Airgas is the leading supplier of gases, welding equipment and safety products in the United States. Headquartered in Radnor, Pennsylvania, the Airgas network is comprised of more than 1,400 locations including retail branches, cylinder fill plants, gas production facilities, specialty gas laboratories and regional distribution centers.
Employing approximately 18,000 people across the nation and serving more than one million customers, Airgas supplies industrial, medical and specialty gases, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, welding equipment and supplies, process chemicals and more to industries including: manufacturing and metal fabrication, construction, chemicals, life sciences and healthcare, food and beverage, materials and power, defense and aerospace.
“The industrial gas industry is very diverse,” says Schweighardt. “Your cellphone, the metal parts of your chair, the carbonation in your soda… none of it would exist without industrial gas. We have an entire medical group that does nothing but medical gas. We have a food segment and they focus on ways that you use industrial gas in food. I focus on the ways you use industrial gas in welding.”
Fred has worked in the welding and maintenance industry for over 30 years, primarily in the fabrication, heating plant and pipe industry. Entering into the military straight out of high school, Fred worked with armored vehicles and diesel repair before attending college to obtain an AAS in welding and certificate in machining technology, ultimately graduating from the University of Utah with a BS in Welding Engineering Technology. Fred has worked for Airgas, an Air Liquide company, for 18 years as a welding specialist and Subject Matter Expert (SME) for piping code, fabrication, inspection and materials.
Safety Measures & Ensuring Quality
Ensuring that quality valves are specified is paramount to the success of any project. When consulting for Airgas projects, Schweighardt considers the materials that are passing through the pipes, including extremely cold liquid hydrogen and possibly high temperature nitrogen. The company goes to great lengths to ensure that its operations are adhering to the strictest safety policies and procedures. An important aspect of maintaining safe operations is ensuring that the proper equipment is in place for the application. Airgas works with Approved Manufacturer and Approved Vendors Lists in order to properly vet suppliers and procure the best valve for the job.
“We typically have both an Approved Manufacturers List and Approved Vendors List, as we generally specify the actual manufacturer, valve type and several other things from a technical perspective,” he said. “We would typically look for a vendor that has coverage for all of the U.S., depending on how unique the valve might be. We also negotiate payment terms, minimum quantities and volume discounts, and if certain vendors have that sort of flexibility, that is a plus for us.”
Oxygen service is another application that is commonly encountered in Airgas facilities that requires special considerations in terms of valve selection. Due to the important safety considerations that come into play in working with oxygen service, valves to be used in this application are generally only available from certain vendors that have been audited and approved by the company to ensure they meet the necessary requirements.
“Oxygen is a fluid that that we have to pay close attention to especially under pressure. We require a high pressure clean valve. The valve has to be cleaned carefully with very special chemicals following a specific procedure to ensure there are no contaminants. Under the wrong conditions, with a pure oxygen application, a valve can catch fire. If it is a high pressure, high flow application, we have to look at the velocity of the oxygen through the valve because there are some further design considerations that apply such as increasing the size to keep the velocity manageable and ensure the application is safe,” he said.
When working with vendors and manufacturers Fred explained that breadth of product offering and the ability to supply some of the more specialty valve products is an important factor. Traceability and access to proper documentation is also an important consideration.
“We like working with vendors that can readily supply the documentation that we require. For some of the larger projects, all of the valves need to be tracked. It is understandable, because after a valve is built and a valve has been in service for 20 years, we would really like to know the exact manufacturer, make and model if there is an issue,” Fred detailed. “We want a vendor that can work with us on that. We may occasionally have a requirement for Primary Material Identification on the valve and we want a vendor who has organic PMI capabilities or works with someone that we approve of get our PMI process done.”
Fred further explained that traceability and having a paper trail is becoming more important and prevalent in the industry nowadays. “We want to make sure that if we order a 316 stainless steel valve that we get a 316 stainless steel valve. We do not always have a lot of success if we use the very lowest cost product because those are the products that we find the most difficult to get documentation on. Those are the products that have been made with the least cost possible, so they may not be as robust in design and workmanship as we would like. Some of our valves need to last for a very long time under very rigorous conditions, because we cannot afford to shut our plants down just to fix a valve. We need the valve to work as expected for a long time, each and every time,” he said.
In terms of maintenance and repair, Fred explained that plant outages are planned well in advance to ensure turnaround is efficient, safe and cost-effective. Proper planning is imperative to ensuring workflow is cohesive and the chances of surprise repair work is mitigated and kept to a minimum. “Preventative maintenance is also an important aspect in ensuring industrial reliability. A proper PM program will prevent you from having emergency or unplanned maintenance.”
Education and Collaboration
It is no secret that the industrial process industries often falter when it comes to transferring knowledge and providing mentorship to new engineers, technicians and operators. As the “old boys” hang up their safety goggles and disappear into the warm sunset of retirement, the new generation is sometimes left out in the cold, expected to “figure it out” for themselves.
“We have a major issue in the industry with newer engineers not having field experience. It is very difficult to know how to properly install a valve for performance, maintenance and repair if you have never had to actually do the work,” he said. “As an industry, we need company-sponsored mentoring strategies, part of which should be a program that allows the last part of your career be dedicated to knowledge-transfer and leading new personnel.”
We asked our expert what Airgas is doing to facilitate knowledge sharing and help mentor the next generation.
“We have dedicated teams around the world,” he tells us, “who facilitate knowledge transfer across different Airgas and Air Liquide companies. We take advantage of technology that allows us to share files and collaborate on projects, run webinars and encourage internal communication.”
“Providing engineering and design assistance for Airgas projects is part of my job description because we want to mentor our new engineers who may not have a lot of real-world experience working with the materials, whether it is pipe, tube, valve or other.”
Additionally, in a company the size of Airgas, there is no shortage of internal experts and consultants who may be called upon to provide expertise to an internal project or team.
“For most of our Airgas projects, there is always a pretty good-sized team. The project manager pulls everything together, but he can’t design the concrete, steel, pipe and electrical; there is no human on the planet with a professional engineering certificate in all those disciplines. So, we bring in the company experts to help him out. One person can’t build a 100-million-dollar plant alone.”
The workforce is not the only thing aging in the industry. As plants age, product obsolescence is becoming a greater challenge.
“This is one of the more common problems with older facilities and if a direct replacement is not available, we have two options; rebuild or swap in a completely new component. I would say we try to rebuild when we can, but sourcing the rebuild parts is as difficult as finding the old valve NOS (new old stock) somewhere. Replacing the entire valve is an option, but it generally requires cutting out the valve and a certain amount of piping, and replacing flanges, etc., as the new valve is virtually always longer or shorter than the old one,” Fred remarked. “I think there will continue to be a balancing act between inspection-based replacement schedules and end of life timelines. It does not make sense to set up an elaborate plan to inspect a $60 valve, when the inspection process costs $125. Of course, on the other hand it does not pay off to automatically replace a valve that may cost tens of thousands of dollars after an arbitrary lifespan.”
Diversity to Keep it Interesting
After nearly 18 years as an International Expert, we asked Fred what he liked most about his new hybrid position. “I enjoy meeting people,” he replied. “I like visiting a client, seeing their plants and the facilities where they actually perform the work. In the same day, I could visit a company that welds pure platinum and then another that builds aluminum navy boats. We work with every type of welding that you could imagine, just a ridiculous variety of products, materials and techniques. Diversity, in a word. That is the best part of the job.”
For Part One of this article, check out last week’s Valve World Americas web article.