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Holston Gases

Benchmarking Uncovers Best Practices

Project: Holston Gases

Automation Is The Future Standard
In 2012 the 25-branch distributorship moved its original Tennessee headquarters to a new state-of-the-art facility. Equipped with a new Weldcoa 82-ft.-long palletized, automated cylinder-fill island, the facility has become a showcase for Holston. The technology package includes audio and visual communication of fill status, along with webbased production reporting and 24/7 real time monitoring of their pumping facility via VPN support.

Alleviating Overtime

Before investing in the new automated fill island, the Knoxville facility had experienced significant overtime expense. Says Parsons: “We were averaging more than 20 hr. of overtime per week, supplying seven branches with our array of gas mixtures. To more efficiently service our customers and to allow for future growth, we had to look at automation, a less labor-intensive process.

That’s exactly what the facility has done, courtesy of its 24-bay fill island with 12 traversing fill heads--a two fill head has 3 individual bank manifolds to achieve increased bank production. Once operators call up the appropriate program, the rest of the fill process is automated, including vent, vacuum, and remote cooling and starting of the high-pressure pump. “Our operators set the process in motion, and then are free to walk away to service another bay,” Parsons says. “To monitor the process, all they have to do is listen to what the island is telling them,” he adds, noting the various alerts and alarms that the equipment provides.

Preserving Valuable Raw Materials

Mixtures are filled by weight using a reference cylinder and scale tied in with each pallet mixture head manifold. This is just one feature specified by Parsons after examining best practices at other distributorships.

“When we visited other distributors to look at their use of automated fill islands, we asked if they would do anything differently. One ‘wish’ we heard repeatedly was the desire to automate their processes using liquid scales. So, we decided to invest in the scales. Our liquid business is fairly large, and that’s a valuable raw material. You don’t want to lose product into the atmosphere. Now, once the process meets the preset weight, the liquid flow from the bulk tanks shuts off and an alarm sounds to tell the operator that the process has completed. We don’t have to keep an operator there the entire time.” noted Parsons.

A key technology enabler to the process is Weldcoa’s use of variable-frequency drives on all of the island’s pumps. This allows the pumps to slow down toward the end of the fill process, when approaching the target weight. Accuracy is to within a few grams. Holston and Weldcoa personnel can monitor the pumps and fill automation remotely using a PC, smartphone or tablet computer. Alarm conditions are instantly e-mailed out, and parameters can be changed remotely. “In the past, we would try to predict when we were close to having the liquid filled,” recalls Parsons. “The operator might walk away to perform another task, and the liquid could possibly overfill. Now, we have saving on two fronts—we don’t have to monitor as closely, saving labor; and we’re preventing overfills.”

Optimized Product Flow

Parsons also redesigned product flow, starting where the empty cylinders are sorted. “We bring in the empty cylinders at night, and the next morning we have three people on the sorting island ready to go. They don’t just sort— they do all of the prefill inspections, including sniff tests, inspecting for arc burns and checking test dates. We no longer require the fillers to do this.

At the fill island, Parsons offsets his filler-crew start times. Four operators staff the fill island--some come in at 7 a.m., others a 9 a.m. That enables him to run his fill island from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., uninterrupted, every day. That strategic move, combined with the island’s automation equipment, has completely eliminated overtime at Holston.