As I write this in early June 2020, the world is still reeling from coronavirus (Covid-19), but with the initial economic shock behind us, companies are finding ways to work in the new normal. Below are some observations of how companies are using technology to both weather the crisis and to prepare their companies to be stronger once it is over.
How do things look today?
Looking at some of the data from the 10 million cylinders we are managing with gas distributors, we can see some trends due to the pandemic. This varies by region, but we’ve seen cylinder gas sales hit a low point of about 25% off from their pre-pandemic levels. This appears to be improving and heading back toward normal levels.
There was some concern originally that customers would return their cylinders en masse to reduce their rental, but that has generally not happened. Cylinder rental is staying flat. Cylinder rental continues to be the profitable foundation for the economics of compressed gas distribution companies. Better managing cylinders is one of the keys to maintaining and growing that cylinder rental business in good times and bad.
Using technology as double-check for cylinder accuracy
With fewer people around to double-check cylinder counts on trucks, we are seeing leading distributors rely on cylinder tracking to be this final accuracy check. Cylinders are scanned in each step of their lifecycle from sorting, filling, staging, truck load to delivery and back again. Each step acts as a check against the other steps and collectively provide very tight control over your cylinders. All this can happen even when managers need to stay home during the pandemic.
- During pandemic: Find ways to maintain cylinder accuracy with fewer people in the plant.
- After pandemic: Continue to benefit from this efficiency.
Tracking additional cylinder cleaning protocols
New requirements for cylinder disinfecting add another cylinder handling process to be managed. Many companies are using technology to ensure cylinders are being disinfected. This is most commonly a ‘disinfect’ action on a mobile device used in conjunction with scanning barcodes on those cylinders. This improves safety. It also reduces company liability because there are records that the company is doing what it can to protect employees and customers. As companies use technology to do more than just count cylinders in and out I think most will see the benefits and continue to eliminate paper-based documentation in their cylinder handling going forward.
- During pandemic: Use technology for pandemic-related safety and compliance.
- After pandemic: Continue to use these technology tools to automate all cylinder processes.
Moving to contact-less deliveries
Health experts are urging us to stay a safe distance from each other - especially when indoors. One way to keep your drivers physically further away from your customers is to move to a contact-less delivery process. This can mean moving away from paper delivery documentation and toward electronic documentation. Receipts can be emailed to clients avoiding the need to share paperwork. Many customers have been resistant to ‘give up’ paper receipts, but that attitude is changing and the pandemic is accelerating this trend.
To help meet the challenge of proof of delivery without signatures, we at TrackAbout are currently pushing to get a feature done asap to allow a delivery driver to take pictures of cylinders as part of the delivery process. This can then provide proof of delivery much like Amazon does with a photo of your package at your home. I believe that photos combined with a timestamp and GPS coordinates provide a stronger proof of delivery than a scrawled signature on a piece of paper.
Companies that are investing now in moving to electronic deliveries will see many benefits after the pandemic has passed. This includes speeding up and improving the accuracy of the invoicing processes. Because customers only complain about mistakes that are not in their favour, any increase in invoicing accuracy always leads to catching cases where revenue was previously leaking from your processes.
- During pandemic: Use technology to enable contact-less deliveries.
- After pandemic: Continue to use technology to make deliveries more efficient while increasing accuracy and getting stronger proof of delivery.
Managing a gas business remotely
In the gas business, air separation units (ASUs) have been managed remotely for decades while cylinder filling plants have always been managed in-person. In many areas, government stay-at-home orders during the pandemic have had gas distributors keeping many of their managers at home and out of the plant. So, for the first time, we were seeing remote management of cylinder fill plants much more like the traditional management of ASUs.
Gas distributors with robust cylinder tracking systems were able to log in and see the filling and movement of cylinders in real-time as those activities took place in their plants. This has forced managers to better understand and evaluate the data coming from their electronic systems. As managers learn what they can view online it should lead to a world where less ‘windshield time’ is needed by managers to drive from location to location because they are more able to manage plants using metrics from their electronic systems combined with teleconferencing with the people in the plant.
- During pandemic: Use technology to manage cylinder plants remotely.
- After pandemic: Return to managing cylinder plants in-person, but use that same technology to do so more efficiently.
If plant is less busy it is a good time to barcode gas cylinders
One of the big tasks in starting up a cylinder tracking project is the work to barcode all of your existing cylinders. You want someone to do this who has some knowledge of your cylinders. They should be able to find the serial number, manufacturer and manufacturer date on your cylinders. They should be able to determine the part number of a cylinder. You train new people to do this, but the people who already work in your plant are usually ideal. The problem is that they already have full-time jobs working in the plant. If you are experiencing some downtime in your plants, putting those people to work barcoding your cylinders is an activity they can do now that will pay dividends for decades to come.
- During pandemic: Use increased downtime in your plant to barcode your cylinders.
- After pandemic: Have a cylinder tracking system in place to make you more efficient and competitive.
The above are some examples of how gas companies are using the pandemic as an opportunity to try new business processes and to invest in their businesses in a way to really thrive once this is all behind us.
About the author
Tim Fusco is the co-founder and CEO of TrackAbout (www.trackabout.com) a company that has been focused on cylinder tracking, management and rental for the past 20 years. As of 2019, TrackAbout is now wholly owned by Datacor and is helping Datacor to bring its Datacor ERP and Datacor CRM software to the gas industry. Datacor was founded in 1981, has over 700 customers, and is based in Florham Park, New Jersey.