There was a feeling of optimism about business growth among distributors and suppliers at the Gases And Welding Distributors Association (GAWDA) Spring Management Conference (SMC) here at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Minneapolis, US.

Despite contending with tariffs and severe weather in certain areas, GAWDA members were feeling positive about the industry with some talking about expansion.

Concerns such as helium shortage, argon tightening in some areas, may exist but GAWDA President Brad Peterson told gasworld the overwhelming vibe is one of optimism in a robust industry rather than fearing a slowdown in the US market later this year.

“All the experts a year ago were saying there’s going to be a slowdown this year, but in the meantime we continue to be as busy as heck, especially our automation guys,” Peterson told gasworld.

“So many companies are having a hard time hiring good people, they want to automate things. They automate one thing and then they get to think about automating the next thing and the next thing.

“It’s an optimistic vibe, people are positive and optimistic. They are excited about the meeting. Tariffs and surcharges and keeping up with that for our suppliers. It’s an administrative burden to make sure you have got all that accounted for. The helium shortage is ongoing and that’s an issue and in general a supply security [gas side] is an issue, making sure you got product to take care of your customers.

“Argon is very tight in some areas, geographically driven, and it’s not on people’s radars but the government is going to have a gigantic argon demand in western South Dakota in two years’ time because the big science project out there is going to be a massive argon requirement and it’s of interest because it may change the infrastructure for delivery up here. Once that project is done, there will be a smaller ongoing demand and they will have to put a big infrastructure in place to meet that initial massive demand and legacy going forward from there may change the regional argon situation. It will be worth watching but is not on people’s radars right now.”

The SMC kicked off with the President’s Welcome Reception and Dinner at Nicollet Island Pavilion on the Mississippi River on Saturday night, which gave members the chance to network and catch up with old friends.

Tom Elliott addresses the 2019 SMC

On Sunday, Tom Elliott, Owner and President of A-OX Welding Supply, told ver 560 attendees about a fire at his main facility in northwest Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on May 17, 2018. Static electricity buildup on a plastic crate caused propane tanks to catch fire and explode. A propylene tank also exploded, but nobody was hurt in the fire.

After describing the dramatic events, Elliott then explained what safeguards and policies A-OX has since put in place and says the company was able to still be operational the following day thanks to help with equipment from eight GAWDA members. The fire cost A-OX $2.236m in damages to the property, cylinders, building and also with the labour and hazmat clean-up.

Elliott said, “The wind was in our favour so the fire didn’t blow into our specialty gas plant. It was remarkable how contained the fire was. But there was a lot of devastation and we lost over 4,000 cylinders. It looked like a bunch of whale bones laying there after the fire was out.

“Someone took a shot cut and we failed to train our people properly. Now it’s a never ending deal. We’re safety training all the time now.”

Elliott’s candid presentation was a huge hit with the audience.

Sisters Lori and Traci Tapani, Co-Presidents of Wyoming Machine, Inc., gave an entertaining presentation about how they have come up with creative solutions to the skilled labour shortage in manufacturing in the US. They described how they had to overcome stereotypes after they took over their father’s business in 1994.

“Being different helped us to see things differently for the workforce,” Lori said.

To avoid being caught out by the tight labour market in the US, the sisters have partnered with education centres and other manufacturers, expanding their view of what defines an ideal candidate and updating and executing in-house education and skills training.

In the afternoon, there was a lively contact booth programme with over 120 booths to get around.