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Changing with the Times:

Automation Helps Depke Build Customer Confidence

Depke Welding Supplies


Independent gas and equipment distributor Depke Welding Supplies faced the "kiss of death," said owner Curt Towne, when employee turnover at its fill plant in Urbana, IL, left it with virtually no experienced operators. As a result, early in 2011 a few customers received imprecise welding-gas mixtures. These isolated yet troubling issues, combined with purity problems when pumping argon and nitrogen, lead Towne on a mission to cure his employee-turnover blues. "This is a small industry," said Towne from their main office in Danville, IL. "As a small player in the industry, we had to remove this black mark, deal with our turnover issues and ensure our customers with absolute certainty that the quality going out the door would be as good or better than anything else out there."

Automation Trumps Turnover

Depke's service to the region began in 1928 when it set up shop in Champaign, IL. Today, three Illinois locations (Urbana, Danville and Kankakee) provide industrial, medical, specialty (PurityPlus) and bulk gases. In 2007, much of its filling operations shifted to the Urbana location, where they installed a new manually operated palletized traversing manifold system, equipped with 18 connections per side, supplied by Weldcoa. With the new system in place, efficiency skyrocketed as they could now unload pallets from the trucks and bring the pallets right up to the fill station.

"Until 2011 everything was great," said Towne. "Or so we thought. Like many small independent distributors, we had experienced some turnover in our fill-plant personnel. We trained new operators, but instability in such a critical job function turned things upside down. In a couple of cases we had trouble pumping pure nitrogen and argon. Those customers sent our product back after experiencing weld-quality issues due to imprecise mixes. We had to eliminate any customer doubt and regain their confidence."

Weldcoa once again stepped up in February 2013. They changed out the original manual control panels on the fill island and installed an automated valve package for filling mixtures. They also installed a pump control panel for argon and CO2 pumps, to control the pumps for mixture filling. The upgrade eliminated operator involvement and any possible error in making the mixtures. The operator now simply selects the mixture from the interface screen, and the automation takes over, filling the mixtures consistently and accurately regardless of operator skill.

Production Perfection

Towne said they now make every effort to bring in existing customers and prospects to show them that they're doing things as well as, or better than, anyone in the market, even the big players.

The benefits from the automation upgrade include variable speed pump control, so they no longer overfill small CO2 cylinders. Fill capacity has nearly doubled. In addition, the operator no longer needs to tend to the fill island. Now he is freed up to pump CO2 and oxygen cylinders.

"Overall, we have more time to do more things with our people," summarized Towne. "The fill plant is neater and cleaner. That earns a lot of attention when customers visit our operations."

More than Just Soft Savings

Towne notes that simply avoiding further customer concerns easily justifies the investment. "You're just one mistake away from potentially losing an account. Since installing the automated valve package we've had no issues at all."

Part of the package included Weldcoa's Watch Dog pump protection system, which allows the operator to remotely cool down and start and stop the pump.

The PLC-based Watch Dog system features a remote operator station that controls pump operations and displays signal failure alarms for 12 possible faults. It cools down pump prior to starting, and shuts off the liquid supply to pump after a preset period of inactivity to reduce product loss and improve pump seal life. It also continuously monitors pump discharge temperature to protect the pump from damage.

"We've significantly reduced the amount of maintenance performed on our pumps since installing Watch Dog," says Towne. "Typically we might have to replace the warm or cold end of our pumps ($700 a shot, plus installation costs) once or twice per year. I wish I had added the Watch Dog system in 2007 when we originally installed the fill plant. I know we could have avoided five or six repairs and saved thousands of dollars."

"Depke is a perfect example of an evolving business," said Don Renner Sales Engineer Manager for Weldcoa. "When they approached us they were not interested in automation, and we agreed. Their gas volumes didn't warrant the expense. The market place has since changed, they're ready for automation, and the need warrants the investment."

"We tell clients we are with them every step of the way, but they don't really appreciate the value until that next step up moment, when they have our expertise at their disposal," continued Renner.