydrogen is a growth gas. Plus, there are huge savings that come from filling our own.” Non-flammable industrial gases are filled in one building; flammable industrial gases in another; specialty gases in another; acetylene is made in another. Hydrogen fill is located outside with a roof overhead. As a result of filling its own hydrogen cylinders, Butler has seen reduced costs, improved safety and fewer cylinder turns. Butler Gas Products has been making investments in gas over the last few years. Three years ago, the acetylene plant was doubled in size and equipment. In 2009, it was hydrogen. To take advantage of the void left by large companies getting out of packaged gases, Butler recently started selling packaged gases.
Jack Butler’s Advice “Examine your processes very carefully. We looked at what we pay for the liquid versus how much it costs us to compress it. We looked at the price we pay to buy product, versus the cost to gasify it. There are big gains in efficiency and profit that can be realized internally as opposed to constantly beating up our suppliers for a better deal.”

Gases and Welding Distributors Association

cylinder automated pallets fill island hydrogen industrial gas specialty gas acetylene