US Editor Nick Parkinson reflected on the top stories from 2020 as well shared his predications for 2021 in conversation with Senior News Journalist Joanna Sampson.
Joanna Sampson (JS): What would you say have been the top five stories from the 2020 industrial gas year?
Nick Parkinson (NP): From a US perspective, most of the major stories have been a result of the pandemic such as how the industry responded by meeting an increased demand for oxygen and medical gas equipment from hospitals to treat Covid-19 patients.
Then there were the shifts in supply-demand. As demand for helium decreased in the first half of the year, experts declared the latest helium shortage over. While there may have been more helium available than the industry has been used to, in the US carbon dioxide became scarce in some areas. According to the Baird/gasworld Survey for third quarter 2020, almost 70% of respondents experienced carbon dioxide shortages in their markets, but most respondents (~50%) had already seen supply improvements or expect improvements in the fourth quarter. Dry ice is also expected to rise in demand due to its role in the storage and distribution of coronavirus vaccines in 2021.
Away from the pandemic other big stories included: a $22.8m settlement of a whistleblower lawsuit involving Linde and Linde Engineering North America; the new federal ruling to allow the bulk transportation of LNG by cryogenic railcars in the US were also big stories of interest, and increased space activity leading to more demand for gases and equipment.
JS: Which of those would you say is the biggest? Why?
NP: Those affected by CO2 shortages in the US, with price rises and allocations, will definitely feel that has been the biggest issue this year. Dry ice producers, distributors and equipment makers have been preparing for a spike in demand related to the storage and distribution of coronavirus vaccines in 2021, and along with the US CO2 shortage earlier this year it has received a lot of mainstream media.
But the biggest global story was early on in the year during the peak of the pandemic in most areas when there was an increased demand for oxygen to treat Covid-19 patients at hospitals. There was a lot of interest and questions about whether there would be enough oxygen to treat Covid-19 patients, how the supply chain would cope and also the logistics involved in setting up temporary hospitals for overspill patients, which required their own bulk tanks and medical gas equipment.
JS: Can you share two or three observations from 2020?
NP: This industry has played some vital support roles during the pandemic from supplying the life-saving oxygen to Covid-19 patients, to the cryogenic containers and dry ice used to test the coronavirus vaccines. Whether it be drivers delivering oxygen to hospitals during the height of the pandemic, refurbishing and upgrading cylinders to assembling the medical gas equipment, manifolds, oxygen regulators, vaporisers and bulk tanks at temporary hospitals.
The pandemic has also shown how trends can quickly change the demand for products, and how companies can quickly pivot in how they deliver, or what they have to offer.
JS: How have these helped to shape the market/industry?
NP: Going forward, we might see more of the things we have had to get used to during the pandemic such as working from home. Independent gas distributors may reduce the size of their showrooms due to more people shopping online, which increased during the pandemic and further hurt the sales of welding hardgoods, as curbside pick-up becomes an ongoing trend.
There may also be a continuation beyond the pandemic for remote meetings, servicing and repairs. Online webinars and events, which we have grown more accustomed to since March, are most likely to continue and perhaps lead to a decrease in the amount of in-person trade or training events.
The pandemic has taught us that remote meetings, repairs and online events all save time and money, and they are also more environmentally friendly. The use of automation and robotic welding has also accelerated due to reasons caused by coronavirus.
JS: How would you summarise 2020 in a sentence or two?
NP: Groundhog Day. I’m fed up with Zoom and Microsoft Teams and look forward to the time when I can be less local!
JS: What are your predictions for the market/industry in 2021?
NP: Travel – visiting customers, repairs/servicing and trade events – will creak back into operation late next year. Judging by feedback, most people in the industry are not expecting to attend events until they have been vaccinated. This makes a return to widespread business travel, including the return of trade events, most likely to be in the final quarter of next year.
Some experts are also predicting more M&A, as companies struggle with the economic downturns created by the pandemic. Dry ice availability, and its role in the storage and distribution of the coronavirus pandemic, will be a recurring if regional story in 2021.